Friday, October 24, 2008

Is There Such a Thing as a "Pro-Life Feminism"?

Is there such a thing as a "Pro-Life Feminism"? Dang, I sure hope so. It is a position I've tried to articulate for years. I don't pretend it it is easy -- either mentally or emotionally -- to support womens' rights while also supporting the unborns' right to life. But for this poor male nimblewit, womens' rights have haunted me over the past fifteen years at least. And as I read and think and pray, I've had to discard all sorts of muck both theological and political, the "conventional wisdom" of an astonishingly reactionary Evangelical subculture. At the same time, I continue to encounter my own blindness re feminism's depth of critique. That is, I am handicapped by my maleness from existential knowledge of what being a woman means now, or has meant in the past. As those who've read my blogs, both and the moribund, may remember my lengthy and sometimes uneven journey.

Sarah Palin, whom I think would be a terrible president, nonetheless is a member of "Feminists for Life," one group whose name neatly encapsulates an anti-abortion position with a pro-feminist one. I hope they are more than a Republican front, however, as my cynicism forces me to ask the question. Are any of them voting for Obama, despite the pro-life portion of their name?

Meanwhile, it now appears Sarah Palin isn't willing to call herself a feminist any longer, as she did earlier in the campaign. Interviewed by Katie Couric of CBS a while back, and asked by Couric "Do you consider yourself a feminist?", Gov. Palin answered:

"I do. I'm a feminist who believes in equal rights and I believe that women certainly today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway."

But when asked days ago by NBC Nightly News' Brian Williams the same question, Gov. Palin's answer seemed aimed at her very conservative Evangelical base:

"I'm not gonna label myself anything, Brian. And I think that's what annoys a lot of Americans, especially in a political campaign, is to start trying to label different parts of America different, different backgrounds, different . . . I'm not going to put a label on myself."

Well, I have to put the feminist label on myself, because it has a whole lot to do with how I look at things. When I see on television a spokesperson (male and white) from the Southern Baptist Convention talking about pro-life issues, I experience the urge to either assault my television or regurgitate. The Southern Baptist Convention has removed women from nearly all positions of leadership within that denomination, even from the mission field where those women are winning hearts to Christ and serving with their hands the poorest of the poor. The level of offense this causes me cannot be measured on the Richter Scale.

It is of some comfort to find that so-called "secular" feminists also struggle with the pro-life issue, though usually those who do so in public get significant push-back against their efforts. Camille Paglia, writing on, does some real soul-searching. (Thanks, Annie, for pointing this article out to me.) I don't agree with Paglia's conclusions in more than one respect, but they are worth hearing:

Let's take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter. As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body. (Hence I favor the legalization of drugs, though I do not take them.) Nevertheless, I have criticized the way that abortion became the obsessive idée fixe of the post-1960s women's movement -- leading to feminists' McCarthyite tactics in pitting Anita Hill with her flimsy charges against conservative Clarence Thomas (admittedly not the most qualified candidate possible) during his nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. Similarly, Bill Clinton's support for abortion rights gave him a free pass among leading feminists for his serial exploitation of women -- an abusive pattern that would scream misogyny to any neutral observer.

But the pro-life position, whether or not it is based on religious orthodoxy, is more ethically highly evolved than my own tenet of unconstrained access to abortion on demand. My argument (as in my first book, "Sexual Personae,") has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature's fascism. Nature herself is a mass murderer, making casual, cruel experiments and condemning 10,000 to die so that one more fit will live and thrive.

Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue. The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman's body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman's entrance into society and citizenship.

On the other hand, I support the death penalty for atrocious crimes (such as rape-murder or the murder of children). I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty. Surely it is the guilty rather than the innocent who deserve execution?

What I am getting at here is that not until the Democratic Party stringently reexamines its own implicit assumptions and rhetorical formulas will it be able to deal effectively with the enduring and now escalating challenge from the pro-life right wing. Because pro-choice Democrats have been arguing from cold expedience, they have thus far been unable to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion.

