The Problem with Pro-Life Feminism. Part 1

Some call pro-life feminism an oxymoron. Others say pro-life feminism is true feminism. It is espoused by the U.S. organization Feminists for Life (FFL), and has become popular in the pro-life movement. The idea of pro-life feminism has led to books such as Abortion, The Ultimate Exploitation of Women (2014), by Brian Fisher of the pro-life organization Human Coalition. More recently, a book titled, Subverted, How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (2015), by Sue Ellen Browder, promotes similar ideas.

Pro-life feminists base their position that feminism is or can be pro-life on two main claims regarding the history of abortion in the U.S.—one from the first wave of feminism in the 19th century and one from the second wave of feminism in the 20th century.

The first claim is that the feminists who fought for woman suffrage during the second half of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century were pro-life. FFL points to several statements made by the well-known leaders of the woman suffrage movement Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as evidence for this claim. “Feminists for Life of America continues the tradition of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other early American feminists who opposed abortion,” FFL states on its website.

The second claim is that feminists in the 1960s such as Betty Friedan weren’t pro-abortion until men from the pro-abortion movement convinced them to throw their support behind the campaign to repeal abortion laws in the U.S. According to this claim, it was men that convinced women that a woman’s right to control her body through abortion is essential to her freedom, dignity and equality with men. The evidence for this claim is not found in any direct quotes from second wave feminists but is based on one man’s recollections.

Both these claims have some basis in fact. However, the claims do not—when examined closely—hold up to the import and meaning pro-life feminists give them. The historical record does not provide the foundation for pro-life feminism that pro-life feminists insist exists.

First Claim

First wave feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke about abortion as exploitative of women, while their “descendants” in the second wave of feminism viewed abortion as essential to women’s rights and equality with men. How does one explain the difference? Is the “new” feminist view of abortion fundamentally different from the “old” view of it?

First, these two views are not oppositional. Both the early feminists of the first wave and the later ones of the second wave cherished the ideal of woman’s autonomy—that is, they passionately insisted that a woman have control over her own life, including her body. They both believed that women should have control over the timing and number of children she bears; for early feminists this meant “voluntary motherhood”—the right of a wife to unilaterally decide when to have sexual intercourse with her husband and therefore when to conceive a child—while for later feminists it meant contraception and abortion. While the means of control are fundamentally different, this shared ideal of women having autonomy over their own bodies brings first and second wave feminists onto common ideological ground.

It is instructive to take a look at some of the specific claims FFL makes about early feminists and abortion and the evidence they provide to substantiate these claims.

According to FFL’s website, in a section titled “Herstory,” early American feminists were “overwhelmingly pro-life.” In an article written by Serrin Foster, FFL’s president, published in America magazine in January 2015, Foster says that early American feminists “were strongly opposed to abortion.”

On FFL’s website and in their 1999 self-published book, Pro-Life Feminism Yesterday and Today, FFL discusses numerous feminists who supposedly espoused pro-life views as determined by statements they made that FFL has judged to be pro-life. FFL focuses on several of the big names from 19th century feminism, including the leaders of the woman suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony

FFL initially publicized a statement from an 1869 article in Stanton and Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution, titled, “Marriage and Maternity,” which FFL attributed to Anthony.

Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime.

 In the 1990s, FFL used this quote as evidence that Anthony was pro-life. In a 1998 issue of FFL’s publication The American Feminist, an article about Anthony written by Mary Krane Derr states that “Anthony was almost certainly author of this piece… [“Marriage and Maternity”].” Later, after feminist, pro-abortion historians provided evidence that showed the article could not be attributed to Anthony, FFL retracted its claim and admitted that the authorship was uncertain. In a 2007 issue of The American Feminist titled, “The Truth About Susan B. Anthony: Did One of America’s First Feminists Oppose Abortion?”, the author, Cat Clark, says about the quote in question, “Feminists for Life is, nevertheless, cautious about the attribution of ‘Marriage and Maternity.’ In FFL materials, it is simply said to have appeared in Susan B. Anthony’s publication, The Revolution.”

Further, “Marriage and Maternity” also includes this statement:

Much as I deplore the horrible crime of child-murder, earnestly as I desire its suppression, I cannot believe… that such a law would have the desired effect. It would only be mowing off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains. We want prevention, not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil, and destroy it.

 Whoever the author was of this article, he or she deplores abortion, but does not think a law making abortion illegal (which was being advocated for at the time by a group of physicians in the U.S. in response to an increase in abortions) is the answer. The root of the problem is believed to be women’s lack of freedom and her subsequent degradation because of her oppression by men—not a lack of recognition and respect for the sanctity of human life beginning at conception. In the previous quote from “Marriage and Maternity,” the author states that the man is much guiltier than the woman in the case of abortion. More will be said about this attitude—which was generally held by feminists of this period regarding women, men and abortion—later on in this essay.

A statement that can be attributed to Anthony that FFL uses as evidence that Anthony was pro-life is the following, taken from a response Anthony made to a comment that she of all people (with her “great head and heart”) should have married and had children:

I thank you kind sir, for what I take to be the highest compliment, but sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been to me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them. 

 The link to abortion is unclear in this statement as the unborn little ones being willed away from mothers refers to the law in effect at the time that allowed fathers to assign a third party guardian for their children upon the father’s death. Yet, the quote appears prominently on the FFL website.

A third statement made by Anthony, this time in her diary, that FFL has used is:

[March 4] Sister Annie in bed—been sick for a month—tampering with herself—and was freed this A.M. what ignorance & lack of self-government the world is filled with. [March 7] Sister Annie better—but looks very slim—she will rue the day she forces nature—

 Although Anthony clearly does not approve of Annie’s choices, this is hardly a condemnation of abortion. Anthony seems more concerned with the “ignorance & lack of self-government the world is filled with” than with the loss of the life of an unborn child.

A final quote of Anthony’s used by FFL is from her “Social Purity” lecture given in 1875:

The prosecutions on our courts for breach of promise, divorce, adultery, bigamy, seduction, rape; the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society.

The monster evil she is referring to is intemperance and this statement is not against abortion but against intemperance. She mentions abortion as a symptom of intemperance, which of course, it is not.

 In the 2007 article by Cat Clark in The American Feminist mentioned above, Clark admits that,Abortion was not an issue to which Anthony devoted much time.” Yet, FFL’s website claims that FFL is carrying on Anthony’s legacy and is trying to “fulfill the unrealized dream of Susan B. Anthony.” Anyone with the slightest amount of education in the history of early feminism in the U.S. knows that Susan B. Anthony’s dream was for women to get the vote. She devoted her life to the cause of woman suffrage and to say that FFL’s pro-life advocacy could fulfill the unrealized dream of Susan B. Anthony is just plain wrong. Susan B. Anthony may have deplored abortion, but ending it was not a priority for her.

 Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were intent on securing rights for women, in particular the vote, and their activities and strategy were attuned to this goal. Susan B. Anthony was especially single-minded in pursuing the goal of woman suffrage and she was very careful not to let the suffrage movement be hijacked or distracted by any other issue.

 The next part of this essay will be posted next week.