Tanya Davies in front of the NSW State Parliament
It is profoundly ironic that the new New South Wales Minister for Women, Tanya Davies – an unquestionably qualified, intelligent and compassionate female MP – has been deemed unacceptable by some feminists. Why? According to Sydney Morning Herald columnist Jenny Noyes, it is because she is “personally pro-life”.
As any study of feminist history makes clear, the great founding mothers of the feminist movement – from Mary Wollstonecraft to Alice Paul and Sylvia Pankhurst – were overwhelmingly and passionately pro-life. They recognised that the violence of abortion is a tragic symptom of women’s oppression.
The insistence of some contemporary feminists that any deviation from pro-choice orthodoxy disqualifies a woman from representing and serving her sisters is deeply unfair. Instead of embracing the historic roots of feminism which cherished life, these feminists drive supportive, pro-life women – including many women of faith and diverse cultural backgrounds – away. As Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, has pointed out, “The myth that to be a feminist is to be pro-choice has forced many women to resign from the name of feminism, to settle back bruised into the silence of the margins”.
The insistence that abortion is an unconditional “right” and a positive good for women does not reflect the intuition and experience of many women. However women may feel about the lawfulness of abortion, the quiet majority recognise it as the tragic ending of a baby’s life in difficult and painful circumstances, not something to be promoted or celebrated.
Abortion has touched, and continues to touch, many women in our community. Women facing an unplanned pregnancy need empathy and support, not condemnation. But our state’s abortion laws are not used to condemn, prosecute or punish women. These laws deter illegal and dangerous abortionists from plying their gruesome “trade” and injuring women who are vulnerable.
These laws express our values and aspirations as a civilised community to oppose the taking of innocent human life and to discourage abortion as far as possible. They play a vital role in encouraging greater respect and support for the life and dignity of both the woman and her unborn child.
On this question of retaining our abortion laws, Tanya Davies is far more in touch with her female constituents’ views than her pro-choice detractors. A survey published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2010 showed that almost 9 in 10 Australians support at least some legal limitations on the practice of abortion, particularly when an unborn child is capable of being born alive. The idea that supporting unrestricted abortion up to the moment of birth is a necessary part of feminism is for many women a horrifying perversion of a movement founded on principles of human dignity, solidarity and non-violence.
Many of us know women who have suffered as a result of abortion and a choice they felt they were compelled to make. Instinctively, we know that abortion represents our collective failure to meet the needs of women.
Our society should be one which refuses to make a woman choose between her life and the life of her unborn child.
Deep down, we know that human life is precious and that when we can find no way forward other than to silence a beating heart, this act of desperation and hopelessness is an indictment of us all.
The great and enduring struggle of feminism has always been and continues to be to ensure that every woman, born and unborn, is accorded the full dignity and respect she is owed from the very beginning of her life to the very end. Real feminism insists on non-violence and respect for all; it does not believe that some lives must be unlived in order that women may live fully.
Some of the world’s most distinguished and influential female leaders, past and present – including Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and the late Benazir Bhutto – are pro-life. As none other than Hillary Clinton affirmed on ABC America’s The View during last year’s US presidential campaign, “of course you can be a feminist and be pro-life.”
Far from disqualifying her from public office as Minister for Women, Tanya Davies’ pro-life beliefs strengthen her credibility to be a strong advocate for the women of New South Wales. She stands in the proud company of a sisterhood who believe women deserve better than abortion and that a woman’s livelihood, security and significance should never be made to depend upon sacrificing the life she bears inside her.
Mary Joseph is a Project Officer at the Life, Marriage and Family Centre in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.