By now it’s axiomatic that the pro-life movement is largely incompatible with modern feminism, and that today’s feminists, by and large, passionately oppose most of what the pro-life movement stands for. Some have attempted to reconcile this tension, but it seems on balance to be an exercise in futility.
Some years ago, for instance, the activist Jennifer Baumgardner was asked if you can “be a feminist and pro-life.” Her rather astonishing response was effectively: “Yes, so long as you don’t want to outlaw abortion.” Perhaps one might suggest Baumgardner doesn’t represent the feminist movement at large, except that she has written two books on the topic, one about “young women, feminism, and the future” and “a field guide for feminist activism.” She is also the executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. If she is not a good example of the mores of modern feminism, I am not sure what is.
In spite of this, some still occasionally attempt to bridge the gap between the rabidly pro-abortion feminist movement with the anti-abortion pro-life movement, and last month—on the same day as the March for Life, appropriately enough—Vox played host to one of these attempts, running an essay by Claire Swinarski entitled “I’m a pro-life feminist.”
Abortion Is Murder, But Don’t Outlaw It
It would be nice to see a genuine defense of the unborn coming from someone who styles herself a “feminist.” But Swinarski does not really effect such a defense. Her “pro-life” position, in fact, seems more or less pro-choice, so she fails to make the case for defending unborn children from murder. Feminism has once again trumped the lives of the unborn.
She fails most particularly because she does not actually want abortion outlawed in any meaningful sense. She makes the claim that the pro-life movement “[has] no interest in legal punishment for women who’ve had abortions.”
I asked her to clarify this, and she claimed she is “not for arresting women who were in desperate situations.” Rather, she believes we should “provide counseling instead.” (Over email, I also asked Swinarski whether she believed killers of born humans should receive “counseling,” as well. “Feel free to use [my] article,” she replied, “but I’d rather not be quoted in any other context.”)
Other “pro-life feminists” such as Feminists for Life actually share the desire to fight abortion without actually outlawing it. This is, to say the least, a breathtakingly mystifying position: we do not, in any other situations that I am aware of, sentence first-degree murderers solely to “counseling” after they have killed another human being, even if the murderer was in a “desperate situation.”
Either Unborn Babies Are People Or They Are Not
Swinarski’s apparent philosophical incoherency actually underscores one of the key questions that the wider pro-life movement must answer: once abortion is made illegal, what should happen to the women who procure them and the doctors who perform them?
If anti-abortion activists really believe abortion is the unjust killing of another human being, then the logical penalty for such premeditated murder would be either the death penalty or—for those of us who oppose the death penalty—years in prison, possibly life. Any plan of action less punitive than these measures necessarily accepts, at least in part, the core premise of the pro-choice movement, which holds that unborn humans are less-deserving of rights and legal protection than are born ones.
To be pro-life is to also be pro-justice for the murdered unborn, something that you can’t accomplish by simply “counseling” the people who murder, and aid in the murder of, the unborn. One can, of course, sincerely desire that fewer abortions take place while not simultaneously demanding that abortion be made illegal. Plenty of well-meaning people do. But this position seems woefully incomplete, chiefly because of its deliberately selective application of justice: nobody would consider applying the same standards of justice to the murder of born humans.
Swinarski’s Potential Solution Isn’t One
It is thus hard to take Swinarski seriously when she calls herself “pro-life,” at least given that her preferred “pro-life” policies would have no practical effect in either protecting the unborn or securing them justice.
To her credit, she apparently tries to reconcile this problem by advocating policies that make abortion “unnecessary in the first place.” In this she fails, as well. “Bad policies,” she writes, “have led many women to believe they are unable to be mothers.” She claims that the United States’ failure to require paid maternity leave drives women toward abortions. “Better policies are good for women,” she says, “and could help reduce the perceived need for abortion.”
Maybe so. But then you’d expect that, the more generous a country’s paid maternity leave policies, the lower the abortion rate—and that isn’t always the case. Sweden, for example, has some of the most generous parental leave policies on the planet, but their abortion rate in 2012 was nearly 21 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. The United States’s rate for that same year and same demographic was 13.2. England’s maternity leave is similarly generous, as is that of Wales, yet the abortion rate for England and Wales in 2012 was 16.5 percent.
To be sure, plenty of countries with generous maternity leave policies have lower abortion rates than the United States. But clearly more generous maternity leave does not necessarily correlate to a lower abortion rate—and anyone who is serious about pro-life efforts should not pin her hopes on leave policies altering the abortion rate. Human lives are far too precious for such a whimsical approach to saving them.
Swinarski also advocates limiting the number of sex-selective abortions through “cultural change,” and reducing the number of black babies that are aborted by “tackl[ing] these structures at the base,” i.e. fixing the “complicated social structures and other disadvantages” minority women face. Both of these are worthwhile goals, but they are also in a sense immaterial to the core effort of the pro-life movement, which seeks to afford unborn humans the same legal protection as born ones.
If abortion is murder—and it is—then neither “cultural change” nor “tackling” “social structures” is sufficient to bring about the necessary justice that all unborn persons deserve, any more than mere “cultural change” would have brought about justice for enslaved black Americans.
You Can’t Serve Two Political Masters
Swinarski finishes her argument with a bang, writing about the inappropriate behavior of some anti-abortion activists: “Pro-lifers bug me, too.” Thanks for that.
The modern feminist movement largely diametrically opposes the pro-life movement: the former believes abortion is sacrosanct, and the latter believes it to be a crime against humanity. It is, indeed, possible to call yourself a “feminist” and also style yourself “pro-life,” but as Swinarski’s efforts show, such a marriage is ultimately untenable—the politics and the philosophy of one side will often crowd out the other.
In Swinarski’s case, the pro-choice side has clearly won. In spite of her good intentions, she merely gestures at the pro-life movement while proposing to keep pro-choice policies firmly in place. I’m sure it made the editors at Vox very proud of themselves to publish what they termed a “pro-life” essay, but they were lying to themselves.
Meanwhile, thousands of unborn children are killed every day in the United States. Their lives ultimately cry out for justice—not “cultural change.” They deserve the protection of the law, and they suffer a grave injustice by “pro-life feminists” who are more concerned with feminism than they are with life.