abortion – not a victory for feminism

Abortion’s been in the news a bit this week. There’s the Gosnell trial and Tasmania’s bill to legalise abortion passed in the lower house. Now I’m a feminist. Feminists have a bad name among Christians for various reasons, a lot of it has to do with the conflation of feminism with being pro-abortion.

You may be surprised then, when I say that I think that the pro-choice lobby is actually anti-feminist. I’m an anti-abortion feminist. The way I see it, abortion might be a win for individualists, but it’s not a win for feminists.

Let me explain.

Our society is a masculinist or androcentric society. Masculinism is the privileging of masculinity and ‘masculine’ activities over femininity and ‘feminine’ activities. That is, we tend to value the masculine over the feminine (hence mateship, footy, ANZAC).

The thing with being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding is that they’re very feminine activities. Only women do these things. I’m hardly one to essentialise femininity and say all women are ‘x’ or ‘y’, and don’t hear me say that giving birth is what makes women women (because plenty of women don’t). But men simply don’t get pregnant (except Arnie) . In fact, the process of being pregnant and giving birth is probably the most feminine activity in our culture because men can’t do it. And it’s pretty amazing – getting pregnant, making a baby inside your own body is an incredible ability of women’s bodies.


Back to abortion.

When feminists praise abortion as the solution to women’s inequality, I believe they’re selling women short. When abortion is presented as the solution to the injustices and inequalities faced by women it plays into the lie that women only deserve the same treatment and opportunities as men when they become like men. The way you get a qualification, get a job, succeed at your career, whatever, involves not being pregnant. By treating pregnancy as an obstacle to be overcome, women’s bodies and their feminine attributes become the problem. Women’s bodies become the source of women’s inequality. Femininity is to blame. The problem of our society which rewards masculinity and men over femininity and women is ignored and obscured.

I looked at a Melbourne Uni report from 2009 on Women’s Experiences of Unplanned Pregnancy & Abortion59.5% of abortions were women aged 18-29.

In considering their own needs, desires, and capacities, the well-being of potential children, and their responsibility for children and adults already in their lives, these women were making considered decisions to terminate or continue their pregnancies, based on multiple and contingent factors. Each woman assessed her capacity to be a good mother and to provide adequately for the potential child; women thought about their relationships and the man concerned; and those with children considered their needs. some women said explicitly and others implied that their pregnancy occurred at the “wrong time”; had it happened at a more propitious time, they could have continued.

Some of them would have liked to continue the pregnancy but, due to complex social and financial circumstances, felt they could not. But given the circumstances of many in this age-bracket, who could blame them for feeling like they had no real choice? The uni-student who worked hard to get into medicine or law and finds herself pregnant . Even if she could get a childcare spot for the child, the fees were more than her rent and certainly impossible on Youth Allowance. Her course – like many of the most competitive courses – has no flexible or part-time option.  It’s drop out,  give all she’s worked for, or abortion. Is that a choice? The young worker, just starting her career, on a casual or short-term contract. There’s no maternity leave for her. It’s the job or the baby, and how would she care for the baby? Is that a choice? The 20-something who lives in a sharehouse and there’s no way she’d be able to get a rental place on her own in the current market. Move cities to live with her parents, away from work and friends? Or abortion. Is that a choice?

When our masculinist society measures ‘success’ mainly in terms of work and career – no wonder women feel they have no choice but abortion to be ‘successful.’ But the choice is one that erases any trace of femininity, that makes ‘feminine’ activities the barrier to ‘success’. If abortion continues to be the default option for women in these difficult positions, we’ll fail to address the structural issues which make women feel like they have no choice but to abortion. It will seem like the problem is gone, but we’ve just swept it under the rug.

So while many consider abortion to be a feminist victory, I don’t see it as the solution to inequality. Instead, it reinforces our cultural preference for masculinity over femininity.

Instead of making abortion the solution, I want better access, improved efficacy and education about contraception (bring on the male pill too, I say). More importantly, I want a society where being pregnant, or nursing a child is not a ‘disadvantage’. That would mean better childcare options, maternity leave, flexible study options, affordable housing, reversing the casualisation of the workforce (gen Y want jobys!). It would mean a much healthier respect for ‘feminine’ activities of giving birth and caring for children (at the moment we live in a culture where mothers and pregnant women are constant targets of criticism – they can never get it right. How about showing them some respect!).

There’s a role for churches too. Instead of moralising, telling women off and getting into debates about when personhood begins, we could re-focus on supporting mothers, removing any stigma of single motherhood and helping create real life-options. This would take a lot more than just organising a meal roster.

But what about women’s right to choose, to have autonomy? I’m very sympathetic to this argument because I believe women can and should make choices, but as I see it, this is an individualist argument, not a feminist argument. It’s an argument about individuals in a free market with ‘choice’ as the highest good (mistaking ‘choice’ for freedom). Feminism is a movement fighting to give women full opportunities, rights and respect as women, not merely as ‘individuals’. This means undoing our preference for all things masculine, creating a society where ‘feminine’ is not an antonym to ‘successful’.

Here’s more, if you’re interested, Pro-life feminism.

(for the record, I believe abortion should be safe, legal and as rare as possible; that it is never desirable but sometimes is the lesser of many evils; that women, when properly informed, can and should make complex moral decisions for themselves; and finally,  that God is judge, not me, not anyone else)


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