There’s No Such Thing As a Pro-Life Feminist

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The right to abortion looks fragile ahead of a pivotal Supreme Court hearing. On Wednesday, justices will hear arguments on Mississippi’s abortion law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before a fetus becomes viable. If the court rules in favor of the law, effectively overruling Roe v. Wade, then other Republican states would likely do the same. Abortion may become inaccessible for all but the wealthiest, who can afford to travel to friendlier territories. With Roe in such peril, and the rights of millions at stake, it’s striking to read the following plea in the New York Times: “We need to broaden the tent of feminism,” wrote Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest. “If, in order to be a feminist, one cannot simply be against the oppression of women but also must affirm abortion or other left-of-center causes, then feminism does not actually exist as a movement. It is merely pro-choice progressivism marketed for ladies.”

This is an old argument, adopted by women who oppose abortion but embrace their personal empowerment. In Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court’s most recent addition, they see a version of themselves. Raised to the heights of her profession through her intellectual gifts and her commitment to right-wing politics, Coney Barrett is in position now to do what many have long desired. She could help strike down Roe, or at least make it feeble. “The accusations that Barrett is merely a tool of the patriarchy are absurd,” Harrison Warren wrote. Coney Barrett might be more than a tool of the patriarchy, but she’s poised to be that, too.

In her defense of Coney Barrett, in her own claim to a feminist identity, Harrison Warren has invoked a deeper question: Who is a feminist, really? It’s possible to guess at her answer. In her piece for the Times, she quoted a former professor of hers: “A feminist is someone who thinks women have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed, and that that is wrong.” Around this simple definition, conservative women like Harrison Warren construct a philosophy not so distinct from self-help pabulum. Feminism is for them. It is not for the low-income woman who will be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. It is not for the teenage girl considering a dangerous back-alley abortion. It is not, in short, for the collective good of all who can become pregnant, and it is thus incompatible with any recognizable notion of liberation.

The belief that women are historically and presently oppressed only brings a person so far from the most explicit anti-feminism held by the right. Such a belief acknowledges only the most basic reality; it’s not developed enough to support a more robust philosophy, or to offer any sensible political remedies for the problem it has identified. Harrison Warren, then, has inadvertently done feminists a favor. Her argument is notable for appearing in the Times, but it’s not unique to her. It is in fact relatively common among anti-abortion women interested in their personal and professional advancement. It also illustrates rather neatly why there can be no middle ground on the subject of the abortion.

Years ago, I held a view similar to that of Harrison Warren. But I couldn’t hold it for very long. I can identify precisely the moment the scales first began to fall away, when I was 13 and I was listening to a Sunday school teacher explain the evils of abortion. He was so vehement, and his language so colorful, and still I wondered if he could possibly believe anything he was telling us. If abortion murders the innocent, it’s the greatest evil of the age. What wouldn’t a person do to stop such evil from taking place? Yet here was this teacher, who’d chosen to lecture children in the safety of his church and took no drastic action on behalf of his beliefs. As I grew, so did my doubts: So radical was the rhetoric used around me that I learned it could justify anything short of murder. A person could lie, as crisis pregnancy centers often do to women. Abortion exceptions for rape and incest made no sense. Murder is murder, even if harrowing circumstances preceded it.

The final blow occurred in college. I could no longer deny my own bodily autonomy. That argument, I’ve found, is one pro-lifers tend to ignore, and indeed, Harrison Warren’s piece is no different in this regard. I became persuaded that my body belonged to me, that I was sovereign over it, that nothing should make use of it without my permission. And if I felt this way about myself, how could I deny the same power to others? Women had been and were still oppressed. Should the state force them to incubate children against their will, they could never be equal citizens. That is what the anti-abortion movement argues: The body of a fetus, even before viability, takes precedence over that of the person who bears it. There is a violence here, buried in even the most enlightened-sounding rhetoric. For all the anti-abortion movement tries to sell its commitment to the well-being of women, its beliefs, when reduced to their most basic elements, are undeniably misogynistic.

Most people recognize this on some level. Americans overwhelmingly want to keep Roe in place, and it’s Roe the Mississippi law seeks to destroy. Harrison Warren acknowledged as much. “Some predict that it will be the end of Roe v. Wade,” she wrote. “Should that indeed be the case, those of us who view abortion as the ending of a human life will celebrate the decision as a triumph of justice and a protection for the most vulnerable.” That view won’t be universal, she admitted. “Others will see it as an encroachment on the rights of women,” she added, a dismissive sentence that rather undersells the “encroachment” at hand. In the process, she undermines the very argument she’s trying to legitimize. To borrow a scriptural analogy, the anti-abortion movement is a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour. Appeasement is not possible. Admit anti-abortion women to the tent, and feminists might as well set it on fire.

There’s No Such Thing As a Pro-Life Feminist