Can You Be Feminist and Pro Life? Yes and No

Here's what Hillary Clinton should have said on The View this week.

Hillary Clinton is right: Of course you can be a feminist and be pro-life.

Hillary Clinton is also wrong: You cannot be a feminist and be pro-life.

"I respect the opinions and beliefs of every woman," Clinton said during an appearance on The View. "The reason why being pro-choice is the right way to go is because it is a choice and hopefully a choice that is rooted in the thoughtfulness and the care that women bring to this decision. So, of course you can be a feminist and be pro-life."

 

What Clinton seems to mean is that a woman who personally identifies as pro-life and says she would not have an abortion herself can still be a feminist, so long as she wouldn't restrict abortion rights for other women. What Clinton didn't say, but should have, is that a woman who makes her own reproductive choices (and carrying a pregnancy to term is indeed a reproductive choice) but doesn't want to force those choices on everyone else is, by definition, pro-choice. On the other hand, anyone whose views are in line with the organized, national "pro-life" movement – that is, they want to legally restrict access to abortion and contraception – cannot, as long as words mean things, be a feminist.

Part of the problem is how limited the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" monikers have become, and how much an individual's own explanations of their political views may diverge from the way political groups use the same terms. "Pro-life" has become shorthand for "I think abortion is icky" or "I would never have an abortion," but not necessarily "I think abortion should be entirely illegal" – which is the position of the mainstream "pro-life" movement.

Every major right-to-life organization in the United States wants to outlaw abortion almost entirely, including in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the pregnant woman's health and even life. National Right to Life argues that abortion even in the case of rape or incest creates a "second victim" wherein "the woman becomes the aggressor against her own child." They believe health exceptions to abortion restrictions are largely bunk, putting "health" in scare-quotes and complaining that in Roe v. Wade, the case legalizing abortion nationwide, the Supreme Court mentioned a state interest in fetal life, but that "legislation to protect that interest would be gutted by mandated exceptions for the 'health' of the mother." According to the Pro-Life Action League, "a child conceived through rape or incest does not deserve the death penalty for his or her father's crime." The group is even more dismissive of abortions to preserve a woman's health or life. "The Pro-Life Action League rejects abortion for the alleged purpose of preserving the health of the mother," the group says. They "similarly reject the 'life of the mother' exception," claiming that "abortion is never necessary to save a mother's life; and even if it were, it is wrong to deliberately, directly kill one innocent person to save another."

Other self-identified pro-life groups simply dodge questions of rape, incest, and the pregnant woman's life and health, knowing their answers would be politically unpopular. About 44 percent of Americans identify as pro-life, and 50 percent as pro-choice. Just 19 percent believe that abortion should be outlawed under all circumstances. Overwhelming majorities – 78 percent – believe abortion should be legal at least in some circumstances. Only 29 percent want to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.

Today's American "pro-life" movement is about more than just abortion, and recent Supreme Court litigation around contraception has made that clear. No major pro-life organization in the United States supports increased birth control access, even though the study after study has shown that the most effective way to decrease unintended pregnancies, and by extension the abortion rate, is with affordable, accessible birth control. Many of them simply ignore the birth control question. Others, such as the Pro-Life Action League, flat-out say, "The Pro-Life Action League opposes artificial birth control (contraception), not only because it destroys the inherent meaning of the sexual act as a sign of permanent, life-giving love, but because of the disastrous consequences it has wrought on our society."

Most American women, including most of those who identify as pro-life, use contraception at some point in their lives. As a result, more women are in college and in the workforce than ever before, and far fewer are injured or dying from pregnancy-related causes. Unsurprisingly, 89 percent of Americans, including 82 percent of Catholics, say contraception is morally acceptable.

By contrast, the organized pro-choice movement believes just what it says: reproductive choice. That means the choice to use contraception or not, to carry a pregnancy to term or not, to parent or not. The organized pro-choice movement also presses for resources so that women can make a full range of choices. That means accessible and affordable birth control and abortion, but it also means health insurance so that a complicated pregnancy doesn't bankrupt a woman and her family and a robust social safety net so that women facing financial hardship can still choose to have children and provide them a stable home.

When you look at what Americans actually believe, strong majorities of Americans are pro-choice, even if they don't identify that way. Very few, even most of those who say they are "pro-life," are not actually aligned with the organized anti-abortion movement's policies and goals. So in that sense, Clinton was correct that there are women who no doubt self-identify as pro-life, but don't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, believe women should have equal rights to men, and understand that in order to do that, abortion and contraception must remain legal and accessible.

Clinton's answer, though, didn't tell the whole story, and its vague politician-speak obscured the dangerous reality of the organized pro-life movement in America, and their influence on the Republican Party. Despite the claims of groups like Feminists for Life, it is not in fact possible to be a feminist and support the agenda of the anti-abortion movement. If women cannot decide for themselves when they carry a pregnancy to term, they are not free. And ever since women have been getting pregnant, women have been coming up with methods to avoid getting pregnant, and, often, to end their pregnancies. For much of human history, these methods have been inconsistently effective and sometimes dangerous, although often not more than pregnancy and childbirth, which remain leading killers of reproductive-age women, most pronouncedly in places where safe, legal contraception and abortion remain unavailable.

Modern contraception and abortion are both overwhelmingly effective and overwhelmingly safe. This is new. And for women, it has changed everything.

Look at the trajectory of women's rights over the past several centuries. Gains were certainly made at various points along the way, but a revolution happened in the second half of the 20th century, pulling women out of the largely domestic sphere and into public life long dominated by men – institutions of higher learning, the paid workforce, elected office, organizational leadership, the mastheads of major publications. What shifted wasn't just feminists pushing for equality – although that helped too – but wide access to highly effective contraception and, a bit later, abortion. There is no question that the gains made by women across American society hinge on those methods for controlling reproduction. The pro-choice movement knows it and thinks it's a good thing. The pro-life movement knows it, too. They call these gains "disastrous consequences."

It's time to retire "pro-life" as a descriptor. It has little to do with embracing life outside the womb – when abortion is outlawed or made inaccessible, women are inevitably injured or killed by unsafe abortion, and the organized pro-life movement does little to assist children once they're born – and everything to do with barring women from the ability to safely and effectively plan their families.

It's also confusing. If you believe women should be able to decide for themselves whether to use birth control or not, and whether to have an abortion or not, you're pro-choice – regardless of what decision you, personally, would make, and regardless of your personal discomfort or moral opposition to abortion. If you don't think women should have those rights, well, then you're anti-contraception, anti-abortion and, by definition, anti-feminist.

That may be too much for Hillary Clinton to get into on The View. She is right, though, that pro-life feminists exist – but only because they don't actually embrace any of the values or goals of the political movement that monopolizes the "pro-life" name. There is a word for these pro-life feminists: Pro-choice. 

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