Can you be Pro-life and a Feminist?

Here is an article I recently wrote on the problem of the University of Bristol’s Pro-life Feminist society in calling themselves a ‘feminist’ group.

Ellie Pendry discusses Bristol University’s ‘Pro-Life Feminist’ society and the problem with their use of the word feminism. Content warning: abortion, rape

There has been a lot of recent controversy surrounding the emergence of the University of Exeter  society ‘Students for Life’ who ‘promote and encourage a culture of life’ and are anti-abortion. 

Many took to Instagram, berating Students for Life for disregarding women’s reproductive rights. What I certainly did not realise, though, is that the University of Bristol (amongst nearly all other Russell Group universities) has its own pro-life society, the ‘Pro-Life Feminist’ society. Their ethos is ‘to protect the dignity of all human life from conception until natural death’ so they are also, by nature, anti-abortion. 

Pro-choice, on the other hand, does not mean the enforcing of abortions for every pregnant woman. Pro-choice simply means, as a pregnant woman, you are given the choice of whether to abort the pregnancy or not. 

Pregnancy and the right to an abortion is an issue for those who are able to get pregnant/were born biological women (or intersex). The right to have an abortion aligns with an equal-rights or feminist stance because it levels the playing field, helping women to be more equal to biological men.

Abortion is therefore a human right; it is troubling to know that fundamental human rights are ever up for debate.

Artwork by Millie Elson

To better understand the issue, we need to evaluate the evidence for why the pro-life movement claims to be pro-women. They would argue that: 

The language used here – that there are alternatives to abortion that are better, or that women turn to abortion frustrated at likely consequences for education and career if they don’t – engenders a sense that abortion is negatively stigmatised. It is portrayed as an evil or shameful secret – a sin or murder. 

What the pro-life argument fails to realise is that they themselves create a hostile culture by being dogmatic over women’s fertility choices. A society which is hostile to women’s fertility choices includes being hostile to women choosing to have an abortion. 

Conflating pro-life with feminism is problematic because through a dogmatic discourse of firmly pro-life, you are only really open to supporting one group of women: those who choose to keep their child. It is true that pro-lifers often offer support for expectant mothers (and those who have been through abortions) and this is great. However, looking after people does not mean that you are supportive of the decisions they make.

What’s more, banning abortions will not stop abortions from happening. It will only stop SAFE abortions from happening. Check out this post from Bristol’s Pro-Life Feminist Society… slightly ironic? 

The dangers of DIY abortions are vast, I’m sure, but if anything pro-life promotes a hostile culture whereby DIY abortions would be the only option. What is worrying about pro-life and banning abortion is the danger so many women will be in if abortion is banned. How far can the pro-life argument go? Whose deaths are we responsible for preventing as a society? Is being on birth-control technically considered murder because it is preventing new life from forming? 

When tackling pro-life and feminism together, the two seem to act as a juxtaposition; it can be difficult to see how pro-life aligns with feminism when the by-product of a pro-life view is the elimination of women’s reproductive rights. 

‘Feminism’ is equally an easy word to hide behind. It is not enough to say you care for women when this means removing their fundamental rights; masquerading under the ‘right for life’ moniker, pro-lifers insinuate that women don’t know what’s best for them. 

Consider if a woman were to fall pregnant through rape, for example. This woman has not only been sexually-assaulted but is now also carrying the child of her rapist. Those who are pro-life would say that despite this woman going through a traumatic experience, for her to terminate the pregnancy would be as heinous a crime as that of the man who raped her.  

In this instance, the pro-life stance puts the needs of the unborn child before those of the woman – a living human being. The BBC’s ethics section summarised this problem well: ‘we should regard the woman as a person and not just a container for the foetus’Pro-life appears to reduce the woman to a mere reproductive vessel.

The difference is, whilst pro-choice advocates favour bodily autonomy in their definition of feminism, pro-life favour the right to life in theirs. Surely, though, a word’s definition shouldn’t be up for debate – having a definition of feminism (a movement that impacts literally everyone on the planet) that is up for interpretation or perceived as subjective, interchangeable, or malleable is incredibly harmful.

At the end of the day, pro-life and pro-choice are fundamentally different. It is hard to think they could ever see eye-to-eye when they both are rooted in totally opposing ideologies, even if they are allegedly working towards a common goal – supporting women and pertaining to feminism. 

Although abortion might not always be an easy choice to make, it is one that developments in society have enabled women to have, should they decide if it’s right for them. It is a fundamental right for women to make an informed choice about their future. 

If you’re against abortion… don’t have one! But don’t impose your views upon those who have or will choose to. It undermines the reproductive rights that women have fought so hard for, and it propagates a society in which women feel unsafe and unsupported. 

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