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Point/Counterpoint: Can You Really Be a Pro-Life Feminist?

We asked women on both sides of the debate to answer the question: Can you disapprove of abortion and still call yourself a feminist? Here, four thoughtful and thought-provoking replies

Is it possible to identify as a feminist, yet stand against abortion rights? This long-debated question is back in the spotlight again, after hundreds of thousands of people came together to march for human rights and inclusivity over the past two weeks. At both the Women’s March on Washington on January 21 and the March for Life less than a week later, it was hard to miss the bright, colourful and witty protest signs floating above the crowds—especially the ones that stood out for their seeming incompatibility.

“Keep abortion safe and legal!”

“Pro-life, pro-woman, anti-Trump”  

“I’m a pro-life feminist!”

“My body, My choice”

We aren’t here to argue which statement is correct, but we do think there’s a valuable debate to be had. So we asked four experts with opposing viewpoints to weigh in and answer the question: Can you be a “pro-life feminist”? Here are their responses.

No, you can’t be a pro-life feminist: “It’s a betrayal of women” 

“Those who want to ban abortion but call themselves ‘pro-life feminists’ are not feminists. They are just dressing up anti-choice views in the language of feminism to gain respect and credibility. Their co-opting of the word “feminist” to smuggle in patriarchal views is actually a tribute to the power and popularity of the women’s rights movement.

Feminism says that women are free and autonomous human beings with their own inherent dignity and right to life and liberty, just like men. If women’s value is mainly defined by their childbearing capacity, they become an instrument of their biology. That violates the fundamental Kantian ethic of humanity being an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. Further, what sets humanity apart from animals is our ability to control our environment and direct our lives. Human civilization has accomplished an amazing feat in just the last 70 years–we’ve learned how to separate sex from reproduction, safely and reliably. Denying the benefits of this modern advance to women is cruel and misogynist.

The concern for fetuses is really a mask for distrust of women’s moral authority and decision-making ability. Women cannot achieve equality by trying to compel them to carry every pregnancy to term regardless of their own needs or wishes. Women will make their own decisions regardless of the dictates of anti-choice people, since we know that laws against abortion do not stop the practice. In fact, abortion tends to be most common in countries that ban it, likely because of lack of contraception and higher unintended pregnancy rates. Every year, 22,000 women die and millions are injured from unsafe, clandestine abortion. All of this death and suffering is completely preventable by decriminalizing abortion and making it safe and accessible. Banning abortion and then turning a blind eye to the horrific cost paid by women is not only not feminist, it’s a betrayal of women.” —Joyce Arthur, executive director, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada 

Yes, you can be a pro-life feminist: “There is nothing incongruous about pro-life feminism”

“The truth about feminism is that the majority of women who pioneered the movement, early suffragettes who fought long and hard to bring equal rights to women, strongly opposed abortion. They very clearly saw it for what it is—the taking of human life—and did not insist on securing their rights by taking the lives of their children. In fact, early feminists would be horrified to see the extent to which modern day feminism has appropriated abortion as one of its hallmarks.

Equal rights for women have always and should always entail equal pay, equal opportunity and equal treatment. It should seek to eradicate sexism while instilling a deep respect for and celebration of innate femininity which includes the right to bear children. Modern feminism all too often ridicules femininity, medicates fertility, resents pregnancy and demonizes the unborn child in an effort to annihilate what is ‘woman’ and turn her into a man. This, to any pro-life feminist, is the ultimate sexism. There is nothing incongruous about pro-life feminism. Rather pro-life feminism extols what is best about women while staying true to its roots.” —Natalie Sonnen, executive director, LifeCanada

The term "pro-life feminist" has been in the news lately. But what does it really mean?

No, you can’t be a pro-life feminist: “Choice belongs to each of us”

“There is certainly a tension between believing in the rights and independence of women and also wishing to restrict their bodily autonomy through anti-choice legislation, attitudes, and stigma. This tension leads many to claim that the two are incompatible. Maybe they are, but we aren’t in the business of policing people’s self-identification. Here’s how we see it: choice is something that belongs to each of us. The ability to make choices about our futures, our bodies, our health is something that we have innately, though it is sometimes taken away from us by forces larger than us—sometimes subtly and sometimes brutally. Feminism is a movement that seeks to reclaim the opportunities, rights and freedoms that have been unfairly, arbitrarily and unjustly taken away from women, and ensure that all women are free to live their lives as they choose. The importance of bodily autonomy seems obviously attached to this for us. Choice is not just about abortion, but even when it is, the issue is often distorted to hide what it truly is: a personal matter that has been co-opted by politics to divide us, consolidate power, and continue limiting our freedom, rights, and opportunities.

The reality is that feminism is big, and has always contained a lot of voices and perspectives. While we can never condone or support anti-choice views, and we think they are harmful to women, because we are feminists we don’t tell women what to think or shun them for being ‘wrong’ in our estimation. That just furthers the divide. We make our choices, you make yours. Just don’t stop us from making ours, even if you think they are bad ones. That’s not up to you, the same way it’s not up to us if you’re a feminist.—Sarah Hobbs-Blyth, executive director, Planned Parenthood Toronto

Yes, you can be a pro-life feminist: “We should celebrate what is most feminine” 

“In my opinion, feminism is not just about fighting for your own rights, it’s about fighting for the rights of all women, including the unborn. To be pro-life is to agree that human life begins at conception and to believe that all living humans should be granted the right to live. Therefore, it is to believe that humans yet to be born should be protected under the law, which includes unborn women as well.

There are under-published statistics about abortion (you can read more in Women’s Health After Abortion [2003]), and I consider the lack of reporting around them to be a form of violence against women, because I believe women are not being told the truth about what abortion could do to them. Many post-abortive women are now speaking out about the harm abortion has caused them. I believe there are healthier and more ethical methods of avoiding pregnancy, including natural family planning, based on a women’s cycle and physiological changes. Many women who practice this method claim that the knowledge they gain of their bodies is very empowering.

Because of feminism, women have contributed to great advances in technology, politics, trade, etc., and these achievements should be celebrated and encouraged. However, feminists should also celebrate what is most feminine, that is, bringing life into the world. Motherhood should be praised as a beautiful, challenging, worthy and fulfilling occupation. We should increase support in the workforce for women who get pregnant. No matter how inconvenient a pregnancy may be, I believe abortion has caused women, born and unborn, a lot more harm than good. Surely, women deserve better than abortion.” Marie-Claire Bissonnette, youth coordinator, Campaign Life Coalition  

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