Last week, Daily Life published an article by Ruby Hamad entitled, “Hillary Clinton is wrong: You cannot be a feminist and ‘pro-life’.”
I beg to differ.
I originally sent this piece to Daily Life in the hope of engaging with Hamad on this important women’s issue, but the response I received was: “unfortunately it’s not quite right for us.” This lack of openness to dialogue is disappointing from a news publication.
I am passionate about women’s rights and achieving equality for women in all areas of life. But I am also passionate about human rights, starting with the inherent dignity and right to life of all human beings, no matter their age, capabilities, sex, race and so on. I could not be pro-women and pro-women’s rights if I were not first pro-human and pro-human rights.
Hamad’s reasons for why one cannot be a feminist and pro-life essentially boil down to four myths.
Myth #1: The pro-life movement aims to control the lives and bodies of women.
Hamad maintains that feminism is about women’s liberation and thus entails the freedom of women to control their own bodies. She asserts that this includes the freedom to decide when and if she should reproduce and the choice to have an abortion if she does not so wish. According to Hamad, one cannot therefore be a feminist without supporting the right of women to make their own choice as to whether or not to have an abortion.
Our culture’s obsession with autonomy often means that choice is heralded as one of the greatest goods or even a right, often with little regard for what is being chosen. However, choice is not a good in itself. It is essential to consider what is being chosen.
Even if one agrees that liberation is the characterising feature of feminism – though I believe it is much more than this – abortion involves a woman deciding to do something not just with “her own body” but with another small body, a new human being, her unborn child. This is a biological reality, not a moral opinion. In 50% of cases this “choice” involves ending the life of another female and depriving her of every future choice (more than 50% if one considers the prevalence of sex-selective abortion).
The choice to have an abortion also puts women at risk of both physical and psychological harm (this is the focus of the recent documentary Hush). Risks of physical harm include increased risk of breast cancer, future preterm births and miscarriages, and other physical complications such as infection, haemorrhaging and cervical and uterine damage. Risks of psychological harm include depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders, with women who have abortions being 30% more likely to suffer from mental health problems than other women. Such harms are often not disclosed to women – a practice that is patently anti-feminist.
It is due to these harms of abortion that I am pro-life – not because I want to control women’s lives and bodies – and why I cannot, as a feminist, support abortion as a “choice.”
Myth #2: The pro-life movement wants to ban abortion, which would endanger women by driving abortion underground and causing them to risk their lives to get one.
While the first part of this statement is true, the second part is not. The claim that prohibiting abortion would lead to women dying in illegal, backstreet abortions is emotionally powerful, but is not supported by the facts.
As Dr David van Gend notes, “making abortion legal or illegal has never, historically, made the slightest detectable difference to the safety of women” and this is because “medicine alone, not the law, has achieved all the magnificent gains in maternal safety.” Van Gend explains that this is demonstrated by “the death rate for illegal abortion [plummeting] from about 100 deaths every year in the 1930s (before antibiotics) to just one death in the whole of Australia in 1969 (the last year of the old ‘backyard’ regime) – before there was a single ‘legal’ clinic anywhere in the country.” The decline in mortality was “thanks to medical advances alone, with the legal status of abortion unchanged and irrelevant.”
Any future prohibition of abortion would come about through the democratic process and would not necessarily criminalise women. The aim of the pro-life movement – and of pro-life feminists in particular – is not to make life more difficult for women but to encourage a public culture which enables women troubled by a pregnancy to find support and life-affirming solutions.
Myth #3: The pro-life movement is rooted in a worldview founded on an explicit acceptance of rigid gender roles, in which a woman’s primary purpose is motherhood and homemaking.
The suggestion that being pro-life entails the “acceptance of rigid gender roles” in which “a woman’s primary purpose is motherhood and homemaking” is a gross generalisation and one with which I, as a pro-life feminist, take issue for two reasons.
Firstly, if this were the case, it would mean that I, as a single woman without children or a home to manage, would be resigned to the belief that I am miserably failing at life. I do not believe this. Not even close.
Secondly, implicit in this suggestion is the idea that motherhood and homemaking are somehow inferior to other pursuits – like, say, a professional career. Such insinuations belittle the lives and work (and motherhood is work) of millions of women, as well as the efforts of many feminists to ensure that women are free to choose – without judgement – either a professional career, or the career of being a mother, or both.
Myth #4: The pro-life movement sees pregnant women as always secondary to the embryos and foetuses they carry.
Those who are pro-life do not see women as secondary to the unborn children they carry, but rather see both as human beings who are equal in dignity and rights, with the most fundamental right being the right to life.
Abortion is a fraught issue, but it is false to claim that one cannot be both a feminist and pro-life. Rather, the harms posed by abortion to women and unborn baby girls mean that it is entirely compatible to be both.
Rachael Wong is a barrister from New Zealand who has recently completed a Master of Bioethics and Health Law from the University of Otago. She is currently working with the Law Reform Commission in Samoa to bring about legislative reform to improve the lives of Samoan women and girls, particularly in the areas of domestic violence and women’s participation in public and political life. She has previously worked with organisations that seek to eliminate sexual exploitation of women and children and has provided pro bono legal assistance to women facing crisis pregnancies.
This article was first published on the ABC (Australia) and is republished here with permission. MercatorNet notes that when Rachael Wong posted the ABC op-ed on her Facebook page yesterday it was removed. Free speech? Anyone?