April 12, 2017

Is it possible for an inclusive feminist movement to involve people with pro-life views? That was the question up for debate during a panel discussion held at The Catholic University of America on April 10. The discussion, which was hosted by the University’s Institute for Human Ecology, included six women with varying perspectives about abortion and its place in society.

Angela Knobel, associate professor of philosophy who served as moderator for the event, said she was inspired to plan it after learning that some of her students attended both the Women’s March on Washington and the March for Life in January.

“The question of the appropriateness of pro-life participation in the Women’s March generated a great deal of conversation, both in the national media, and here on campus,” she said. “We here at the Institute for Human Ecology felt that this conversation was not only worth having, but worth continuing.”

Included in the panel were pro-life and pro-choice women writers, academics, and activists. Among the pro-choice speakers was Megan Klein-Hattori, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts. In her opening remarks, she made the case that fighting for all reproductive rights, including access to abortion, is “central to mainstream feminist politics.” She said the question of whether or not feminism excludes those who are pro-life was less clear.

“We talk about feminism, but most of us know that ‘feminisms’ is more appropriate,” she said. “Feminists have always come from amazingly different standpoints. Depending on people’s experiences, they were more likely to focus on either patriarchal gender relations, or the legal systems, or the economic structure and to fight for women’s rights along those respective lines.”

In terms of abortion, Klein-Hattori cited the writings of researcher Faye Ginsburg, who wrote that the polarization of the pro-life and pro-choice movements “masks [the] common roots in the problematic conditions faced by women living in a system in which wage labor and individual achievement are placed in conflict with reproduction, motherhood, and nurturance.”

Though building a coalition of pro-life and pro-choice feminists would be difficult, Klein-Hattori said it could be valuable to fight other systematic means of discrimination against women in society.

“There are many feminist politics that pro-choice and anti-abortion feminists share, ones that move us closer to having control over all elements of our lives, to being respected by loved ones and community, and to not being second-class citizens,” she said. “Allowing abortion to polarize hurts these broader feminist politics.”

Pro-life panelist Aimee Murphy, director of Rehumanize International, a journal formerly known as Life Matters, gave a strikingly different perspective on the role of abortion in feminism. For her, feminism is about equality, where abortion is “the ultimate in ‘might makes right’ mentality.”

“[Abortion] is contrary to nondiscrimination: It is ableist, ageist, and sometimes even sexist,” she said. “It is contrary to nonviolence, as it kills millions of children each year through intentional starvation, poisoning, and dismemberment. If feminism is truly the support of the equality of human beings, then my question is actually: Is it possible to be pro-choice and feminist?”

For Murphy, it is not a question of whether a feminist can be pro-life. Rather, she said, she was pro-life because of her feminism.

“I push for things like paid family leave, empowering nonviolent birth choices, holistic comprehensive sex education, and above all: the abolition of the social construct that holds the wombless male body as normative,” she said. “If the male body is seen as the norm, pregnancy is seen as a disease condition. If the male body is seen as the norm, those of us with wombs will continue to be marginalized.”

Throughout the discussion, which allowed time for questions from the audience, the six panelists shared their opinions on whether abortion should be legal, when life begins, and the importance of caring for women and mothers of all ages, no matter what their choices might be. Those from the pro-choice perspective spoke several times about the many ways in which abortion has been stigmatized, while Destiny Hendon-De La Rosa, founder and president of the pro-life organization New Wave Feminists, pointed out that unborn children have been de-humanized.

Though the panelists disagreed about whether a feminist can be pro-life, they seemed to agree that women from either side of the argument should work together to fight other injustices and systematic oppression in today’s world.

“The women in this panel contribute to a dialogue that is going to hopefully advance this conversation because many of the things you’re saying would actually push this argument into a more humane and coherent space,” said Pamela Merritt, co-founder and co-director of the reproductive advocacy group Reproaction. “We’re celebrating women’s minds, women’s bodies, women’s contributions, and not necessarily judging it against men or with men as the benchmark.”

Professor Joseph Capizzi, executive director of The Institute for Human Ecology, said the discussion is vital to the mission of the Institute, which studies and discusses the conditions of society that contribute to human flourishing.

“The people we’ve invited today disagree passionately, and not about something inconsequential,” he said. “We do not expect anyone to change his or her mind today. Instead we hope to provide a singular instance of a thing endangered in our culture — the art of conversation based in genuine listening.”

Additional panelists in the discussion included Robin Marty, speaker, activist, and the co-author of Crow After Roe: How Women’s Health Is the New “Separate But Equal” and How We Can Change That; and Cessilye Smith, from Doulas for Life.

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