Can You Be a Feminist and Anti-Abortion?


Abortion is, in many ways, a played-out topic in the women's movement, but activist and writer Jennifer Baumgardner (author of Look Both Ways, Manifesta and Grassroots) continues to breathe new life into this contentious issue. In 2004, she created the "I Had an Abortion" speak-out campaign, which both shocked and awed feminists and non-feminists alike through the dissemination of shirts with the controversial "coming out" statement emblazoned across the front. Today, Baumgardner continues to carve out a space for women's narratives and take an unabashed look at issues that have a tendency to be swept under the rug by the abortion rights movement in her new book, Abortion & Life (Akashic Books, 2008). An excerpt follows.

Mandy Van Deven: Why are abortion narratives important, personally and politically, and what makes this moment in history the right time for them to re-surface?

Jennifer Baumgardner: The history of women's gains in reproductive freedom is tied to women speaking out and telling the truth about their lives. The early days of the women's liberation movement saw women shedding shame and guilt by coming out about their illegal abortions; this lent momentum and urgency to the abortion law reform movement. In fact, it was women speaking out that took the movement from one of doctors, legislators and clergymen advising reform to a much more radical repeal movement. This is the right moment for abortion narratives because the movement needs to evolve again. It's no longer 1973. We know much more about fetal development, women who have unplanned pregnancies nowadays don't face as much societal scorn if they have a baby outside of marriage, and abortions have been legal for nearly four decades. Times have changed, and we need new politics to go with these new times. Thus, we should return to women's (and men's) lives to see where the movement needs to go.

MV: Some might say Abortion & Life gives the anti-abortion movement fuel to add to an already raging fire by criticizing the abortion rights movement. How do you respond to what you call "knee-jerk naivete"?

JB: I used to be resistant to hearing that a woman had a bad experience with her doctor or that she was extremely sad or had regrets about her abortion. I chalked it all up to right-wing propaganda. I see it differently now. These stories aren't necessarily the most common abortion experience (the best guess I have is that they account for less than 10 percent), but to suppress them or not want to hear them is a position of weakness. I don't think the abortion rights movement has to be as defensive as we've been. As a movement, we need to turn away from our commitment to arguing with the protesters and listen to the women again. To not do so gives fuel to the anti-abortion movement because then it is only those who oppose abortion who are willing to hear its complicated stories.

MV: In the book, you alternate the use of words like "fetus" and "child". With language being so controversial, why did you vary yours?

JB: I think there is legal truth around this issue, and then there is personal or emotional truth. In terms of the law, there is a difference between a potential child -- a fetus -- who is totally dependent upon its maternal host to survive and an already born baby who is dependent, but not exclusively on its biological mother. I understand the need for that language, but it is limiting and even alienating for many women who have had abortions. I have met women who think of the child -- their word -- every year on the day it was due to be born. I have read journals in abortion clinics in which women write prayers to their unborn babies, asking them to be guardian angels. I don't think "fetus" fits the bill in describing who they are talking about.

MV: I know you've got an entire chapter on this, but can you be a feminist and pro-life?

JB: Yes. Certainly you cannot bomb an abortion clinic and be a feminist, nor can you prohibit another woman from accessing an abortion and call yourself a feminist. But you can say that you believe that life begins at conception, that you are ambivalent or even deeply sad about abortion, or that you don't want to attend the March for Women's Lives. What you do have to do is find a way to be authentically pro-life that isn't anti-woman. You can work on birth control and sex education. You can become a foster parent. You can work with your place of worship or elected representatives to make sure women who are having abortions are supported. There is so much to do on the pro-life side that simply isn't being done.

MV: Mainstream -- white -- reproductive rights activists have recently begun to co-opt the language and politics of more radical women of color-led groups like SisterSong. There is a long history of white feminists claiming the theory and practice of women of color as their own, and many times getting it all wrong. How do you see this playing out today?

JB: The reproductive justice frame that is emerging was developed by women of color, and it provides a way for the movement to evolve to more clearly represent the diversity of women who get abortions, as you allude. Reproductive justice says that there is no objective experience of "choice" -- that we all make reproductive decisions within a community and have to deal with whatever oppressions act on that community. It also says that we should all have the right to choose an abortion, adoption or raising a child; to choose the conditions under which we give birth; and to parent the children we have.

