Jezebel ran an article the other day called There is no such thing as a ‘pro-life feminist’. Tracie’s article is written into an American context where the discussion around abortion is much more heated and political than here in Australia. Even so, abortion is a big issue for women who claim to be both feminist and Christian (like, say, me!) and it’s worth addressing.
I imagine this will be an important issue for us in Tanzania as well. It was last time we were there. Some people felt it was good and normal to have many children (>8). Others felt that it was irresponsible and it was better to just have 1 or 2 and give them a better life and access to education.
Here are 7 points that outline my thinking on the issue:
1. I have little patience with the feminist idea that you can’t ever tell a woman what to do with her body. That might work from a western worldview which is individualistic but it will struggle in any culture that has a more collective identity. Actually, it will struggle in a western culture as well. Society is built on consensus and agreement. That’s why there are laws against public nudity, for example. I’m not saying women shouldn’t have a choice, just that individual choice isn’t necessarily ultimate.
2. Even though I think we as a society should be able to legislate about abortion, I think that men need to be very careful about entering the discussion. No man will ever be pregnant and facing the possibilities and limitations that that brings. He needs an enormous amount of empathy to even consider entering the discussion and he’s gotta be outstanding at communicating that.
3. It’s a nonsense to speak of a woman’s body separate from the foetus’ body. My own experience of pregnancy was of experiencing debilitating illness for 7 months as a result of the life growing within me. That life couldn’t live on its own and its life had a considerable impact on me. I don’t think we were the same life but we were entwined in a unique way. That should automatically give us pause before considering analogies of abortion to murder.
4. Nevertheless, I think we need to do all we can to be positive towards all human life, including a foetus. I think our attitude ought to be one of wonder at new life and there ought to be some grief that things are not always like that. While the language of ‘killing babies’ is unfair and one-dimensional, the language of ‘just a cluster of cells’ is inadequate.
5. There is room within feminism for a discussion about how to treat a foetus. For decades now, feminists have had little interest in becoming the ‘new oppressors’, that is, trampling over marginalised others in order to achieve ‘women’s rights’. That doesn’t mean we start talking about the ‘rights’ of the foetus but it opens up an ethical question beyond ‘does the woman want an abortion?’ There is need for sobriety in this discussion, and shades of grey.
6. Time and again, we have seen that making abortion illegal does nothing for decreasing the number of abortions. However, it does increase the number of injuries and deaths among women as women seek alternate and often very dangerous means of obtaining a termination. Even if you think abortions are wrong, you won’t protect human life (either the foetus or the woman) them by banning them. There’s a Christian concept called a retrieval ethic which looks at a difficult situation and how to ‘retrieve’ at least as much good as possible out of a messy situation. In a fallen world, we ought to be prepared to consider this approach.
7. There’s a myth that legalising abortion allows women to be cavalier about ending a pregnancy. Perhaps for some women. For many though, abortion is driven by desperation – whether because of family pressure, economic reasons or some other circumstance. In the Jezebel article, Tracie gets annoyed at pro-life feminists because they’re only interested in the pro-life bit, not the feminist bit. I share this frustration. There’s not a lot of integrity to claiming a title (feminist) you have no intention of pursuing. But more importantly, raising women’s quality of life may well bring many to the point where abortions are less necessary. If you want to be a pro-life feminist, the two must go hand in hand.
So where does that leave me? I want to be positive to all human life, both the woman and the foetus. That means I’m against abortion in most cases. But I’m not against legal abortions, in fact, I support them. Because, while legalising abortion by and large doesn’t affect the number of abortions, it dramatically affects the life and health of women. Are legal abortions ideal? No. Doing so may also mean counselling services available to women who have had abortions.
In the meantime, let’s work towards greater economic and social wholeness for women. I want to employ a Christian retrieval ethic, while at the same time working for a better day.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.