‘Feminists for Life:’ A built-in contradiction?

Eleanor J. Bader

Many scholars and activists argue that women's liberation rests on a foundation of full reproductive options. Feminists For Life believes the opposite, arguing that being "prolife" (that is, anti-abortion) is inextricably linked to female empowerment.

Cross-posted with permission from On The Issues magazine.

Sarah Palin, on the vice-presidential campaign trail in 2008, raised the profile of a previously obscure anti-abortion group, Feminists for Life, by announcing that she herself was a FFL member. The group did not return the favor by endorsing Palin or the Republican ticket, but the group’s new prominence reignited debate about whether it’s possible to call oneself a feminist while also opposing a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Feminists for Life calls itself a “nonpartisan organization” and the FFL website declares that it “welcome(s) all people regardless of political or religious affiliation.” At the same time, the group’s policy agenda — which includes support for a wide range of government-subsidized services for pregnant women and children — does not seem to jibe with the playbook supported by Palin or the Tea Party fans who comprise her base.

That said, it is opposition to abortion that gives FFL its reason for being. And while the definition of feminism continues to vex both activists and scholars, many argue that the right to abortion is a central tenet of feminism; that women’s liberation rests on a foundation of full reproductive options. FFL believes the opposite, arguing that being “prolife” (that is, anti-abortion) is inextricably linked to female empowerment.

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FFL was founded in 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave women the legal right to end unwanted pregnancies. The organization’s founders were two members of the National Organization for Women who agreed with NOW’s agenda — except for its support of liberalized abortion. Unable to convince NOW to retract its abortion rights platform, they created FFL to oppose abortion while pushing for the social safety net they believed was necessary to make having a child a viable option. This dual purpose has spurred FFL’s work ever since and Cayce Utley, FFL’s National Program Director — formerly a staff person at Democrats for Life of America, which describes itself as “the pro-life voice and wing of the Democratic Party”—is quick to state that even if Roe is eventually overturned, the group will still have “a lot of work to do in changing the way families are received by society.”

Social Safety Net is Badly Damaged

Indeed, the fact that nearly 40 million Americans, including one in five children under 18, live in poverty indicates how much needs to be done to address the economic disparities that exist throughout the United States. For Feminists for Life, this means working to improve access to benefits supporting healthy families, from increased welfare benefits to increased childcare options for low-and-middle income households. FFL’S website champions a raft of important — and decidedly not Tea Partyish — pro-family policies: Expanded educational opportunities for poor students; additional employment options for women; micro loans and business assistance for would-be entrepreneurs; low-cost health care before, during, and after the birth of a child; clean water; assistance for women trying to leave physically violent or emotionally abusive partners; and support for housing subsidies.

Opposition to Abortion Gives FFL Its Reason for Being

What’s more, FFL was the only anti-choice group to work alongside NOW, NARAL, and the Feminist Majority to push for such legislation as the Violence Against Women Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, the State Child Health Insurance Program, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Most recently, the group campaigned for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnancy and Parenting Student Services Act, approved by Congress this year, which, beginning in 2011, will provide a total of $25 million a year to states for the establishment of services for pregnant students and school-age parents.

In addition, the group has launched an aggressive program on college campuses. According to Utley, FFL will send a speaker — fees range from $1000-$3000 a pop — to campuses anywhere in the country, or will assist women’s groups in organizing rallies and petition drives to demand better resources for students who are pregnant or parenting. “Our goal is to change campus culture, to include resources for students who are about to start a family,” Utley says. “In some colleges the message is pretty clear — have an abortion or your college experience is over. At the same time, we’re fighting against the remnants of higher education that were originally designed to meet the needs of affluent white men.”

But if increasing resources so that young parents don’t have to drop out of school sounds like a no-brainer, that’s because it’s something that reproductive justice activists have been saying — albeit with a prochoice caveat — since the late 1970s: Women have the right to decide when and whether to have a child and should have access to whatever they need to do so, whether it’s a Medicaid-funded abortion or nutritious food.

Some Women Will Still Choose Abortion

And therein lies the conflict between prochoice feminists and those, like FFL members, who oppose abortion. At the crux of the issue is FFL’s refusal to accept that some women will want to end a pregnancy even when they have the economic resources to have a child and even when they have a partner with whom to share responsibilities. FFL members further deny that many women see abortion as a relief and not a last resort.

Carol Hornbeck, a marriage and family therapist with a Master’s degree from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, sees this blind spot as an oversimplification of reality: “Solutions don’t have to be black or white,” she says. “If you believe in the core value of life as sacred, to be protected, you have to engage with the grey areas. Humans have free will and sometimes you have to acknowledge that one person’s needs will come into conflict with another person’s needs. We have the power to choose and sometimes that means a woman places her own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being above the needs of a fertilized egg.”

