One of the reasons that the conversation about abortion is so polarizing in the United States is because it pits two competing rights claims against each other – women’s rights versus fetal rights. And in that battle between fetal rights and women’s rights, pro-life advocates appear to have nothing to offer the women’s rights cause. They may claim to be “pro-woman, pro-child” and to “love them both,” but the reproductive rights movement is highly skeptical.
This skepticism is likely to only increase if Roe v. Wade is overturned. “When the right to abortion is endangered, the fundamental equality of women is threatened,” NARAL Pro-Choice America declares on its website. “A woman can never be equal if she is denied the basic right to make decisions for herself and her family.”
How can pro-life advocates respond to this? Is the pro-life movement inherently opposed to women’s rights, as the reproductive rights movement claims? Or can the pro-life movement do something to advance women’s rights after the end of Roe?
Different Assumptions about What Constitutes Women’s Rights
Although reproductive rights advocates often believe that the pro-life movement is opposed to women’s rights, it would be more accurate to say that the pro-life movement’s vision of women’s rights is different from the one associated with the reproductive rights movement. It is true that the pro-life movement rejects the fundamental women’s rights claim that the reproductive rights movement commonly makes – that women have a fundamental right to control their own bodies, including the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. This claim is grounded in the views of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the pro-life movement has incurred the opposition of numerous second-wave feminists by rejecting it.
But pro-life advocates have always held a different view of what constitutes women’s rights – a view that is derived not from second-wave feminism but from an early-twentieth-century feminism of difference that argued for governmental protections for mothers. Pro-choice feminists of the late twentieth century often focused on achieving equality with men, but pro-life difference feminists argued that women’s biological differences from men meant that women could best achieve their maximum potential by being empowered in the area where women’s difference from men was most obvious – pregnancy and motherhood. In the early 1980s, sociologist Kristin Luker discovered that perhaps the greatest difference between pro-life and pro-choice advocates was their attitude toward motherhood. Pro-choice advocates considered unplanned and unchosen motherhood a great intrusion on a woman’s life and therefore a great tragedy, while pro-life advocates viewed motherhood as a great blessing, even if it might be unplanned and might be personally costly for a woman.
Abortion, they said, was an attack on women, because it robbed women of their children and facilitated the continued sexual exploitation of women by refusing to hold men responsible for caring for their offspring. Combining a feminism of difference with a general sexual conservatism, the pro-life feminists advanced an alternative vision for promoting women’s well-being that took issue with the culture of pornography, abortion, and sexual exploitation. “The idea is that a man can use a woman, vacuum her out, and she’s ready to be used again,” pro-life feminist Juli Loesch said. “It’s like a rent-a-car or something.”
But if motherhood even in crisis pregnancies was something to be celebrated rather than dreaded, it would make sense for pro-life advocates to work not only for legislation restricting abortion but for legislation protecting working mothers, just as early twentieth-century women’s rights advocates did. And indeed, this is what some pro-life advocates of the early 1970s wanted. Perhaps there should be disability insurance to provide financial resources for women who chose to carry a pregnancy to term even though their child had severe fetal deformities. Perhaps there should be expanded maternal and prenatal health insurance, some pro-life organizations said.
A Pro-Life Feminism of Difference and Social Obligations
Pro-life advocates had a theological basis for this advocacy: the Catholic theology of mutual obligations instead of individual autonomy. As the Catholic pro-life philosophy professor Francis Beckwith wrote, “Human beings are persons-in-community and have certain natural obligations as members of their community that arise from their roles as mother, father, citizen, child, and so on.”
This view of natural social obligations, which was widely shared (perhaps even near-universally shared) in the pro-life movement of the 1970s, objected not only to the individualism of the pro-choice movement but to the individualism of the sexual revolution and, indeed, of much of modern American culture. Indeed, it was this same rejection of autonomous individualism that made the idea that human personhood began with conception, long before a brain or other complex organs were formed, easy to accept. If a person was not defined by self-autonomy, the fact that a person was fully dependent on another human being (as a fetus, of course, is) did not make them any less of a human being. Nor did a person become less of a human being if they lost certain brain functions or if they, as a zygote or embryo, were still waiting for those brain functions to develop.
