IT IS taken today as a truism that in order to be a feminist you must be ‘pro-choice’. The right to abortion is often deemed to be the most fundamental right of women, without which all others are said to be meaningless. Gloria Steinem, the self-appointed matriarch, holds that ‘pro-life’ feminism is “a contradiction in terms”. At ‘pro-choice’ rallies, banners have been held up stating that “a woman’s right to abortion is equivalent to her right to be”, while the US-based Fund for a Feminist Majority has defined a feminist as one who is ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-ERA’.
Yet not all agree. Pro-life feminism has emerged as a distinctive current, voicing the concerns of those who have been marginalised by the mainstream. In 1972, the US pressure group National Organisation of Women (NOW) purged from their ranks those who dissented from their stance on abortion. As a result, Feminists for Life of America (FFL) was founded.
The feminist movement has long prided itself on diversity, and differing views are encouraged on all kinds of issues. Yet abortion appears to be an exception: Angela Kennedy, former chair of the Labour Life Group, informed me that mainstream feminist publishers refused to publish an anthology of writings by ‘pro-life’ feminists. ‘Pro-choice’ supporters have written of ‘pro-life’ feminism in a critical manner, but have not allowed these women to speak for themselves. If the voices of all women count, should we not be more tolerant of nonconformity? As Mary McAleese has noted, the myth that to be a feminist is to be ‘pro-choice’ has forced many women to resign from the name of feminism.
It may come as a surprise to some that feminism was not always in favour of abortion rights – quite the contrary. Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was firmly opposed, and 19th-century feminists tended to follow in her footsteps. Susan B. Anthony, the pioneer of American feminism, viewed abortion as infanticide, a view shared by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a number of her prominent contemporaries, who looked on abortion not as being liberating, but as a tool of male oppression. As Stanton put it, when women had been treated for so long as property, it was degrading that they should treat their children as chattel. These pioneers viewed abortion as the ultimate exploitation of women, and yet were compassionate towards those who resorted to it, and reserved their scorn for those men who had used and abandoned them.
Even Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist and eugenicist, did not publicly favour abortion. Indeed, it was not regarded as a feminist issue up until the late 1960s, and it only became a shibboleth around 1970. It was at this time that the British Women’s Movement, following in NOW’s footsteps, included abortion on demand as one of their four key demands that one had to agree with in order to participate.
From the ‘pro-life’ feminist viewpoint, mainstream feminism has sold out to what is a masculine worldview. Instead of fighting for equality on their own terms, women have been forced into adapting themselves to a wombless, male world. Feminists have also capitulated to the values of the libertarian playboy, which view women as sexual objects to be used and discarded. It is no coincidence that the Playboy Foundation has been one of the biggest financers of the ‘pro-choice’ movement.
A false consensus has been drawn between Left and Right on this issue, especially in the United States, where support for abortion rights is a litmus test of one’s liberal credentials. The terrain is less heated in Britain, but abortion is still a divisive issue. Emily’s List, the all-women shortlist for Labour Party MPs, deliberately excluded ‘pro-life’ women. The criterion to be accepted as a candidate was being in favour of “a woman’s right to choose”.
Fortunately a few ‘pro-choice’ feminists are starting to recognise this. Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, expressed dismay about the exclusion of anti-abortion women from the movement. She has criticised some of the harsh rhetoric of the ‘pro-choice’ movement, and called for a “less cavalier” approach to the abortion question. Similarly, Germaine Greer concedes that the need for abortion itself is a consequence of women’s oppression, although she believes it should be available on demand. She laments the fact that a “sad and onerous duty is garbed in the rhetoric of a civil right”. And Daphne De Jong, the New Zealand feminist author, has spoken out against abortion as being violence against women.
Recently, FFL have made headway in their college outreach programme, and have obtained ‘pro-choice’ support in their campaign for the rights of pregnant students on campuses. Perhaps now the dissenting voices will start to be heard, and feminism will again provide the democratic environment it needs in order to be a force for social change.