When Pope John Paul II used the f-word back in 1995, it got my attention.
Not that f-word. I'm talking about the other one—feminism. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, the Pope challenged women to promote a "new feminism that rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."
I'm pro-life, which is part of the reason I was reading John Paul II's words. Long before I counseled any pregnant women, including some who'd had abortions, and before I could argue my position, I was pro-life. It was an intuitive, gut thing—one of those fundamental truths I simply knew in my bones. Maybe it was growing up so connected to nature, or the influence of my doctor dad, or my mother's many pregnancies.
I'm pro-woman, too. I come from a long line of strong, intelligent, educated women. Both of my grandmothers were encouraged by their parents to go on for secondary education and have professions. My activist-oriented mother raised ten children and in the middle somewhere got herself a law degree. I left home believing there was nothing I couldn't do if I really wanted to.
Still, as a young adult, I didn't readily identify with the word feminism. Women who proudly sported the feminist title seemed to hang most of their ideas on one main belief: that abortion is a necessary and fundamental right of women. That's what my feminist sociology professor sold my class for an entire semester. That's what I saw in the papers and on television. As much as I agreed with many planks in the feminist platform—like better healthcare, maternity leave, reform in the workplace, and programs and services that better women's lives—I couldn't buy a label that came with abortion. Until the day I discovered I didn't have to.
The original feminists—Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others—were also emphatically pro-life.
It was springtime in Washington, D.C. in 1996 and I was gathered with about one-hundred women leaders who wanted to consider the Pope's challenge of developing a new feminism. We discussed what its principles and tenets might be, and to do that we realized we had to look at the old feminism. I thought I knew what that was all about, and just as I was about to give in to a daydream, a woman named Serrin Foster took the microphone and woke me up.
Foster had become president of Feminists for Life, and she began to talk about the real original feminists—early American women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Alice Paul—women who fought for a woman's right to vote, better maternity and healthcare, the dignity of women, and the emancipation of the slaves.
And they were also emphatically pro-life.
Stanton and Anthony published a newspaper called The Revolution, which, along with most of the feminist publications of the last century, refused to print ads for patent medicine abortifacients. In the paper, the women described abortion as both child murder and infanticide.
These women didn't think it was merely "their body and their choice," because they weren't looking to eradicate what made them women. They were also keenly aware of what happens when some people are treated as a sub-class. In a letter to her friend Julia Ward Howe in 1873, Stanton wrote, "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit."
Alice Paul, the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment (1923), opposed the later trend of linking the Amendment with abortion. A colleague recalled her saying that, "Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women."
These many years later, pro-life feminism is alive and growing. Feminists for Life (FFL), a nonsectarian, nonpartisan, grassroots organization founded in 1972, is dedicated to systematically eliminating the root causes that drive women to abortion—primarily, a lack of social and financial support. The organization seeks solutions to the challenges women face so that they really will have choices. FFL believes women deserve better than abortion, and that abortion is a reflection that society has failed to meet their needs.
“When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”
This woman-centered approach is working. Despite the recent March for Women's Lives in Washington D.C. where thousands came to promote abortion rights, pro-choice proponents are worried. And they should be.
According to the Center for the Advancement of Women, founded by former Planned Parenthood President Faye Waddleton, 51% of U.S. women oppose abortion in all or most cases—the first time since the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. And, according to the Polling Co., 63% of people aged 18 to 24 are against abortion, making them the most pro-life generation of any except those above 70 years of age. Even the press has had to toss a few bones to the changing tide. The New York Times garnished some attention with their March 30, 2003 piece entitled "Surprise Mom: I'm Against Abortion," which reported on the growing pro-life sentiment among young women.
If you're a woman under 35 today, you probably didn't grow up identifying with feminism. But you can't deny that you benefit from much of it. We younger women often take for granted that we can vote, go to college, climb the corporate ladder, plan our families, and get treated fairly. Of course, cat calls haven't disappeared, and neither have sexist behavior and blonde jokes. Maternity leave remains pathetic in this country and pay equity is still a problem in some places. Women are still abandoned, abused, and motherhood isn't granted its proper value in society.
Recently, however, I read that there are now more women than men in colleges and universities, and a greater numbers of wives are making more money than their husbands. Harsher laws against sexual trafficking, rape and domestic abuse are being enforced. We still have a ways to go, but times have clearly changed.
While they may not wear the label, most women today are feminists. And more and more of them are becoming like the feminists of old. This can't be encouraging for modern feminists/abortion proponents.
Young women today have never known a time without legal abortion. They don't see abortion rights as the linchpin to the rest of the privileges they live. Perhaps that's why some of the 1970s feminists are angry at the younger generation. We seem ungrateful. They sold out their bodies and their children because it appeared to be the only way to achieve personal autonomy, equality, control. But now, the question of abortion is being revisited and the truth is coming out: Abortion is no longer the ticket to women's freedom, and it never was.
Abortion is no longer the ticket to women’s freedom, and it never was.
Abortion has rendered many of us infertile. It has left us emotionally scarred and grieving. It has even left some of us dead, along with our pre-born children. Twenty-nine of 38 worldwide epidemiological studies show an increased risk of breast cancer after abortion (13 of 15 studies were done on American women), and women continue to die from legal abortion, including chemical abortifacients like RU486.
Women have never liked abortion. It robs us of our dignity, our health, and our children. And the new feminists—so like the old feminists—are not afraid to say it.