Some of you are probably thinking, ‘there is no such thing as a pro-life feminist’. Ronald Dworkin, the legal expert for many years for the New York Review of Books talked with feminists of many different points-of-view. He found that, “Feminists even disagree over whether abortion should be permitted: there are ‘pro-life’ feminists.”
If this is true, as I believe it is – although I don’t think I’ve ever met a pro-life feminist while marching with Northwest Suburban NOW in the 4th of July parade in Evanston, or at my friend Ed Gogol’s house. Or if I did, she (or he) wasn’t inclined to mention it. I doubt they would have felt comfortable doing so. I get the sense it’s taken for granted that a feminist is necessarily pro-choice, and if anyone were to express a dissenting opinion, they’d be met by stiff opposition, and all the same arguments Jennifer Wright makes in her essay, that Ed shared with us last Monday (November 26th).
Wright’s article includes Tweets by conservatives who equate abortion with murder, and who take potshots at women who seek abortions. As you can probably guess, following arguments about abortion on Twitter will only make you mad. And when you’re mad you can find yourself jumping on the most tiresome arguments. You argue about how many weeks along the pregnancy is – before 21 the fetus couldn’t possibly survive, before 24 it can’t feel pain, etc. You look for fatal flaws in pro-life dogma like, “If life begins at conception, why aren’t pro-lifers upset about all the pregnancies that end in a miscarriage?” People online are going to exaggerate and refer to all the stages of unborn life as a “baby”, because everyone knows what a baby is like and we naturally feel compelled to care for and protect them. Some people are hung-up on the idea that life begins at conception and they think abortion is like murder, but many others understand that an embryo or a fetus is quite different from a baby. Dworkin mentions in his article “a much-cited study” involving twenty-nine women who were seeking abortions and “none of them, apparently, traced [their] doubt to any uncertainty or perplexity over the question of whether a fetus is a person with a right to live.”
So why get caught up in this arguing back-and-forth?
Wright is correct when she implies Republican politicians and these gadflies on Twitter don’t really care about unborn life, and they certainly don’t care about women who are burdened with an unwanted pregnancy. I think pro-life leaning feminists can see this too. Anyone can see that Trump, McConnell and Franklin Graham are pushing tax cuts for the rich, rather than “healthcare for working-class children”. If these guys cared about preserving life as much as they would have us believe, they’d support prenatal care for women in poverty and programs that ensure children don’t go to bed hungry. Many people who identify as pro-life value these things as much as we do. And the thing of it is, they might vote with the Democratic Party, if only they felt more welcomed.
Wright is dismissive of the feelings of conservatives who say they want to protect life. When it comes to someone like Mitch McConnell, you can understand why. But not everyone who identifies as pro-life is a phony, and the desire to preserve life is not “unscientific”. Wright is so one-sided she never considers the possibility that there can be legitimate concerns about abortion. As Noam Chomsky explains it, both “choice” and “preserving life” are legitimate values. When you meet people who are willing to work to ensure women are receiving prenatal care and children are properly cared for, you can trust they’re serious about what they value. Things aren’t so cut and dry for Chomsky, “When you can take people seriously when they talk about values, you can listen to what they say when they talk about other things, like abortion, which is a hard question.”
A woman’s right to choose is not absolute. Like all of our values it is contingent, because it’s not an island unto itself. It is but one of many conflicting values that we find ourselves weighing one against the other. And women can only exercise their right to an abortion as long as it is before the end of the second trimester of their pregnancy. This limit set by Justice Blackmum in his opinion in Roe v. Wade, acknowledges the legitimacy of our pro-life sensibilities.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum thinks abortion requires “a complicated balancing test where the health of the mother would certainly be very important but on the other hand past a certain age of development the fetus would also acquire some entitlements.” Thoughtful people who think about abortion will usually come to a similar conclusion.
Ed dragged Kim and me to a movie about the only four doctors left in this country who do late term abortions. The name of the movie is “After Tiller”, for Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who was assassinated by an anti-abortion extremist, while attending a service at his church. Ann Hornaday the film reviewer for the Washington Post said this about the movie:
“After Tiller” does viewers the great service of providing light where there’s usually only heat, giving a human face and heart to what previously might have been an abstract issue or quickly scanned news item. No one wants to think about late-term abortion. But “After Tiller” gives us a language to do just that. With luck, the ensuing conversations can be as humane and carefully considered as the film that will surely inspire them.”
There are good reasons for doing late term abortions, and they would have to be because the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus has serious issues. You got the sense that these physicians took their responsibility very seriously. I can still recall one of the doctors looking over a patient’s file and closing it and telling her assistant, “She’s too far along, and I can’t help her”. It wasn’t just because it would have violated the law; it was because it would have been wrong. At a certain stage in a pregnancy everyone’s pro-life sensibilities ought to kick into gear.
Jennifer Wright is responding in her essay to some serious and even dangerous rhetoric made by members of congress and a reporter for The Atlantic, and, more important, to a bill put forth by Republican legislators in Ohio (HB 565) that would outlaw abortion and allow prosecutors to charge women who have one, and the doctors who performed it with murder. But we knew this could happen when Trump was elected, and when he began packing the Supreme Court with conservative justices like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The religious right and Republican politicians have been working, ever since the Roe v. Wade, to overturn it. This piece of legislation was designed to do just that. Red states have been working hard to limit access to abortion services, and Republicans on the state and federal level to defund Planned Parenthood and packed the courts with conservative judges. It could be we are fighting a losing battle to save Roe. After Kavanaugh was confirmed someone posted on Facebook an op-ed by Howard Zinn that he wrote after John Roberts (who may end up being our new swing vote on the court) was confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The piece is titled, “Don’t Despair about the Supreme Court” and subtitled, “It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds.”
I think that’s true. If we want to “Keep abortion safe and legal!” as Ed shouts to the crowds lining Central Street in Evanston on the 4th of July, then we have to elect a democratic congress and democratic president and pass a law that will explicitly do that. And if we are going to do that, then we need to welcome pro-life feminists into the National Organization for Women and the Democratic Party.
What got me thinking about all of this was listening to a podcast from the New York Times about the Democratic Party in Missouri. Missouri used to be a purple state, but it’s dark red now. Some pro-life Democrats, women who have belonged to the Democratic Party all their lives, who happen to be Catholic and pro-life, got the party to approve a platform that said, ‘the party recognized “the diversity of views” on abortion and “we welcome into our ranks all Missourians who may hold different positions on this issue.”’. When members of the progressive wing of the party found out they were outraged, and they pressured the party to drop the language about there being a diversity of opinion. In the midterm elections Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri lost her bid for reelection.