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Pro-Life Feminist: An Oxymoron?

meowwalex's picture

I thought I understood feminism in its most basic of terms upon deciding to enroll in this course. Now, after having attended the handful of classes held so far, I know that there is no simple way to describe such a word, such a movement. I had imagined my basis of feminist understanding as rather commonplace. Having a mother and aunt who were supporters of Planned Parenthood throughout their early adult lives and onward, I too came to learn about what the organization supported and the importance of standing up for my rights and recognizing that they should be equal to the rights of men.

This past October, Planned Parenthood turned 95 years old. It has spent that time “promoting a commonsense approach to women’s health and well-being, based on respect for each individual’s right to make informed, independent decisions about health, sex, and family planning.” An organization in sharp contrast, Feminists for Life, was established in 1972 and has spent its time "shaping the core feminist values of justice, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence” and does not take a stance on “pre-conception” issues. Maintaining a focus on college campuses, the group pushes against movements like Planned Parenthood that offer abortion, their coin phrase “women deserve better than abortion.”

During our conversations in class concerning how feminism can be defined and the problems that arise when trying to create an explanation as to what such a complicated word means, I found these two contrasting organizations to be at the forefront of the discussion. They both call themselves feminist groups, but how can that make any sense if their missions are so different, their morals contrary to one other?

Through all the awkwardness that comes with the process of growing up, I began to understand the debates concerning Planned Parenthood and abortion more clearly. I began to see people I went to high school with posting their ultrasound pictures on Facebook, cut class with a shaky friend to support while she purchased a pregnancy test, her hand clammy in my own. These experiences helped me to realize that the pressing matters of reproductive health and sexuality are something that pertains to every human being, regardless of their position in the debate. In this sense, I also realized that Planned Parenthood is ultimately inclusive of everyone, regardless of personal ideas on what is right or what is wrong. Feminists for Life, however, tries to maintain a progressive persona in order to appeal to a college-based audience, highlighting women that are part of popular culture who are supporters of their cause. FFL does this while ultimately excluding members of the pro-choice community on the basis that abortion is violent, and violence is not feminism. Abortion in their eyes “condones violence against women and fetuses, causes emotional and physical suffering for women, and contributes to the social devaluation of motherhood” (Oaks 178).

The aspect of FFL’s argument that is most bothersome is the fact that they do not bother to explain that Planned Parenthood’s services are not limited to abortion. In fact, abortions are a small percentage, just 3%. They mainly focus on prevention: 76% of patients receiving services to help prevent unintended pregnancy. This, in turn, works to eliminate the need for abortions in the first place, even though the option of being able to have one remains crucial.

One of the most noted members of FFL is Sarah Palin. In The Human Life Review, a pro-lifer argues against the idea of being “pro-woman” and therefore living by the saying “personally opposed, but cannot impose” (Bachiochi 3). She views this as a way to opt out of being truly strong and full of character, descriptors she uses for Palin. Bachiochi continues to glorify Palin as a grand example of a woman because she made the choice to continue on with her pregnancy after finding out that her son was to be born with Down Syndrome, a decision made during the beginning of her entrance into the political spotlight. “But she had the courage, strength and conviction of a woman, indeed of a genuine feminist, to know that ultimately her success in her work, and in her life, [did] not depend on her ability to assert her power over those who stand in her way, over those we are weaker than she—in this case, her unborn child who is entrusted to her care (Bachiochi 5).

But is it always more courageous to continue on with something, even though you are admittedly ill prepared (financially, emotionally, etc)? To me, an ideal world would be one in which every child was planned, wanted and ultimately born into a situation free of resentment. This resentment is admitted later in the article. “As inconvenient as any pregnancy is, and I would think the fifth pregnancy of a standing governor would rank as rather “inconvenient,” women have the ability, the strength and the courage to bring good out of the difficulties in which we find ourselves” (Bachiochi 5).

The act of labeling pregnancy as “inconvenient” might be correct to any mother whether she is pro-choice or not and the decision to raise a baby on unstable grounds is indeed one that is full of courage. But who is to say the decision to admit you are not ready to raise a baby, that you cannot offer the life it so deserves, is not courageous all the same, if not more?

