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Is the Term ‘Pro-Life Feminist’ an Oxymoron?

Is the Term ‘Pro-Life Feminist’ an Oxymoron?

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A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Catholic Social Thought initiative at Georgetown University. The panel, set to discuss what it means to be pro-life, was made up of four pro-life women, moderated by another pro-life woman.

The event was titled, “Resisting the Throwaway Culture,” inspired by a quote from Pope Francis in which he stated:

“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throwaway’ culture which is now spreading. In this way life too is discarded.”

I wanted to attend this event because I could not remember the last time I heard a pro-life woman speak about her opinion, with only women surrounding her. I believe in the power of women discussing the issues that affect them. Even though I am pro-choice and have been for a long time, I went in with an open mind.

What it Means to Have a ‘Pro-Life Ethic’

What I heard was, for the most part, a nuanced and enlightening discussion. The entire conversation was framed by the idea that American society needs to work to counteract the reasons women might feel that they have to get an abortion, and the sense that they have no other choice. In essence, the panelists stated that American laws and culture do not do enough to help vulnerable women and children. Though I have had nuanced debates with my friends about abortion, the stances of pro-life leaders I have heard mostly shamed women or left their needs entirely out of the conversation.

Moreover, these panelists argued that many people who say they’re pro-life are actually just anti-abortion. To them, a “consistent pro-life ethic” means caring about people living in poverty, people suffering from police brutality, immigrants and refugees who have been dehumanized, people around the world who have been affected by climate change, etc. To them, being pro-life does not stop once someone is born.

Engaging in the Debate

During the Q&A, I decided to ask a question about contraception. (Keep in mind that I was standing in my chapel. Never before had I thought I would say the words “sex” and “contraception” into a microphone in a church.)

I stood up and said, “You’ve all talked a lot about how to help women with unplanned pregnancies once they are pregnant. What are your thoughts about preventative measures like contraception or sex ed in schools, since many young people in today’s world are not waiting until marriage to have sex?”

The response I received from one of the panelists was that one surefire method of prevention is abstinence, that hormonal birth control fights your body’s natural processes, and that sex is not only unitive (for pleasure) but procreative.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this answer. It reminded me why I am and always will be pro-choice.

Why I’m Still Pro-Choice

If sex has to be procreative, what about people who are gay? Lesbians? Infertile? Old? Are they incapable of having sex? No.

Hormonal birth control does more than prevent pregnancy. It can reduce pain during a woman’s period. It can regulate a menstrual cycle. It can solve hormonal acne. If you really think about it, any form of medication is fighting against our bodies’ “natural processes.”

And abstinence, though it may be right for some, is not a solution for everyone. Not every person who has sex wants to be or is ready to be a parent. And though adoption is an admirable decision for a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, pregnancy itself might not be a process she wants to go through.

This is not to say that every pro-life person shares this one woman’s opinion on contraception. After the event, another panelist came up to me and said that her organization has no stance on hormonal birth control. Not every pro-life person is Christian or even religious, so the likelihood is high that there are pro-lifers who support contraception and sex ed.

One panelist raised the Kantian argument that abortion treats “unborn babies” as a means to an end, not as ends in themselves, and is therefore immoral. But I argue that as the world is today, taking away the right to choose treats women as means to an end, as vessels for an agenda, and is therefore immoral.

A Silver Lining in this Heated Debate

Even though my opinion did not change, I walked out of the event with a lot of hope. I learned about how those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice can work together; one of the panelists recalled when groups from both sides worked together to increase pregnancy resources at Georgetown University. And I walked out thinking about how many of the positions people who are truly pro-life hold are ones that matter to me as well. To these women, being pro-life means standing up for women, and all people, just as much as for “unborn children” (as they put it, this is a pro-life term). This ethic includes fighting against poverty, racism, and dehumanization.

From now on, I’ll look at the label ‘pro-life’ with more of an open mind, and question whether someone who claims to be pro-life supports life at all stages - and whether pro-life isn’t standing in for ‘anti-abortion.’ All we have to do is look at politicians who claim to be pro-life but vehemently oppose gun control and sustainability reform to see a new degree of hypocrisy.

There is a lot that pro-choice and pro-life people have in common, more than I ever thought there was. If two groups who I previously thought had nothing in common can find common ground, then I believe there’s hope for some progress.

So I challenge you-- be open to having conversations with people whose views you disagree with. Even if you never reach consensus, you’d be surprised what common ground you can find. If we all try to do this, rather than remain in echo chambers, we may end up being productive and progressive in ways we couldn’t have imagined.


Author: Caitlin Panarella

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