The gigantic, instantaneous coast-to-coast rage directed at Sarah Palin when she was identified as pro-life was, I submit, a psychological response by loyal liberals who on some level do not want to open themselves to deep questioning about abortion and its human consequences. I have written about the eerie silence that fell over campus audiences in the early 1990s when I raised this issue on my book tours. At such moments, everyone in the hall seemed to feel the uneasy conscience of feminism. Naomi Wolf later bravely tried to address this same subject but seems to have given up in the face of the resistance she encountered.

If Sarah Palin tries to intrude her conservative Christian values into secular government, then she must be opposed and stopped. But she has every right to express her views and to argue for society's acceptance of the high principle of the sanctity of human life. If McCain wins the White House and then drops dead, a President Palin would have the power to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court, but she could not control their rulings.

It is nonsensical and counterproductive for Democrats to imagine that pro-life values can be defeated by maliciously destroying their proponents. And it is equally foolish to expect that feminism must for all time be inextricably wed to the pro-choice agenda. There is plenty of room in modern thought for a pro-life feminism -- one in fact that would have far more appeal to third-world cultures where motherhood is still honored and where the Western model of the hard-driving, self-absorbed career woman is less admired.

But the one fundamental precept that Democrats must stand for is independent thought and speech. When they become baying bloodhounds of rigid dogma, Democrats have committed political suicide.

I find in Barack Obama someone who seems willing to forego his party's "rigid dogma" on abortion, to the extent he has echoed some of Paglia's language regarding the pro-life movement's legitimate ethical issues regarding abortion. While he is pro-choice, he seems unusually attuned to the suasive power of the unborn being actual human beings. His central argument, with which I disagree but carefully and tentatively, is that the woman carrying a child should have a right of privacy regarding her own choices re having an abortion and that government doesn't belong in the mix. That reasoning is the heart of Roe v Wade, of course.

For me, who's already blogged at length on why the Republicans will never overturn Roe and why I as a pro-lifer am nonetheless compelled to vote for Barack Obama, the issue of abortion remains large on my radar screen. I continue to hope that both camps -- pro-life and pro-choice -- can open their insular worlds up to the other in order to find at least some commonalities. Being pro-life for me means being pro-woman as well. And being pro-woman means that I acknowledge women's singular responsibility, biologically and therefore psychologically / intellectually / emotionally, regarding the unborn. What I hope to find is that the pro-choice movement under an Obama presidency can perhaps find room to re-examine stale doctrines birthed in the 1970s regarding the unborn as mere tissue, and replace those ideas with a far more humanizing, and therefore morally complex and challenging, set of realities regarding the unborn AND women... and men.

For those of us who are pro-life in a wider sense than that meant by the Christian Right and the Republican Party, we need to grapple with the painful realities of voting our consciences. I personally believe that voting for Barack Obama may decrease the actual numbers of abortions, as well as provide wholistic pro-life positions which may be far more attractive to feminists such as myself than are the anti-womanist positions often held (illogically, but historically) by many Catholic and Evangelical pro-lifers.

I realize this will irritate many readers. That is understandable. Each of us feels terrible pain over certain issues, things that become so central to our empathy re suffering and injustice that we tend to base everything else on those issues. In the past, I voted at times as a "single issue" pro-lifer. But history and my own experiences encountering feminism have led me to a place where I often feel sad and torn. It is a place where, with a very small "s" (let's not posture here, Mr. Trott), I do suffer. I think maybe that's where Christians should find themselves more often than they do.

We Americans want resolution, complete and total. But the reality is this: in some of life's deepest things, there is no simple resolution but rather a continuing struggle to find a place where love is expressed in an embracing way toward all parties involved. On this fallen planet, all our hearts ache. Injustice is everywhere, even in the attempts to do justice we humans attempt. Yet hopelessness is not an option. The struggle to love one another as Christ loved us continues. How that looks, whether in an election or at an abortion clinic, is something each human being must take up with that person's Maker.