I see white activists and thinkers, like Marlene Gerber Fried, who really believe in reproductive justice and work in relationship with organizations like SisterSong, but Loretta Ross comes right out and says that, though everyone loves the term "reproductive justice," few want to include the women of color who created it. That's obviously wrongheaded. Ross and others are working on a book that will lay out the theory and strategy more clearly, so I hope this problem will diminish a bit in the future.

MV: Can you talk about how your pro-choice position has changed over time?

JB: I'm clearer than ever that most restrictions on abortion are merely punitive and do not have a pro-life function at all. I'm radically pro-abortion in that I don't want any restrictions, just ways to support women who want to end a pregnancy to have earlier, better abortions whenever possible. I also think that fetuses are human life, and I'm not cold to the process of ending that life. I used to think of an abortion as nothing more than removing inanimate tissue. I've seen abortions now, which challenged me to face its reality. I can face it, and I think it is the moral responsibility of pro-abortion people to not protect themselves from the thornier or grislier aspects of abortion.

MV: You write again and again in Abortion & Life about the humility that you felt throughout the "I Had an Abortion" campaign, and it's been four years since you unveiled the T-shirts. How has this work affected you?

JB: I know! They were on the Drudge Report the night that Planned Parenthood's very courageous Gloria Feldt addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and here we are heading into the convention again. I feel humility mainly because I haven't had an abortion, and I'm not an expert on that experience. I have listened to hundreds of abortion stories, I've visited dozens of clinics, I've interviewed countless activists and lawyers, and I've had an unplanned pregnancy, but women who have had abortions know more than I do. I see myself as a conduit to their expertise, and I'm still open to hearing what I need to learn.


Abortion & Life Excerpt

In 1993, Amy Richards (then the twenty-three-year-old co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation) was on a panel at a local New York City high school discussing feminism, when a sixteen-year-old girl timidly inquired whether one could be pro-life and a feminist. Amy answered promptly: "No. Next question." Amy recalls that Angel Williams, another activist on the panel, looked the girl in the eyes and said, "Being pro-life doesn't make you ineligible to be a feminist." Amy was infuriated by Angel's comment. "The only thing that made me feel better," recalls Amy, "was knowing that I was simply the better feminist, while Angel was willing to compromise feminism's core values."

Years later, after Amy and I had co-written two books addressing third-wave feminism, we became intrigued by that same recurring question. At a certain point in nearly every college classroom we visited, an earnest woman would raise her hand and recount the ways in which she felt she was a feminist ("I directed my campus production of The Vagina Monologues"; "I founded a group in high school to build schools for girls in Afghanistan"; etc.). Then she'd say, "But can you be a feminist and pro-life?"

It's a challenge to combine those identities, but Amy and I have both learned that these women are not asking if bombing an abortion clinic can fall within the realm of feminism. They aren't even wondering if it is okay to keep others from accessing an abortion and still call themselves feminists. They are usually asking if it's okay not to prioritize abortion, not to go to the March for Women's Lives, not to raise money for women's procedures. They are asking if they can believe that abortion is the taking of a life, even a sacred human life, and still be a feminist. If not, then these women (and men) see no alternative than to join the swelling ranks of "I'm not a feminist but ... " They can't suddenly abandon their belief about fetal life. So, are there organizations that represent the pro-life person who doesn't believe that women are second-class citizens?

There are at least two very visible groups that identify as both pro-woman and pro-life: Democrats for Life of America and Feminists for Life of America. Democrats for Life was founded in 1999, initially with four chapters but has grown to more than forty. While their executive director Kristen Day cites a December 2003 Zogby poll finding that forty-three percent of Democrats oppose abortion except in the case of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother, she also concedes that most Democrats do not want to recriminalize the procedure. While Democrats for Life's leaders in Congress include Jim Oberstar, who helped craft the extremely punitive Hyde Amendment, the stated mission of the group is to make good on the party plank holding that abortion should be rare. In 2005, Democrats for Life began pushing "95-10," a plan they hoped would reduce abortions by ninety-five percent in ten years.

The strategy, however, doesn't have a serious plan of action. Their platform doesn't advocate birth control and provides little to inspire a person who wants to be true to both their feminism and the value they place on fetal life. At first glance, Feminists for Life appears to provide a good haven for the pro-life feminist, but their practices echo that of Democrats for Life.