Feminists for Life Subtly Discourages Birth Control

Not surprisingly, you won’t see or hear that tension, that conflict, if you talk to FFL or peruse their materials. Several FFL videos, for example, make a compelling case for choosing childbirth over abortion. Chauncie’s Journey, for one, tells the story of Chauncie Saelins Brusie — now a FFL staffer — who became pregnant during her senior year of college. Her emotional account describes a university bureaucracy that was unprepared for her decision to continue her pregnancy. Maternity coverage was not provided by the school health plan she’d purchased and there were neither family dorms nor childcare facilities on campus. “I understand the sheer panic that could lead a woman to abortion,” Chauncie says in the film. Her ultimate decision to marry her boyfriend and bear the child is told with passion and genuine feeling. What’s missing is the realization that Chauncie made the choice that was right for her, a choice that might be completely wrong for someone else.

Joyce Ann McCauley Benner stars in another of FFL’s heart-rending videos. She begins by describing her journey from home to a college 1100 miles from where she grew up. Working two jobs to support herself, she looks directly into the camera to describe being raped by a co-worker and subsequently learning that she was pregnant. “I felt unready to be a mom,” she confesses. “I had no health insurance and was in a daze.” Then, after weeks of grappling with what to do, she decided to have the baby. “I realized that I knew who the mother was and there was as much of me inside this baby as there was of the rapist,” she says.

There’s no way to argue with Benner’s decision and all viewers can do is hope that she never regrets her choice. It’s poignant stuff, but the equally poignant reality that other women have no desire to bear the child of a rapist — let alone raise it or place it for adoption–seems lost on Benner and FFL.

Contraception: Mixed Messages and Misinformation

Then there’s the issue of birth control, a subject Feminists for Life both skirts and subtly discourages. According to the FFL website, “There is no FFL position on contraception except when it presents a threat to women’s health. Some FFL members support the use of contraception as long as there is no abortifacient effect, while others oppose it. Some oppose all forms of contraception for health reasons, others for religious reasons. Others prefer natural methods to plan a family.”

On the subject of Emergency Contraception, aka “Plan B” or the “Morning After Pill,” the website refers readers to optionline.org — a misnomer if there ever was one — that blatantly discourages the use of the drug. Full of misinformation, the site includes erroneous statements such as this: “You can only become pregnant on certain days of the month — around the time you ovulate.” The site also resorts to scare tactics, contending, for instance, that “Taking the Morning After Pill at a time when you cannot become pregnant needlessly exposes you to large doses of hormones. If you are already pregnant from an earlier sexual encounter taking the Morning After Pill is of no value and may cause harm.”

FFL has also been criticized for distorting history in the service of its anti-choice agenda. To wit, the group contends that the 19th century founders of the women’s movement were unequivocally against abortion. “Women deserve better than abortion,” their website states, and “those who walk in the shoes of early American feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton are invited to call FFL home.” FFL member Carol Crossed recently purchased the Adams, Massachusetts birthplace of Stanton’s colleague, Susan B. Anthony, and turned it into a museum. But even though the group calls Anthony an anti-abortion foremother, a host of historians — including staff at the Susan. B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership at the University of Rochester and Anthony scholars Lynn Sherr and Ann Gordon — have contested this interpretation of Anthony’s position.

FFL has come under further fire for honoring conservative anti-abortion blogger and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, whose writing is contemptuous of virtually every social initiative that FFL claims to hold dear. And even though FFL did not endorse Sarah Palin’s vice presidential run, the fact that the group has never criticized her political wish-list makes one question whether their purported support of pro-family initiates in somehow negotiable. Indeed, this omission has prompted prochoice feminists to wonder if FFL is willing to jettison its laudable social welfare agenda in exchange for support of policies that will curtail abortion access.

“We’re not a Political Action Committee,” National Program Director Cayce Utley says. “Anyone can join FFL without a political litmus test and some people on board with us are conservative and others are liberal. We’re an education and advocacy group. Our aim is to educate prolifers to our point of view, what we think it means to be a prolife feminist. We try to help people connect the dots between supporting policies that help pregnant women raise healthy children and seeing that if they don’t support public welfare programs women will likely make decisions about pregnancy that they won’t like.”

As for feminism, Utley concedes that the word’s meaning has become increasingly murky. Does that matter? I ask her. “Feminists for Life walks the talk,” she says. “We support progressive solutions for women and families.”

Maybe it comes down to the word progressive, and whether pro-family solutions can be deemed progressive if they demonize abortion — something women opt for whether the procedure is legal or not, despite FFL blather to the contrary, because not every child is wanted — and dance around the efficacy of birth control. The world may change, and language, too, but one thing remains obvious: The onus is on FFL to assess Palin’s platform — and that of Tea Party activists across the country — and call them what they are: Anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-worker programs that are wholly antithetical to the interests of most U.S. families.

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