Walls, Doors, and Rooms: Can Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Feminists Work for Women Together?

In law school, you spend a lot of time defining the walls of an argument, then finding the windows. What is the limit of the law? Is there an exception to that limit? It’s tremendously fun (I think–tortes was my favorite class–but it may also be one of the reasons lawyers have such a high divorce rate.), but it’s not how most of us live our real lives. Most of us aren’t pushing toward the limits or searching for the exceptions. Yet this is almost wholly how we talk about abortion. In fact, it’s how Roe v. Wade operates: the state can make no limits to abortion in the first trimester, some in the second, and more in the final. And most of our state laws focus on those exceptions: for rape or incest, for fetal abnormalities incompatible with life, for minors, for life or health of a woman. It’s all walls and windows.

We’d do better, I think, talking more about the rooms we actually occupy.

Understand that those who think differently than you do about abortion are probably placing their empathy somewhere you do not. Prolifers emphasize empathy with embryos and fetuses (and, to a lesser extent, to women who, they argue, are often coerced into abortion or who are not given the full facts about how abortion may affect them). In contrast, prochoicers emphasize strongly with women and rarely talk about fetuses (except in terms of how they affect women’s health). Being empathetic to either is not wrong–but empathy does not necessarily lead to good policy.

Above left, a prolife image comparing a fetus and a newborn, both sucking their thumbs. The caption asks, “What’s the difference?” To the right, a young white woman looks at the results of a pregnancy test with worry. The prolife and prochoice movements stress empathy for different populations: embryos and fetuses or pregnant women. But that’s not a smart strategy for working for either. 

Here I give prolifers credit: they are much more likely to address their opposition’s view about women than are prochoicers are to address prolifers’ views of the embryos and fetuses they term the “unborn” or “preborn.” When prochoice arguments do address embryos and fetuses, it is often to note that their “right to life” can never overcome a person’s right not to be pregnant. And that takes us right to the walls and windows again. (If your sister were dying and only your blood would save her, would you have to donate? No. If you found a stranger’s baby on your doorstep during a blizzard, would you have to bring it inside to care for it? Probably not, as most states do not have a duty-to-rescue law. If you use illicit drugs during pregnancy, are you abusing your child? No. But, really, do you want to lump pregnant women seeking abortions into the same category as someone who wouldn’t donate blood to her sister or someone who would let a baby freeze to death on their front stoop?)

But we occupy rooms. Most abortions in the US aren’t out there on the periphery. They are not exceptional but ordinary, one of the most common medical procedures done in the US–between about 700,000 and 1.4 million per year since Roe v. Wade. Most women who have them already have kids–so they know something about fetal development and about parenting. Most women who have them do not report regret. The exceptions are important–and often gut-wrenching and awful–but when politicians drag them out as examples, beware. Most abortion providers are not Kermit Grosnell. Most women seeking abortions aren’t “addicted” to them. Most abortions after 20 weeks aren’t to save the life of a woman, and most truly “late term” abortion–third trimester stuff–isn’t either. (Sorry, HRC.)  And most prochoice people aren’t cheerleaders for abortion. We need to talk about those exceptions and why they occur and what they mean, but the exceptional cases are not where we should start.


Above, data from the Guttmacher Institute shows the decline in the abortion rate. Not show on the chart is the most current data available: just under 700,000 abortions for the reporting areas, our lowest since Roe v. Wade.

One of the best parts of democracy is that we can agree on policies without agreeing on the principles that get us to them. I think there is room for prolife (fetus-empathetic) and prochoice people (pregnancy-person-empathetic) to do that. Here are some starting points that I suggest, knowing, as a friend noted in a FB discussion on the topic last week, that we often end up bad guys in other people’s stories. My hope is that a certain type of prolifer–the consistent, pragmatic ones–can find something useful here and that my prochoice friends will likewise find new ways of thinking about people they often understand as political opponents.If you like these, feel free to crib them in your next FB fight.

  1. Recognize that most abortions occur because those seeking them don’t want to have children right now. It’s not because they don’t want to be pregnant (though this may be the case–pregnancy is hard and, in our family-unfriendly nation, women are penalized for it), so let’s be clear: it’s the baby that comes at the end and lasts for at least 18 years. This doesn’t mean women choosing abortion are anti-child or anti-family (though, irrelevantly, they may be).
  2. Women do not seek abortions because they are legal. Vegetables and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week are legal, but even national campaigns can’t sell them to folks. Tighter abortion restrictions do curtail legal abortion, but they also increase illegal abortion and create a lot of human misery, mostly for poor women and children. In fact, globally, the tighter the abortion restrictions, the higher the rate of abortion in a nation. You are not creating a culture that welcomes children and supports parenthood when your focus is on making abortion even more inconvenient or unpleasant.
  3. If you want to significantly curtail abortion, end unwanted pregnancy. (This will not end abortion, as there will still be women who terminate wanted pregnancies for other reasons–like a threat to her life or health or fetal abnormalities that she does not want to or feel prepared to deal with as a parent. These are the exceptions. Do not fight with your prolife/choice opponents about them. Stay in the room.) This is actually much easier than you might think, but it requires a change in prolife strategies that may not be possible with the current marriage of religion and prolife politics: provide long-acting, reversible contraception options to women for free or low cost; our best science tells us that, no matter what Hobby Lobby believes, these prevent the fertilization of eggs, not the implantation of already-fertilized eggs, so they are not abortifacients by even the strictest definition. Invest in the development of similarly reliable and easy birth control methods for men. Such birth control methods are not fool-proof, but they are very, very good–and they are especially effective at preventing unplanned pregnancies among the young women who are most likely to find an unplanned pregnancy disruptive of their educations and who are in unstable relationships.