As Palin became a strong voice for FFL, the frequency of college seminars intensified. Institutions around the country became decorated with their posters. “Abortion rights activists promised us a world of equality, reduced poverty. A world where every child would be wanted. Instead child abuse has escalated, and rather than shared responsibility for children, even more of the burden has shifted to women. Question Abortion. No law can make the wrong choice right” (Oaks 190).This poster leads to the idea that society prior to Roe vs. Wade was a better one. The reality is that abortion would occur even if it were outlawed, in dangerous ways with devastating results, the return of the “back alley clinics”. FFL uses token feminist ideas such as the “shared responsibility for the children” to attempt to gain followers who might have called themselves feminists before, but did not see the pro-life stance as a feminist one, hoping they will see their morals as those of a “genuine” feminist.

After analyzing the differences in arguments of each of these groups, it is beyond clear that the value of the word feminism is poles apart from person to person, as it should be. No woman can be labeled as part of a larger group without her personal story or life experiences being attended to before that act of labeling. One self-declared feminist’s personal beliefs cannot represent the entirety of women who call themselves feminists. Part of being a feminist is understanding that you cannot always understand, that you are often unable to represent the morals of another woman, because you probably do not understand her story.

The difficulty I have in Feminists for Life establishing their role as the “right” kind of feminists is that they are ultimately excluding women and not recognizing the benefits organizations such as Planned Parenthood bring to all women, without asking questions of political stance or imposing their views upon the patient.

It would be much easier to declare what it should mean to be a strong, courageous woman, but as each of us has found ourselves in completely different situations in which we had to be strong and courageous in our own terms, there is simply no label that can encompass us all. For the same reasons, there is no solid definition for “feminism” that can ever do us justice.


Bachiochi, Erika. "Palin, Abortion, & the Feminists." Human Life Review 35.1/2 (2009): 95. Print.

 Oaks, Laury. "What Are Pro-Life Feminists Doing on Campus?" NWSA Journal 21.1 (2009): 178-97. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

On (not) understanding "their" story...


You began this essay as a convinced feminist, convinced that you know what feminism is and what it looks like--perhaps most fully represented in the activist work of Planned Parenthood, work in which you and other women in your family have shared. You tried, in the course of the thinking that this project records, to wrap your head around the notion that a group, which explicitly opposes the abortions offered by Planned Parenthood, might also be counted --as they name themselves--feminists. And you conclude that they can not.

I'd really like to go on exploring with you the questions raised by opposing the language use, and the agendas advocated, by these two organizations which you place, in your opening paragraph, as existing "in sharp contrast."  I am myself rabidly pro-choice (I live around the corner from Planned parenthood in Center City, and often have to step, in anger, around the pro-life activists who block weekend traffic with their protests). Yet I would not describe the language of FFL as "token feminism"; I would describe it rather as sharing values with feminists on the left, but also as seeing those values played out in diametrically opposed political (and activist) agendas. It is not the "value of the word feminism" which is "poles apart," but the actions which arise from such values.

What really interests me here is FFL's claim to advocate for "the core feminist values of justice, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence,” for “shared responsibility for the children," and the extension of those claims to protect the most vulnerable human creatures--fetuses--from violence. I would not dismiss the members of FFL as "not feminists," nor would I say that such a label cannot "encompass us all"; I think all feminists do believe in "justice, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence." There are still shared investments --and so the possibility of some shared space-- here; see, for example, the argument advanced by Naomi Wolf in "“Our Bodies, Our Souls: What the Pro-Choice Movement Must Learn to Say,” The New Republic (October 16, 1995):  26-35.

As we go on talking, we might continue to explore, too, your final claim that "part of being a feminist is understanding that you cannot always understand, that you are often unable to represent the morals of another woman, because you probably do not understand her story." That sounds akin to what Spivak has been counseling us to recognize this week: the limits of what we can know, the limits of our understanding of others. And yet, in justice to us all…

I'm not quite ready (yet!) to give up trying.