When the organizers of last January’s Women’s March opted to exclude the pro-life New Wave Feminists from the event’s official list of sponsors, they brought renewed attention to one of the strangest fault lines in American politics. The fact that unborn children have been demoted to just one “interest group” among many and now require an army of well-staffed organizations merely to defend their right to live is uncanny enough; the fact that their opponents in this cause include groups claiming to speak for the interests of mothers is darkly absurd.
Before the final call was made to oust the pro-lifers from the Women’s March roster, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti urged the event organizers to throw them out, saying, “Inclusivity is not about bolstering those who harm us.” Valenti’s language was evasive, but her message is clear. Like all pro-choice feminists, she suggests that defending a right to life for the unborn causes “harm” to women — a claim that casts reluctant mothers and their children as two opposing camps, and demands that we pick a side.
Even as Planned Parenthood and the other beneficiaries of this split work to keep the chasm as wide as possible, pro-life groups across the country have made it a priority to bridge the supposed gap between the needs of pregnant women and the rights of their children. Perhaps no group does this more explicitly than Feminists for Life (FFL), an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va. Founded in 1972, months before the Roe v. Wade decision spurred decades’ worth of legal challenges to abortion, FFL is specifically committed to providing the “practical resources and support” that the group believes can put abortion far from the minds of conflicted pregnant women in the first place.
Last Thursday, FFL’s longtime president, Serrin M. Foster, addressed a crowd at Saint John Nepomucene Catholic Church in New York City to share her organization’s no-compromise approach with the upcoming generation of pro-life advocates. The event was organized by the Human Life Review (HLR) — a journal that publishes scholarly essays in defense of life at every stage — and by EXPECT, a new HLR initiative aimed at fostering dialogue among young adults.
Foster pointed out just how much of an anomaly it is that the causes of women’s advancement and rights for the unborn, which were long understood to be mutually reinforcing, conflict with each other in today’s political climate.
“Without known exception, the early feminists condemned abortion in no uncertain terms,” she explained, citing the belief of the American Equal Rights Association, founded in 1866, that legitimate progress for women could never be bought at the expense of innocent life. Rather than believing that complete autonomy ought to be the end goal of feminism, AERA’s founder, Susan B. Anthony, sought — in her own words — to “bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them.”
Nearly a century later, now that most feminists have dispensed with pro-life principles in what Foster calls a “betrayal,” FFL maintains Anthony’s vision for the movement: taking a nonnegotiable stance on life, while striving to serve women’s needs in a way that minimizes the attraction of abortion as an option. That second half of the deal — providing resources and support for expectant mothers — is more than an aspirational vision for FFL.
At the event last week, Foster recounted some of the legislative accomplishments that FFL had secured in behalf of needy women and their children. “During the Obama administration, we asked for [the State Children’s Health Insurance Program] to cover pregnant women,” she recalled, explaining that the group advocated the expanded benefit that President Obama eventually signed into law in 2009. It was also the only pro-life organization to publicly challenge the “family cap” originally proposed in the 1996 welfare-reform act, and it has successfully lobbied for the funding of pro-life counseling on college campuses.
Although FFL is likely the group most explicitly aimed at serving women’s needs and the pro-life cause at the same time, pro-life groups across the nation have a similar mission of service. Attending the EXPECT event, for example, were many members of the Sisters of Life, an order of Catholic nuns who host pregnant women in their Manhattan convent and make on-demand visits to women in need.
On a larger scale, Catholic Charities provided adoption services for more than 18,000 people in 2015 alone. Services such as these, provided for women throughout the entire process of gestation and often for months after childbirth, demonstrate a deeper and more abiding empathy for mothers than the brazen denial of motherhood that abortion advocates offer as an alternative.
Throughout her remarks, Foster avoided directly condemning women who had chosen abortion; her words expressed sympathy for expectant mothers in difficult situations, rather than scorn for those who had made the wrong decision. Her anger toward another group, however, was palpable — that is, for the divide-and-conquer feminists who claim to serve the interests of women while pitting mother against child.
As monstrous as it is, the claim that one cannot respect the dignity of women without denying that of unborn children has lingered for long enough to have been taken up by many Americans as an obvious conclusion. Feminists for Life — and every pro-life group that combines an unyielding defense of unborn children with a commitment to serving the needs of their mothers — has worked to disprove that claim with their deeds, gradually mending the most unnatural rift in the entire body of American politics.
– Mene Ukueberuwa is the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at The New Criterion.