They focus on dismantling abortion without bringing about the pro-woman changes -- in particular, access to family planning -- that might make abortion less common. (They say that "pre-conception issues" are outside of their mission.) They claim that early feminists were in fact pro-life, but have taken the women's comments so out of context that many historians disagree with their conclusions. Certainly it is true that first-wave feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony took up the cause of women like Hester Vaughn, a teenage immigrant in Philadelphia who was condemned to be hanged after she was forcibly impregnated by her employer, cast out on the street, and found with her baby dead -- a series of tragedies then judged an infanticide. Anthony and Stanton organized women to protest -- arguing that Vaughn was a "victim of a social system that forced women, especially poor women, to murder their illegitimate children or face social ostracism," as Ellen Carol DuBois writes in her 1999 book, Feminism & Suffrage. But their critique of Vaughn's treatment cannot be conflated with the message that women should never choose or desire to end an unplanned pregnancy.

Feminists for Life's position that "women deserve better" than the degradation they often face, though, has value. And it is true that if women were more empowered -- free of abusive partners, less poisoned by misogyny, had adequate access to health care and education about sex and their bodies -- abortion would occur far less frequently. (But the need for abortion will never be totally eradicated, according to the late health activist Barbara Seaman, unless society commits to giving vasectomies to all boys after freezing their sperm, and only allowing procreation through in vitro fertilization after demonstrating sufficient income and maturity to support a child for eighteen years. No one has jumped on this policy proposal for an abortion-free world.) The sentiments put forth by Democrats for Life and Feminists for Life work well as an ideal -- women deserve better than to be left holding the bag for a mutual sexual encounter -- but they don't appear to address the fact that people will always have sex.

It's a stultifying myth of feminism that prioritizing abortion rights is the most significant test of your commitment to women. You don't have to go to that march on Washington, you don't have to counsel your friends to have abortions, and you don't have to believe that abortion might be a good option for you. But that is just what you don't have to do. You do have to do something to animate your value system. What does it mean to be authentically pro-life and a feminist? Given how reproductive decisions occur within a social framework of so many other personal values, such as one's religion or family culture or self-image, it might seem difficult to actually lay out pro-life strategies that are genuine and don't conflict with women's freedom. Nonetheless, these parameters strike me as fitting the bill:

Work to make sure women who want to raise their kids have the support to do so: Traditionally, women have taken on the everyday hard work of cultivating the future. In other words, we raise the children. The "future," meanwhile, has it tough. Our often inadequate, frequently cruel foster care system can't handle the more than 300,000 kids thrust into its rigid arms each year, and the "end of welfare" ushered in during Bill Clinton's presidency means that living in poverty is just a part of growing up for thirteen million children in the United States. Yet more and more young women -- child-free and mothers, single and partnered -- are dealing with the collapse of the nuclear family. Feminists for Life is good at pointing out the ways that some pro-choice organizing, particularly on college campuses, can be downright hostile to early parenting. Sadly, though, they don't raise money to provide the resources they are so mad do not exist. Some of those resources might include: recruiting foster parents; providing family court advocates; establishing funds to offer support to low-income or otherwise stressed parents (from formula and diapers to lactation consultants); organizing free emergency babysitting services at trustworthy public locations (like universities) and publicizing them at churches, welfare agencies, and grocery stores.

Loretta Ross has long worked to bridge the divide between women who get abortions -- often lower-income and disproportionately black -- and abortion rights advocates, who are often middle-class and white. "If you're in the field, you know that black women are twelve percent of the female population but get twenty-five percent of the abortions in the country," says Ross, the fifty-five-year-old coauthor of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (South End Press, 2004). "Yet black women are saying this is not their issue. I have to ask why not." Ross is national coordinator of SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, an organization that was instrumental in changing the name of the 2004 pro-abortion rights demonstration in Washington from "March for Freedom of Choice" to "March for Women's Lives."

