Can you oppose abortion and still be a feminist?

Alice Thwaite

Alice Thwaite says that thoughtful contact with those whose views we do not share is a force for ‘mutual recognition’ and greater self-awareness

07 November 2018 14:24

I am not a pro-life feminist. But why is that? Fundamentally, it’s because I believe that you should trust a person with the choices that they make about their own body.

I do not believe a young foetus is a baby, but a collection of cells which has the potential to become a baby. Consequently, I give priority to the rights of the woman. Looking after a child, whether for 9 months in your womb, or for 18 years in your home – or longer, as my parents discovered recently – is a huge responsibility. A person has the right to decide whether they want to have a child or not.

It’s not that I think abortion is a great thing. I’d be much happier if I never have an abortion. But I also don’t want to see it stigmatised – because I trust people to make the decision that is right for them.

So that is the ‘rational’ argument. But to be honest with you, there is another much more personal reason that I am afraid of living in a society in which abortion is (as some would like) outlawed.

And it is this: I am absolutely terrified of ever having children. From the time that I graduated to about seven months ago, I assumed that I had a limited period of time left  before I would have to have a baby and do terminal damage to my career.

Only recently did I grasp that there was no such requirement, which is a liberation. Still, I find the prospect of parenthood frightening. I’m scared of the lack of support from employers and the government. I’m aware that even the most loving partner will probably not have learned how to shoulder much of the administrative and operational burden involved in childcare. I’m also scared of the hormones. These chemicals literally change your values, your beliefs and your desires – so you pretty much become a different person. So: I want to live in a society which gives me the choice to not go through with a pregnancy.

I also acknowledge that this is a profoundly personal rather than a potentially universal position. It won’t be shared by every pro-choice feminist. There will be some amongst them who cannot have children, and yet want them – but still support the right to choose. Others who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage, or lost a young baby.

Perhaps even I won’t experience this powerful reflex in a couple of years. But it is a visceral feeling, and the one which makes me empathise with all those who decide, for any one of a range of reasons, that someone may choose not to have a child at a specific point in their life.

Nearly two years ago, in January 2017, women all over the world gathered together for the Women’s March. Inspired by the election of the self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ Donald Trump, it foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. The aim was inclusivity: “Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice” was one of the march’s binding principles. However, there was one group of feminists that was excluded from official partnership. The New Wave Feminists. The members of this group vehemently oppose Donald Trump, describe themselves as feminists – and yet also say they are pro-life.

Their reasons are nuanced. New Wave Feminists are inherently anti-violence. They are against war, against the death penalty, against torture and feel it would be a blatant ethical contradiction to support the right to abortion. Their aim is to create a society in which a woman never feels the need to terminate a pregnancy. On their current website, they write: “Look, we don’t work to make abortion illegal. We work to make it unthinkable and unnecessary. And we do that by getting to the root of the need for it.”

Also in this very specific category is the group Feminists for Life. With the slogan “Women Deserve Better”, they seek to eliminate the pressures that drive women to abortion: “[We] advocate practical resources and holistic support which address the unmet needs of pregnant women, parents and birthparents”.

This group appears a little more extreme in its views because it implies that abortion should actually be illegal – though it insists that women themselves should not be prosecuted for seeking termination: “We should criminalize anyone who withholds child support,” they argue, “fires a woman from her job because she is pregnant, refuses to accommodate her pregnancy, expels her from school, or threatens violence—any act that forces her to choose between sacrificing her child and sacrificing her education, career plans, or safety from violence.”

So how do I accurately frame my differences with these women? We agree on a lot. I, too, would like to live in a society where women are supported through pregnancy and motherhood. This is currently not the case.

In the US, costs for delivering a baby in a hospital average at over $10,000. Here in the UK, many women struggle to juggle a career with motherhood. Their employers are not supportive, and their partners have (on the whole) not been brought up to manage a household – so the woman (generally) takes on more of the burden. Rape is still much too common, and – unconscionably – many women have to deal with the stigma of being raped. Women (and some men) still live in fear of domestic violence, unable, in many cases,  to leave their abusive partner  for a variety of cultural reasons. Through my contact with the work of the New Wave Feminists, perhaps my emotive negative perception of motherhood would be radically diminished.

I share many of the values of these pro-life feminists. However, I oppose them strongly to the extent that I believe abortion should still be an option for women who do not live in the idealistic world that they envisage. Although we can work much harder to achieve reproductive parity, it’s totally unrealistic to argue that we can create a society which supports every need of every person. And – pivotally – I oppose them because I do not regard the termination of a small group of cells as an act of violence. In my view, abortion has more in common with a tooth extraction than with torture.

So, I’m left with a decision to make about how I react to pro-life feminists. I can either choose to focus upon what we have in common or upon our points of difference. I like to think of this as a Venn diagram. Either, as in the image on the right side, I decide that we’re mostly the same – we differ on one issue. Or – as on the left – I see an area of intersection that is less significant than our broader divergence.

I could present this as a scientific analytic task. But I don’t think that would help me to empathise with the women who sit in a different space. This is a fundamentally personal challenge. If I opt for the right-hand Venn diagram, I am making an active choice to identify and emphasise similarities. I am looking for ways in which we can work as a team. At the same time, I absolutely reserve my right to disagree with them on abortion rights. And I would also hope that they would not press for the complete elimination of abortion as an option for the woman, either.

What’s more: when I took the time to try and understand pro-life feminists after the Women’s March, I also learned a lot about myself. Empathy led to creative introspection – helping me to understand my own views in the light of theirs. It was incredibly valuable.

Last week I attended a conference at the London School of Economics about populism and the ‘us/them’ dynamic. Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni, a PhD candidate at the European Institute, introduced the audience to a concept developed by Kalypso Nicolaïdis called ‘mutual recognition’. She has focused her research upon the highly charged relationship between Greece and Germany through the Euro crisis.

Along with Claudia Steinberg and Nicolaïdis, her aim was to understand how these two countries both vilified and empathised with each other. When mutual recognition and respect is lost, we cannot see the other side for the totality of what they are. We pigeon-hole, stereotype, reduce. And through this process we not only lose our ability to collaborate, but – crucially – we also lose sight of who we are ourselves. It is through the perception and management of difference that we create and curate our own identities.

Look: I know that mutual recognition is not always achievable. There are always those at the extremes on any spectrum who have values so alien, that I cannot hope to find common ground. It is also much easier to seek this shared terrain when you are in the position of comparative power and safety. After all, abortion is not illegal in the UK and (unlike in parts of the United States) is not a right that is in immediate danger. My attempt to understand pro-life feminists is an exercise conducted from a place of relative security.

But I still think that exercise has wider lessons. In work and life, it has been my experience that contact with those who disagree with me is beneficial. I can often learn a lot about myself just by examining the views of my notional opponents without fear and favour. To differ is part of being human, especially in our hectic, pluralist, hyper-modern world. All the more reason, then, to break down barriers, listen to one another, and seek the ground we share: it is usually more expansive than we fear.