Tonight, Serrin Foster will offer “The Feminist Case Against Abortion” at UCSB (Corwin Pavilion, 7:30). Foster’s presentation is timely; it represents a “different voice,” to use Carol Gilligan’s phrase, a voice that is gaining ground among a new generation of American feminists. I am one. As a pro-life feminist, I speak in a voice rarely heard amid the din of American politics. A world of soundbites and slogans, it has little time to explore the complexities of pro-life feminism, but the university is ripe for such an exploration.
Let me contribute to the task by describing contemporary pro-life feminism. A deep concern for social justice animates this position. As a pro-life feminist, the values behind my “liberal” perspective on issues like capital punishment, the environment and immigration policy directly inform my opposition to abortion. These issues form a seamless web, and they require a consistent treatment, a consistent life ethic with justice, peace and compassion at its heart.
Our feminist foremothers, like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mattie Brinkerhoff, were inspired by these values to oppose abortion. They viewed abortion not as a means of liberation for women, but as a symptom of their oppression. As Brinkerhoff insisted, “When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society – so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged” (The Revolution, 1869). Abortion victimized women, another male wrong perpetrated against their sex. Indeed, Susan B. Anthony argues that while women bear partial responsibility for what she calls the “dreadful deed” of abortion, “thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime!” (The Revolution, 1869). Far from being a remedy for women’s ills, these feminists saw abortion as an ill that itself required a remedy. And the remedy proposed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton entailed “the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women” (The Revolution, 1868).
The historic values at the heart of feminism, like compassion, inclusion and respect for equal dignity, should inform our treatment of abortion. First, feminists have been prompted by compassion for the weak to fight for their legal protection, to give them a voice. There is no class of person more powerless, voiceless than the unborn. Let us extend to the unborn and their mothers compassionate care and legal protection.
Second, inclusiveness is one of feminism’s great strengths. As early feminists connected the struggles for racial justice and gender equity, contemporary feminists think about justice in a global context. In applying this principle of inclusion to abortion, our circle of concern should encompass life in its most fragile stage. If we are agnostic about life’s beginning, let us adopt the most inclusive stance: We err on the side of life. Feminists have also unmasked the ways in which language has been deployed to dehumanize and exclude the oppressed. We, too, should unmask the ways in which our language dehumanizes and excludes unborn human beings, recognizing that terms such as “embryo” and “fetus,” like “infant” and “toddler,” do not refer to nonhumans but to humans at particular stages of development.
Finally, feminists have insisted that human dignity is not a revocable trait, bestowed upon some by others. It is intrinsic to human beings. Feminists have pointed out that masculine indices of success or worth often rest upon narrowly defined productive capacities and they urge us to have a deeper index of value, to regard the intrinsic worth of the human person (hence their outrage at the disposability of women’s lives – widows burned in India, girls sold into sex slavery in Thailand, female babies killed through infanticide in China). I want to broaden this feminist insight into intrinsic dignity by applying it to unborn human beings. The worth of an unborn life should not be subject to the vagaries of sentiment, whether she is wanted or not; the worth of an unborn life should not be determined by calculations of social utility, whether she is handicapped or unproductive; the worth of an unborn life should not depend upon subjective measures of personhood, whether she can breathe unassisted or reveals signs of self-consciousness. No. Feminist values, to my mind, demand that we revere and protect human life in its every stage not for what it can do, but for what it is. At every stage of our development, we are persons with potential, not potential persons. Feminist values also demand that we fashion our social, political and economic life in such a way that, in Stanton’s phrase, we enfranchise and elevate all women. This is contemporary pro-life feminism.