"We couldn't endorse the march unless they recognized the complex issues that women face," explains Ross. "Every woman who is pregnant wonders if she has a bedroom for that child; can she afford to take off the time to raise that child? Why flatten the decisions around abortion to just abortion? When women don't have jobs or health care, where is the choice? There is nothing worse than a woman aborting a baby she wanted because she couldn't support it." Ross notes that black women were the first to resist the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy. "A very large percentage of (black) women are personally opposed to abortion but are politically pro-choice," adds Ross, who is one of the architects of the reproductive justice framework. "Women of color agree with not giving unborn children more rights than grown women, but even when they're terminating a pregnancy, they call it a baby. This has been going on as long as we have had the debate."

Support birth control and sex education (along with abstinence): Feminists for Life along with other not-so-feminist-friendly pro-life organizations do not support contraception or sex education. A position paper released by the largest right-to-life educational organization -- the American Life League -- reads, The practice of contraception is intrinsically evil and lays the groundwork for other evils such as the act of abortion, and calls for an absolute trust in God and His will with regard to the gift of children. Many pro-life activists consider contraception as the first step in a "slippery slope" that leads to abortion, because, that thinking goes, if you can have sex without fear of pregnancy, you will be more likely to have sex outside of the bounds of marriage. It's undeniable that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the best way to avoid getting pregnant. It's also undeniable that much sexual activity occurs in less than ideal, coherent, and consensual circumstances and that most people have sex more often than the few times it took to conceive their children. However, the best way to truly protect women and men and to improve our bodily health and our potential to reproduce is with honest information about sex, honest talk about personal values, and by modeling the behavior we believe to be most healthy. As the statistics about abstinence-only education attest, people are going to have sex whether or not it's sanctioned.

Work toward early abortion: Later abortions are harder on everyone. They are more expensive ($1,000 to $2,500 or more for a twenty-week procedure, compared to $400 or less for an eight-week procedure) and require greater medical expertise (not to mention up to three days of doctor's visits to complete) and travel expense, as there are very few doctors who do later procedures. They're harder on women (financially and physically) and possibly harder on the fetus (there is contradictory evidence in recent research on fetal pain). A strong abortion rights movement has already meant that women are getting procedures earlier, when the surgery is easier and safer. In 1973, only thirty-eight percent of abortions were performed within the first two months of pregnancy. Today the figure is more than fifty-five percent. Coincidentally, earlier abortions are less controversial among the pro-choice advocates who favor some restrictions (a surprisingly high number of people). It is part of the future of abortion to promote earlier procedures, when the cost is reduced in every way -- on the medical system, on the woman, on the fetus, and even in the field of public opinion. "You can't have choice without knowledge," says Merle Hoffman. "And sometimes that knowledge is hard to bear." But given the myriad of factors that might impact one's decision, it is crucial to be frank and fearless about what we know and don't know about the fetus and let women decide for themselves.

Support EC and medical abortion: To encourage earlier abortions, we need to make mifepristone and emergency contraception more readily available, as well as rethink our restrictions on abortion generally. Researchers James Trussell and Felicia Stewart concluded that if emergency contraception (pills that can be taken within ninety-six hours of unprotected sex) were effectively promoted and distributed, they could address an estimated two million unintended pregnancies per year. If their assessment is correct, this initiative would save billions of dollars each year. A study commissioned by New York State comptroller in 2003 (and revised for 2005), titled "Emergency Contraception: Fewer Unintended Pregnancies and Lower Health Care Costs," estimates "that widely available and easily accessible emergency contraception could result in $233.1 million in savings" for New York State alone, "reducing the 104,776 unintended pregnancies associated with Medicaid-eligible women" by half.

Work against restrictions: For years I have supported the New York Abortion Access Fund, which funded many later-term procedures since women travel to New York City for abortions up to twenty-four weeks. (New York is one of the few places with doctors trained to perform those procedures and a public that supports those doctors -- or at least isn't openly hostile.) When doing intake, we would learn why the individual patient was seeking a later procedure, and almost without exception it had to do with restrictions on abortion. These laws became infuriating to me because they didn't make women change their minds about needing a procedure, they merely punished them, making them jump through demeaning hoops at a time when they needed support. Because of the Hyde Amendment, women on public assistance in some states couldn't get a Medicaid-covered procedure; raising money meant waiting to get the abortion. Ditto, parental consent rules. As girls drum up the courage to tell their parents, the pregnancy develops further. According to Susan Cohen, the director of government affairs at the Guttmacher Institute, evidence from around the world shows that placing restrictions on abortion makes it less safe rather than more rare. "In the United States, abortion opponents take credit for the mounting state and federal restrictions on abortion," says Cohen, "rather than working to reduce unintended pregnancy to begin with."