Pray for me in my struggle to do so. Please.


whatsername said...

Many feminists are personally pro-life and would not ever have an abortion.

But you cannot legislatively oppose needed surgery for women and be a feminist. You can not stand in front of a woman who says "I need this done" and say "well you can't have it" and then try and say you're a campaign of women.

To be a feminist means to trust women to make their own choices.

truthdivide said...

You nearly persuade me to cross-over *snark - wink!* to become a pro-life feminist myself. And this, without raising the spectre of the health risks associated with the abortion procedure. Perhaps that may become the subject of another posting? But alas, i was born the wrong gender to embrace that position.

truthdivide said...

You nearly persuade me to your pro-life feminist position; yet i remain a male. Alas, i am disqualified!

And this without any reference to the very serious health risks associated with any and all abortion procedures, that are very often not discussed in the so-called pre-op "counseling."

Perhaps that will be the subject of a follow-up column (?).

truthdivide said...

Okay, this will be off-topic so no need to post it, but i wanted to alert you to a wiki i've just begun over on Wikia:

I'm alerting you to it first in hopes that you, and perhaps Glenn and others among the C/Stoners, will participate in the project?

G-d bless (as if you didn't have enough projects to keep up with - right?)! =D

Jon Trott said...

whatsername (darkly humorous moniker!)...

You've raised an interesting point, and I'm thinking about it. Perhaps you can help me, though, with definitions. And this isn't me being clever... I'm sincere. When a woman has "needed surgery" which also ends a pregancy, isn't the controversial word in that phrase "needed"? That is, many pro-lifers have no problem with surgery that ends an unborn's life if that surgery is to save the infant's mother's life. Others of us would agree that in cases of pregnancy due to rape and/or incest, the choice should indeed remain private to the woman and any others she wishes to include in her choice-making. But what of abortion in cases other than these? Am I not a feminist if I believe government does have a role in regulating at the least second and third trimester abortions? Is every abortion determined "needful" by the woman getting it, or does any other standard outside that personal one apply? These are heavy questions, and they weigh on me. As a man it may seem I'm being coldly academic about them. But I assure you I'm anything but. Thanks for reading and any response you have.

whatsername said...

In my perspective, there are simply too many variables in the total life experiences of women in this world. It seems every time I think I can draw a line in the sand and say "abortions after this aren't needed" I read about a case where they are.

I also think the whole purpose of law making is to assure safety for the rare cases, the minorities and the exceptions. Laws aren't needed for common case/people/situations because most people know about them and are comfortable dealing with them. So our whole goal in law making is to protect the exception.

My bottom line is that I can never know every woman's circumstances. The only person who knows them is the woman they're happening to.

When we legislate choices like these we are essentially deciding that our perspective and our life circumstances are reasonable to judge anothers' life and circumstances by... That is just rarely true. :\ And pushing ahead anyway ignores that, thereby disregarding any woman whose experiences don't line up, that's definitely not feminist.

maikai said...

Definitely praying for you in your efforts :)
Also, I posted your listserv response on the website.

Matt Nightingale said...

Here's a link to the Naomi Wolf article referenced by Paglia. Interesting stuff.

Matt Nightingale said...

Cootie-Tot said...

Hello, Jon-

How wonderful for me to discover your blog. I know that there are many, many thoughful Christians out there, and it makes me happy to see that more and more are finding their voice on the 'tubes.

I'm a Unitarian Universalist, myself, but it is possible for one to be a UU Christian. Perhaps that will happen to me one day. For now, I simply trust God.

This nation needs healing, which necessarily requires that we need to learn how to talk to one another. When you come right down to an honest examination, it is hard to find fault with Jesus's teachings. Through Christ-like love, we can learn to co-exist. May it be so.