This may be, I know, where faithful Catholics who adhere to Vatican teachings prohibiting any artificial means of birth control have to exit. But if you see abortion as a scourge–if you really see the result of Roe v. Wade being 60 million dead children–then this is easy: prevent unwanted pregnancy at any cost.

  1. If abortion is the very most important political issue for you, vote for politicians whose policies are proven to reduce abortion, not those whose policies are proven to increase it, at every level. From school board members who support comprehensive sex ed and reject abstinence pledges and other damaging purity culture ideas to Senators and Representatives who support the ACA (or, one day, single payer health care!), this means voting for progressive candidates. We are already seeing a dramatic decrease in abortion–the lowest annual total since Roe v. Wade!–linked the the ACA. We know a lot about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and lower the abortion rate. Educate yourself on what works, and be willing to let go of what doesn’t, whatever your political ideology.
  2. Stop allowing your prolife commitment to be politically exploited.  Wise up: some “prolife” politicians are lying to you. And even those who are honest in their commitments need to know that they cannot bundle other hateful policies with anti-abortion politics and expect your vote.  Your “we vote prolife” bumper sticker lets Republicans know that you will tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and the widespread economic swindling of the poor and middle class, as long as they vote against abortion. But since racism, sexism, and poverty are significant causes of unintended pregnancy and abortion, your “prolife” vote is…well, ineffective. we_vote_pro_life

    Above, a “We Vote Pro-Life” bumper sticker tells Republicans that they can mistreat everyone but embryos and fetuses and you’ll still support them. 

  3. If you are prolife, get radical and consistent about it. There is a reason why prolife arguments about the sanctity of life are met with scorn: because so many prolifers are not fully, inclusively, passionately prolife (by which I do not mean blowing up abortion clinics, as I hope is obvious). They are probirth but are always looking for new ways to kill people. They want to prevent the termination of pregnancies but not support the education, feeding, housing, or health of children. Join prochoicers in calling these folks out in their hypocrisy. If you value the life of born children, you already have more in common with prochoicers than you do with many who call themselves prolife.

I know many prolifers who are all in–and they are occupying tough ground, because in opposing capital punishment, slow violence, and war, they are often standing beside people do not agree with their pro-life politics. These are the folks who are putting their money where their mouth is (including, yes, adopting children via foster care because they DO believe that everyone child is a wanted child). If you are prochoice and against other kinds of violence, you probably already have more in common with these radically prolife folks than with prochoice people who are also cool with drone wars.

  1. And if you are prochoice, stop saying that prolifers can’t be feminists. If you make no room for them, they will retreat to the only place that welcomes them: a Republican party that is viciously anti-woman, anti-child, anti-family, and pro-death in its policies and dishonest in its rhetoric. Understand that people who are opposed to prochoice politics are not inherently anti-woman. Are some of them? Uh, yeah. And people who are pro-choice are not inherently pro-woman. Can you be pro-choice and still be an abusive misogynist? Uh, yeah. But one’s abortion politics are not the only measure of one’s commitment to the ideals of feminism, and there are multiple ways of being prolife—including ways that align with feminist goals.welfare-as-we-know-it

Above, President Bill Clinton signs the insultingly titled “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” showing that you can be prochoice and still destroy the lives of women and children.

This doesn’t make the conversations about legality of or access to abortion go away. But whether you are prolife or prochoice (or, like most Americans, somewhere in between), good policies can go far in reducing unwanted pregnancy, supporting maternal health, transforming unexpected pregnancies into welcomed ones (by making it possible to be a parent and a student, for example), and bolstering families of all kinds.

Right now, so-called prolife forces are working hard to curtail both the right to abortion and access to it, but it’s progressive social policies that are bringing down the abortion rate. If prochoicers would bring willing prolifers into the feminist fold, we could see a continued decrease in the abortion rate and a relenting of anti-abortion rights politics as prolifers left the regressive, reactionary Republican party.




4 thoughts on “Walls, Doors, and Rooms: Can Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Feminists Work for Women Together?

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    1. Thanks! I was nervous about wading into these waters. But I was also encouraged this week by my own students, who have been talking about abortion (It’s a class in the sociology of sex.) with such respect and care for each. I think these are skills that can be taught. And lots of us want to have conversations that go beyond the “prolife” and “prochoice.”

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