Pro-lifers Go Back to the Roots of Feminism

Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life Views the Abortion Debate

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 5, 2003 ( The U.S. Senate’s vote in March for a ban on partial-birth abortion may signal a growing pro-life trend in the country.

Recently, Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life of America, shared her thoughts with ZENIT on pro-life feminism and on trends in the abortion controversy. Her lecture, «The Feminist Case Against Abortion,» was included in a 2001 book entitled, «Women’s Rights.»

Q: Your name, Feminists for Life, strikes some as contradictory. What do you see as the connection between feminism and being pro-life?

Foster: We are often asked: «How dare you call yourself a feminist?» We proudly continue a legacy of pro-life feminism born more than 200 years ago when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote «A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.» After decrying the sexual exploitation of women, Wollstonecraft condemned those who would «either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born.» Shortly thereafter, abortion became illegal in Great Britain.

The now-revered feminists of the 19th century were also strongly opposed to abortion because of their belief in the worth of all humans. Like many women in developing countries today, the early American feminists opposed abortion.

The early feminists understood that, much like today, women resorted to abortion because they were abandoned or pressured by boyfriends, husbands and parents, and lacked financial resources to have the baby on their own. They knew that women had virtually no rights within the family or the political sphere. But they did not believe abortion was the answer.

Abortion was commonplace in the 1800s. Sarah Norton, the first woman to successfully argue admission to Cornell University in New York state, wrote, «Child murderers practice their profession without let or hindrance, and open infant butcheries unquestioned. Perhaps there will come a time when an unmarried woman will not be despised because of her motherhood, and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with.»

Without known exception, the early American feminists condemned abortion in the strongest possible terms. In Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution, abortion was described as «child murder,» «infanticide» and «foeticide.»

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in 1848 organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, classified abortion as a form of infanticide and said, «When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.» Stanton would raise a flag in front of her home announcing the birth of her children. Women should celebrate their life-giving capacity.

Anti-abortion laws enacted in America during the latter half of the 19th century were the result of advocacy efforts by feminists who worked in an uneasy alliance with the male-dominated medical profession and the mainstream media. Ironically, the anti-abortion laws that early feminists worked so hard to enact to protect women and children were the very ones destroyed by the Roe v. Wade decision 100 years later.

Q: How has feminism, in the wide sense of the word, changed over the years?

Foster: The goals of the 1970s women’s movement, led by the National Organization for Women [NOW], with respect to abortion, would have outraged the early feminists.

What Elizabeth Cady Stanton had called a «disgusting and degrading crime» has been heralded by Eleanor Smeal, former president of NOW and current president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority, as a «most fundamental right.» NOW hailed the legalization of abortion as the «emancipation of women.»

Betty Friedan, credited with reawakening feminism in the 1960s with her landmark book, «The Feminine Mystique,» did not even mention abortion in the book’s early edition. It was not until 1966 that NOW included abortion in its list of goals. Even then abortion was a low priority.

It was a man, abortion proponent Larry Lader, who credits himself with guiding a reluctant Friedan, the first president of NOW, to make abortion a serious issue for the organization. Lader had been working to repeal the abortion laws based on population-growth concerns, but state legislators were horrified by his ideas. Immigration and improved longevity were fueling America’s population growth — not reproduction, which in fact had declined dramatically.

Lader teamed up with a gynecologist, Bernard Nathanson, to co-found the National Alliance to Repeal Abortion Laws, the forerunner of today’s National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League [NARAL]. Lader suggested to the NOW leadership that all feminist demands — equal education, jobs, pay, etc. — hinged on a woman’s ability to control both her own body and procreation.

After all, Lader argued, employers did not want to pay for maternity benefits or lose productivity when a mother took time off to care for a newborn or sick child. Lader successfully convinced the NOW leadership that legalized abortion was the key to equality in the workplace.

Dr. Nathanson, who later became a pro-life activist, states in his 1979 book, «Aborting America,» that the two were able to convince Friedan that abortion was a civil rights issue, and claimed that tens of thousands of women died each year from abortion. Nathanson later admitted that in order to gain Friedan’s support, they had simply made up the numbers — a major point in their argument.

Lader’s and Nathanson’s strategy was highly effective. NOW has made the preservation of legal abortion its No. 1 priority. Its literature repeatedly states that access to abortion is «the most fundamental right of women, without which all other rights are meaningless.» With this drastic change, a highly visible faction of the women’s movement abandoned the vision of the early feminists: a world where women would be accepted and respected as women.

Q: Where do you fit in with the bulk of feminists today?

Foster: While we agree on many things — fighting sexual assault, domestic violence, and workplace discrimination, etc. — we are at odds with those who believe that abortion is a «right» or «necessary evil» to achieve equality in the workplace.

The basic tenets of feminism are nonviolence, nondiscrimination and justice for all. Abortion violates all three. Abortion is discrimination based on age, size, location, and sometimes gender, disability or parentage. As pro-life feminists, our values are woman-centered and inclusive of both parents and child.

Abortion has hurt women in that it has diverted feminist attention from other issues, particularly those that help mothers, such as affordable child care, comprehensive health care and a living wage.

Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.

We support nonviolent choices, practical resources and support for pregnant and parenting women.

Abortion advocates pit women against our own children. Babies are not obstacles to success! We should refuse to choose between giving up our education and career plans and sacrificing our children. Feminists for Life is committed to finding holistic solutions that address the root causes that contribute to abortion. FFL believes that women have a right to be women in the workplace and school. Women shouldn’t have to pass as men.

As FFL’s honorary chair, two-time Emmy winner and New York Times best-selling author Patricia Heaton has said, «Women facing an unplanned pregnancy also deserve unplanned joy.»

[Tomorrow: Redirecting the abortion debate.]

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