Monday, May 24, 2010

On Pro-Life Feminism

Colleen Carrol Campbell has written an opinion piece on pro-life feminism. She is very much for it and argues that it is the flavor of the future. She does have some support in the recent opinion polls which show that young women declare themselves increasingly pro-forced-birth (though of course those women may not be any kind of feminists):

The very notion of pro-life feminism is an affront to the vociferous leaders of America's abortion-rights lobby and the aging ranks of its feminist establishment - two groups that are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable. The overlap between these two groups and their shared indignation at organizations like Feminists for Life and women like Sarah Palin is no accident. It is a consequence of their decades-long campaign to make feminism synonymous with a woman's right to abort her child and to marginalize any free-thinking feminist who dares to disagree.


Many women are not buying it. They are attracted instead to the message of groups like Feminists for Life, which tells women facing unplanned pregnancies that they should "refuse to choose" between having a future and having a baby. They believe that the best way for a woman to defend her own dignity is to defend the dignity of each and every human person, including the one that grows within her womb. And they reject the false dichotomy of abortion-centric feminism that says respect for human dignity is a zero-sum game in which a woman can win only if her unborn child loses.


This rising pro-life sentiment among women has begun to surface in public opinion polls. A 2007 study from Overbrook Research tracked the abortion views of women in Missouri, considered to be a bellwether state on such issues. Researchers found that the share of Missouri women identifying themselves as "strongly pro-life" rose from 28 percent in 1992 to 37 percent in 2006, with the ranks of the "strongly pro-choice" shrinking from about a third to a quarter of Missouri women. This pro-life shift was even more pronounced among young women.

I put that "pro-forced-birth" above the quote because Ms. Campbell chooses to use equally biased language. The fetus is an unborn child, for example, and the aging feminists are identical with the abortion industry.

We could talk about what it means to define oneself as pro-life in an opinion poll. It doesn't necessarily mean that the respondent would ban all abortion for all women, even those who will die if forced to go on with the pregnancy. But I do think that fewer people are pro-choice than was the case in the past.

The reasons for that are many. The most important are the insistent campaigns of the forced-birth people and the fact that a world in which abortion is legal doesn't give us much scope for talking about the women bleeding to death in hidden hotel rooms or about rusty and bloody coat-hangers. Or about young women in jail because they had an abortion. I also get a strong impression that most people don't really believe that abortion could ever become illegal again, so declaring yourself to be absolutely against abortion doesn't cost you or your wife, girlfriend, sister or daughter anything at all.

But what I really want to write about is the idea of "pro-life feminism", the kind of feminism where women are supposed to work for equality with men everywhere except in one single area: The right to control one's own fertility. Could this ever work?

It could if we lived in a world where safe, absolutely effective and cheap birth control was routinely installed in everyone until the point when they really want to have children. In the real world it would not work. At all.

To see why, let's start with the most extreme abortion bans, the case where abortion is always illegal. When that is the case every fertile woman going out of the house (and many fertile women not going out) are at risk of not only rape but rape with a forced pregnancy and a forced birth. If the most rabid pro-lifers were in power they would also ban the contraceptive pill. There would be no way of making sure that a fertile woman would not conceive from a rape. Offering a condom to a rapist will not work. Thus, every single fertile woman would then live in a world where the risks of sexual violence have risen to a higher level: One where she might not only be raped but might also be forced to give birth to the rapist's child and then work out the tremendous psychological problems having to do with the question of adoption vs. keeping the child and so on.

In such a world all fertile women would have an additional risk from violence, one that men would not have to worry about. Even if a man were raped he would not have to go through nine months of possibly dangerous pregnancy and then childbirth. But fertile women would have to take all this into account.

A total ban on all abortions would also increase maternal mortality rates. Difficult and life-threatening pregnancies would be made to go to term and that would mean more dead women.

You may think that I'm choosing the most extreme case on purpose. After all, most pro-forced-birth activists would allow legal abortion in three cases: danger of death for the woman, rape and incest. Let's leave aside those cases, then, and look at a world where other types of abortions are banned.

Something odd crops up the minute I do that, and that is the effect of children on a woman's economic well-being. Children are expensive in two ways: First, they cost money to bring up and to school. Second, having children makes it much harder for a woman to go to school herself or to work long hours in order to get a promotion. If a woman cannot control her own fertility she cannot control her economic status.

Add to that the way discrimination works in the labor markets: Whenever a firm does not want to hire or promote women we find children somewhere in the calculus:

Women are seen as more likely to take time off from work if they have minor children, women are seen as more likely to drop out of labor force altogether for the sake of children, women are viewed as less focused on their careers if they have children. And many people in charge of human resources believe, somewhere deep inside themselves, that women with children should stay at home. All this affects women's earnings today. How much more the impact would be in a world where women's fertility is controlled by others?

Ms. Campbell writes:

Many women are not buying it. They are attracted instead to the message of groups like Feminists for Life, which tells women facing unplanned pregnancies that they should "refuse to choose" between having a future and having a baby.

Now wouldn't that be nice? But this statement completely ignores the fact that the world will do the choosing if the woman refuses. It's the world which doesn't have child care in corporations, the world which doesn't offer paid maternity leave of any reasonable length, the world which requires 24/7 attendance in graduate schools and important jobs and so on.

And the problems I discuss are not just economic ones. A man who wants to climb Mount Everest is a hero, even if he has a baby at home. A woman in the same situation? She is widely viewed as irresponsible. She should not be climbing mountains.

The ultimate point I'm trying to make here is this: If women cannot control their own fertility they cannot have equal rights with men. This is especially true when bringing up children is regarded as the sole duty of women and when this process is seen as taking almost two decades.

Note that this is not really about abortion. It is about the woman's ability to control her own fertility. The two cannot be separated, given the world in which we actually live, and until they can be separated any attempt at pro-life feminism will be a big failure.