Actively condemn violence: Ani DiFranco's wrenching song "Hello Birmingham" is a letter to that city from her hometown of Buffalo, New York. In 1998, Eric Rudolph bombed New Woman All Women Health Care in Birmingham, Alabama, killing a young off-duty police officer named Robert Sanderson and horrifically maiming clinic nurse Emily Lyons. That same year, a Buffalo doctor named Barnett Slepian who provided abortions was murdered in his home, in front of his children. The bravery that is sometimes required for clinic workers just to show up for their jobs is heartbreaking. And the violence is utterly in conflict with any authentic reverence for life. Feminists for Life offered a reward for any information that could lead to the arrest and conviction of the Birmingham bomber, demonstrating that their pro-life worldview can work in concert with feminist goals.

Truly understand adoption, and work to make sure the birth mother has a voice: When Norma McCorvey's autobiography, I Am Roe, was published in 1994, it was dedicated to "All of the Jane Does who died for Choice." Yet by the very next year, she had become one of the best-known anti-abortion activists in history, joining Operation Rescue. She even petitioned the Supreme Court (unsuccessfully) to have Roe overturned. And yet, Norma McCorvey, who never actually had an abortion, nonetheless represents a very silenced, often-mistreated demographic: birth mothers. Just before Christmas of 2006, I attended an event at which adoption scholar Ann Fessler played the audio pastiche of her interviews with birth mothers who surrendered their children in the years before Roe. I perched on the arm of a couch in a Park Avenue apartment and sobbed. I cried for the many women who were conned into relinquishing their children and fed a nonstop barrage of insults, from "You'd be a terrible mother" to "You've brought shame on the family" to "Just pretend this never happened." I cried remembering how intense it was to be pregnant and to give birth -- how hormones and pain and extreme physical duress combined into what felt like a near-death experience.

I recalled how I really understood -- in my loosened pelvis, my stretched-out ribs, and the kicks to my cervix from tiny limbs -- the sensitive factory that is our bodies, arduously creating another human. The thought of going through that and being told it didn't matter -- You don't know this baby anyway -- struck me as unbearably cruel. My tears also reflected the poignancy of growing up in a different era, one in which my unplanned pregnancy and subsequent out-of-wedlock parenting can be celebrated and supported, with two sets of parents thrilled to become grandparents. I read Fessler's wonderful book, The Girls Who Went Away, and was overwhelmed by the emotional pain the women endured. It's not a fair comparison, perhaps, but I found the stories of women who surrendered their babies just as traumatic and heartbreaking as the stories I've heard of women who had abortions pre-Roe.

I spoke with Ann Fessler about adoption. Even if the terrain has shifted radically from the social pressures on girls raised in the 1950s, it's clear that the voice of the birth mother is still very suppressed. "Many (birth mothers) are promised one thing and enter into the misunderstanding that they are committing to a situation with certain protections that, in fact, aren't guaranteed," Fessler says.

In many places, for instance, if the mother leaves the state in which the adoption occurred, the contract is broken and she no longer has the right to see her child. "Over the years, all of the laws have gone the way of supporting adoption agencies' needs," she explains. "In some states, women are asked to sign within twenty-four hours of birth, and it is irrevocable." There is less and less of a space for the birth mother to process the experience of having had a baby at all.

"I'm an adoptee, and I'm not dispassionate to the emotional stress that the adoptive parent is feeling," Fessler reveals. "The bottom line, though, is that it is not their child yet, and even though this is emotional, the birth mother needs a reasonable amount of time to come to grips with this decision."

Ethical adoption is one piece of a pie that includes foster care, a social safety net that supports struggling families, and a commitment to helping parents raise healthy children. Pro-choice organizations such as Backline in Portland, Oregon are opening up space to discuss adoption in all of its facets. No doubt the room created by these activists and parents will shepherd in new understanding of how to support the adoption option that is so glibly proffered by some politicians.

So, can you be a feminist and pro-life? The answer is a resounding "yes." In fact, finding more and better ways to do just that would be, in a word, revolutionary.

To purchase the book, visit

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