Pro-Life = Pro-Woman
Posted by Fiorella Nash on 8 March 2016
Does the pro-life movement need to reclaim the original spirit of feminism?
Today is International Women's Day, and inevitably certain pressure groups are falling over themselves to argue that what women really need is abortion-on-demand.
In the face of such nonsensical propaganda, there can be an unhealthy temptation simply to dismiss feminism of all kinds out of hand. However participating in a backlash - and I think there has been a backlash against feminism in this country - is not an answer in a world where the status of women remains unacceptable in many countries including our own.
Let's not kid ourselves, women do not enjoy the level of protection and freedom to which they are entitled in spite of the real advances of the last eighty years in some areas. If that statement appears a little questionable, let me give you a few examples to mull over.
Domestic violence and rape
In Britain, one rape occurs every nine minutes1 and of the tiny minority of cases that are ever reported, under 10% result in a criminal conviction. Rape Crisis make the point that when these cases are reported, the level of sympathy to which a victim is entitled tends to be determined by her social status - the vicar's daughter, the doctor's wife - rather than the severity of the crime to which she has been subjected.
An average of three women die in this country every fortnight as a result of domestic violence. Globally, it is estimated that one in three women experience violence during their lifetime. A paper published in The Lancet in 2014 warned not just about the risks of physical and sexual violence but also victims of practices such as female genital mutilation, which is thought to have been performed on between 100 and 140 million women and girls worldwide with over double that number at risk. Violence against women is described during parliamentary debates as 'a global pandemic' but I refuse to call it that. Violence is not an illness, nor is it impossible to control if there is the political will to do so.
If people are tempted to scoff at the notion of 'oppressed' women, it is worth remembering that the suffering of women is still not always taken seriously but that an ideology which claims to speak for women may be alienating women who desire to fight against these injustices.
Personal autonomy matters
I also do not believe that the pro-life argument can be won if we avoid any kind of interaction with that central tenet of personal autonomy. We need to recognise the selfishness of a position which exalts the self at all costs, but we need to go further than that. This may seem like an obvious point but we need to be clear that we respect the right of women and men to bodily integrity and the right to give or withhold free consent. I think that goes without saying but it evidently needs to be said.
We need to counteract the absurd caricature that pro-life people view women as walking human incubators. I believe passionately that people have the right to be protected from unwanted interference, medical or otherwise. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to be coerced, threatened, emotionally blackmailed or physically forced to submit to any unwanted intervention will know what a terrifying and humiliating abuse that is - and I would say that women are rather more likely than men to be vulnerable to such interference.
The most obvious point (and I think this is central or should be central to the abortion argument) is that when the rights of one person impinges upon the rights of another, as will inevitably happen on occasion, the more significant right – in the case of abortion the right to life – must be paramount. If abortion were some life-saving, life-affirming procedure that did not involve any other human life, I would be standing outside abortion facilities with a big banner supporting the practice. But it does involve another human life, and no one on either side of the debate really doubts that any longer.
Now, there is no getting around the fact that for some women pregnancy can be a difficult and at times distressing experience. I spent around three months of each one of my pregnancies confined to bed with severe hyperemesis, a very nasty and debilitating condition. And when you are physically incapacitated, it has a knock-on effect on your mental health, your emotional well-being and your relationships. I don't need to be told how tough pregnancy can be.
And however it progresses, we need to appreciate the reality that pregnancy is a life-changing experience however it ends. I am a different person for having given birth four times but I am also a different person for having had two early miscarriages. I have to say I am not impressed by a small minority of pro-life campaigners who try to suggest that having a baby isn't going to change anything and it's nothing to fuss about.
But nor is pregnancy a death sentence or a form of enslavement for which abortion is the cure. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties faced by some women during pregnancy, we have to challenge the inflated emotional rhetoric that surrounds the whole debate. Journalist Kristi Burton Brown once refuted - in spirited fashion - a pro-abortion argument in a mainstream newspaper which claimed that the "ultimate assault on a woman's body [is] requiring her to carry a child she has decided she cannot have."
"Really? Really? The ultimate assault on my body is carrying a child? That's worse than murdering me, torturing me, raping me, sacrificing me to a false god, using me as a sex slave, or cannabalizing me (all things that still happen to women in this world, by the way). I have no words to describe what an abhorrent claim Ms. Summers is making."
Let's get a handle on this, shall we? And stop trivializing the real crimes that hurt and undermine the rights of women.
Back to real feminism
I would suggest that we need to return to the early days of feminism and the world in which the feminist movement first began to emerge. I have mentioned the ongoing injustices faced by women, but the overwhelming majority of people here today, I suspect, would find it appalling that women did not achieve full emancipation in this country until the mid-twentieth century and that women have for so many centuries been denied the freedoms and opportunities that their male counterparts have been granted.
Feminism did not appear out of nowhere, but unlike the inward-looking, self-obsessed vision of womanhood presented by some strands of contemporary feminism, the early feminists promoted the rights of women because they believed the strength and health of society to be intimately bound up with the status of women. Mary Wollstonecraft famously wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Women:
"The woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind will, by managing her family and practising various virtues, become the friend, and not the humble dependent of her husband."
Vindication quotes a certain Dr Day, who, commenting upon his daughter's progressive education, stated:
"We seem to forget, that it is upon the qualities of the female sex that our own domestic comforts and the education of our children must depend."
Therefore, the ability of a woman to cultivate her own mind was not simply a matter of justice for women, a matter of her right to education on a par with men, it was recognised as having serious implications for the moral well-being of society. Any movement which seeks to improve the status and protection of a given group, whether it is women, children or minorities, should do so for the sake of humanity because in the end we are all part of the human family.
Pro-life and pro-woman
It is therefore by returning to the vision of the early feminists that the foundations of a new woman's movement are being laid, a movement in which feminists can dare to stand against the status quo as campaigners for centuries have done and to ask the questions: "Don't women deserve better than this? Can't we do better than this?"
And there is a need for this. It is necessary to build on the work of existing pro-life women's groups to develop a pro-life women's movement which embraces and celebrates the dignity of women, the sanctity of life and the need for men and women to work together with complementary gifts yet as equals in pursuit of the common good.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.
1. According to Baroness Gale, Lords Oral Questions 25 November 2011