I’m what you might call a feminist outsider. It sounds cool when I put it that way, like I’m some sort of rebel.
I’m a passionate believer in the rights of women. I believe every girl should have the opportunity to be educated, and that workplaces need to become more accommodating of families. I spend a worrying amount of time shouting ‘You wouldn’t say that if she were a man!’ to political commentators on the radio.
I’d like to be called a feminist. But I don’t think I’m allowed to be. You see, I also believe a baby is a person before she is born. And I believe that person has rights.
It’s okay. I’m used to not fitting in. At high school, I was all too eager to raise my hand in class, and this made it difficult to make friends. I spent lunchtimes in the school library. The stony refrain ‘You can’t sit with us’ still echoes in my ears, 20 years later.
I’ll admit, it’s an uncomfortable belief to hold. I’m aware that there are many women who have undergone abortions, for whom discussion of the issue would bring additional pain. And many feminist commentators have made it clear that opposition to abortion is unforgivable.
Recently, Tanya Davies, the NSW Minister for Women, came under fire for stating that she was ‘personally pro-life’, but that ‘in my role I am there to support all women and I will support all women, and I will listen to all women ... and ensure the best outcome for all women is secured’. Commentators were indignant. How dare the minister have a personal opinion (one different to theirs)?
Last year, Victorian upper house MP Dr Rachel Carling-Jenkins introduced a bill to effectively prevent late-term abortions. The Infant Viability Bill proposed that after 24 weeks of gestation (when a foetus is viable outside of the womb) abortions should no longer be performed except in cases of medical emergency.
A mother who sought a late-term abortion would not be criminalised; rather, the doctor would be required to refer her for support according to her needs (medical, financial, psychological, residential etc.). The baby, when born, would be provided with medical care or palliative care as needed.
It was a remarkable bill, well researched and carefully written, but it was never to become a remarkable law. The bill did not pass the upper house and Carling-Jenkins became Public Enemy Number One among mainstream feminists.
Wendy Tuohy wrote in the Herald Sun that she was a ‘religious ideologue’ and ‘the Empress who Had No Clothes’. According to Tuohy, Carling-Jenkins was attempting to exploit the subject of abortion ‘for political mileage or personal attention’ and was merely ‘doing the bidding’ of the religious right.
It’s interesting that when a woman presents strong views, it is assumed she must be the mouthpiece of men. It is never thought possible that a woman could have ideas that differ from the accepted feminist position. Women are expected to conform.
Many of the women I talk to who are pro-life tend to keep their mouth shut. They don’t want to be lumped in with the handful of extreme pro-lifers who are mostly about shock tactics. And even many of the women I talk to who are pro-choice are uneasy about late-term abortions. But how do you come out and say ‘I’m pro-choice, but I’m not pro-that’?
Perhaps I, too, should smother the unease I feel when I consider that in Victoria, Tasmania and Canberra it is legal to perform an abortion up until the ninth month of pregnancy. Perhaps I shouldn’t let it bother me that personhood, and the rights that come with it, seems a matter of mere geography; of which side of the uterine wall a baby happens to be on. Perhaps, if I want to be a feminist, I need to bite my tongue, stop raising my hand to ask questions, and be more submissive.
Or perhaps it’s time for a new feminism.
It’s happening everywhere. Pro-life feminist groups like New Wave Feminists, Women’s Forum Australia, SBA List and Feminists for Life are rising to prominence. It’s like taking refuge in the school library and finding it crowded with like-minded individuals.
And it’s not like the idea is new. Early feminists and leaders of the women’s suffrage movement saw abortion as a tool of oppression, which freed men from the burden of accountability. Alice Paul deemed abortion the ‘ultimate exploitation of women’, and Susan B. Anthony referred to it as ‘child murder’.
It’s time to move away from oppressive feminism. If feminism is to remain relevant, feminists need to stop telling women what to think. Ideas should be taken on merit and not dismissed as ‘religious’ or ‘fundamentalist’. If we are to continue the work of our suffragist foremothers, we must address the societal causes that drive a woman to abortion, not silence our problems with violence and poison.
View the reflection questions and activities for 'Can you be a feminist and be pro-life?' here