Saturday, September 06, 2008

Reflections on Feminists for Life

Each week there is a “play pen” for posting in my class on Feminist Literary Theory. I’ll be posting there on the class bulletin board and replicating my entries here on this blog. This week’s topic is Feminists for Life.

My first reaction to Feminists for Life is that of a “beltway insider.” By that I mean as someone who has worked for inside the beltway organizations that work to produce and promote grassroots interests in Washington, DC, I recognize Feminists for Life as a non-profit organization with a particular advocacy agenda which is to promote pro-life or anti-abortion interests as a grassroots passion. Feminists for Life, unlike some of the other anti-abortion organizations, seeks to align anti-abortion interests with feminists. In doing so, the attempt is to denature (I choose the verb carefully; it’s definition is “to deprive something of its natural characteristics or properties,” to wit denatured alcohol, in which the properties of alcohol which make it drinkable are removed rending it as a solvent for cleaning) feminism. Feminists for Life want to decouple feminism, the belief that women are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities in our society as men, from “choice,” the right of women to determine when, if, and how they will bear children. I’m inclined to consider such a proposition “denatured feminism” and dismiss it categorically.

There are a few challenges to my thinking about this, however. First, let me separate Feminists for Life, as an organization inside the beltway working to perform grassroots support for anti-choice positions, from the lowercase feminists for life, which I consider women who are feminists but who also have conflicted feelings about abortion or who oppose it outright. I find the former worthy of dismissal, primarily because I see it as performative in service to a broader agenda of the anti-choice movement, while I find the later in need of careful consideration. Let me explain.

For eight years, I lived and worked in Detroit. Detroit is a movement town. This is partly because of it’s history in labor struggles and in the civil rights movement. Many people in Detroit consider activism, protest, and civic engagement a regular and important part of their lives. In addition, there is a strong Catholic, social justice community. It is in Detroit that I first met and worked with nuns. The nuns that I knew had dedicated their lives to social justice through a variety of means: educating children, providing food, housing, shelter, and other basic needs to the poor and disenfranchised, and organizing in communities to help people achieve the basic rights guaranteed to them by their government. I worked with nuns who were feminists and working to secure equality for women and girls; I worked with nuns who were advocates for gay and lesbian equality; I worked with nuns who were white and fierce allies and advocates of people of color; I worked with nuns who dedicated their life to anti-racist work, anti-imperialist work, anti-patriarchal work, and anti-oppression work. Some of these nuns were also committed to ending abortion. Few of them were identified with current organizations or configurations of pro-life organizations, but many of them believed deeply that life began at conception and action should be taken to respect and preserve that life. This was difficult for me to understand. I was young; accidental and unplanned pregnancies populated the lives of my friends and the people I worked with. We regarded abortion as a right in our country and access to it as central to our personhood. I still do. At the same time, I am mindful and respectful of the deep thought and moral position that these nuns have.

There was a time in my life that I could not engage the notion of respect or mindfulness for anti-choice positions. I still support abortion on demand until crowning (a position that I know many recognize as radical.) At one time to waiver on choice issues was to cede ground to right wing extremism. A few thoughtful nuns taught me otherwise. One of the most compelling aspects of their positions to me was the complete commitment to life. They were not only opposed to abortion, but also opposed to capital punishment. Many of them worked exclusively on capital punishment opposition and focused their activism on working to eliminate capital punishment in the United States and around the world. This was how they managed a challenging nexus of political opinions and constituencies. I appreciated such action. Moreover, many of the nuns also saw their commitment to life as the basis of their work to end poverty and secure racial justice. There was an underlying and overarching moral position that informed their work and being opposed to abortion was only one position informed by their beliefs. It was often the only position with which I disagreed.

I still disagree with it, but I respect the position. As a result I understand more about opposition to abortion. I don’t share it, but I can sit quietly and contemplate it. In a similar way, I can contemplate Feminists for Life, though I am skeptical of its performance both online and in the current public discourse. Ultimately, I think that it is an organization which seeks to divide feminists by suggesting to “the powers that be” that there is not a consensus among feminists about the “culture of life.” By asserting that there are Feminists for Life, the suggestion is that choice is not an issue around which feminists coalesce and agree. The truth could not be farther from that. The vast majority of feminists place choice as a central and important element of feminism. Yet, I recognize it is only a vast majority. There are the feminists who do not support abortion; there are the feminists who are nuns. As usual listening to the voices that are perceived or positioned to be on the fringes have much to teach. My own positions on choice, capital punishment, medical interventions at end of life do not have the moral or ethical uniformity that I observed from nuns. I’m comfortable with that for now, for myself, but I admire--even envy?--the clarity that others have.


Marysia said...


Thanks for the thoughtful reflection, when all too often what I encounter as a prolife feminist is denial and dismissiveness.

In regard to abortion, I don't think the disagreement between prolife and prochoice feminists is over sexual and reproductive choice itself, but over whether and to what extent abortion fits under that rubric. because of that pesky question of whether or not it is lifetaking and if so permissible lifetaking.

It's entirely possible to support such sexual/reproductive rights as LGBT justice and voluntary contraception, and yet at the same time oppose abortion. Indeed, I myself believe that both are highly necessary measures for getting at the root causes of abortion.

I help with the Nonviolent Choice Directory (noncommercial, I'm not spamming for profit here!), which lists abortion-reducing resources from all over the world, including resources on LGBT rights and contraception. Anyone whether prochoice or prolife is welcome to participate in the blog or recommend topics and websites for the directory.

All best, Marysia

Julie R. Enszer said...

Dear Marysia,

Thank you so much for your comments. I am looking forward to checking out the Nonviolent Choice Directory.