This concept of mutual obligations and concern for the protection of all people’s well-being offers the basis for pro-life advocates to offer an alternative vision of women’s rights. Instead of autonomous individualism or an acceptance of the assumptions of the sexual revolution, the pro-life movement can instead offer a vision of human flourishing that includes a social obligation to provide the economic and healthcare structures for women to become mothers and care for their children while also empowering them to pursue their career goals and life plans. Pro-lifers, in short, can show by their actions that pregnancy and parenthood, even when they are unplanned and occur in crisis situations, do not have to be the debilitating, soul-crushing interruptions that reproductive rights advocates sometimes imagine.
As I have argued elsewhere, this vision is actually more in line with the values of the low-income women who currently have most abortions than the philosophy of the pro-choice movement is. A majority of women who have abortions today are already mothers of at least one child. Most are unmarried and poor. Their choice to have an abortion is not an effort to escape motherhood but is instead often an act of desperation because of their perception that they lack the resources to welcome another child into their home. Pro-lifers could offer an alternative vision for women’s empowerment that gives these women real opportunities through government-funded childcare, college, healthcare, and job security. Some pro-lifers have offered this vision, especially in the early 1970s. But today most pro-life activists have instead embraced another political vision.
The Individualism of Contemporary Pro-Life Advocates
The pro-life campaign of the early 1970s was grounded in Catholic social teaching, which attempted to replace an individualistic rights-based framework with a theology of social obligation. Many pro-lifers who believed in a consistent life ethic denounced the Vietnam War and advocated for expanded healthcare and antipoverty initiatives. But their fundamental claim – that the fetus was a human person and that if it is wrong to kill an innocent human life, it’s wrong to kill the fetus – was an individualistic rights-based claim that resonated with people who did not share Catholic social teaching’s vision of mutual social obligations but who did share a positive view of pregnancy (whether planned or unplanned), an opposition to the sexual revolution, and a strong belief in gender differences. White evangelicals (especially in the South) may have been the most individualistic (and generally most politically conservative) group of Christians in the United States, and when they joined the pro-life cause in the late 1970s and 1980s, they gave significantly less emphasis to the theology of mutual obligation and more emphasis to the politics of personal responsibility.
A minority of pro-life evangelicals continued to advocate for a theology of social responsibility, as Ronald J. Sider did in the 1980s and as Tish Harrison Warren did this month in the New York Times. But in much of the country today, it’s more common to see pro-life evangelicals couple their antiabortion statements with support for gun rights than it is to see them advocate for an expanded social safety net for pregnant women. So, what is their moral reasoning?
Politically conservative pro-life advocates today tend to think of rights in individual and absolute terms. Rights, for conservatives, are almost always negative rights – that is, a right to be protected from something rather than a right to receive something. If the fetus is a person, it has the inviolable right not to be killed. Its mother, however, does not have the right to receive Medicaid assistance from the state to allow her to provide better care to her unborn infant. Women have the right to choose not to be pregnant before they get pregnant, but once they become pregnant, there is no right, whether in the Constitution or elsewhere, that gives them the right to kill an innocent human being living within them. Women do not have the right to gender equality in the abstract sense; they have the right to equal treatment under the law, but they do not have the right to achieve equal outcomes with anyone, because equality in that sense is not a right that anyone has. Nor is it something that the state should work to achieve. In the long term, they believe, personal responsibility, private charity, and free enterprise can do far more to reduce poverty than state welfare programs ever can.
Contemporary pro-life advocates believe that they are advancing women’s rights by shutting down abortion clinics that they think exploit women. But because their vision of rights does not include anything beyond individual negative rights, low-income women who face crisis pregnancies in states that restrict abortion without expanding Medicaid or other social welfare provisions will probably end up poorer than they already were – either because they pay to leave the state to access abortion elsewhere or because they give birth to a child and have to pay for its food and healthcare with minimal assistance from the state.
What Is the Solution?
Seven years ago, the Catholic pro-life ethicist Charles Camosy argued that restrictions on abortion need to be coupled with stronger defenses of women’s economic opportunities and expanded governmental support for working mothers if the pro-life movement was to have any credibility with its opponents. He believed that a compromise between the two sides could be worked out if pro-life advocates would devote just as much emphasis on advancing women’s economic opportunities as they did on behalf of fetal rights. Camosy is not alone in holding this position, but nevertheless his view is a minority position in the pro-life movement today, because it is out of step with the conservative evangelical Republican politics that have come to dominate the pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement would likely have a much higher chance of reducing the abortion rate, advancing women’s opportunities and equality, and convincing its opponents of its sincerity if it now focused at least as much of its effort on expanding the social safety net and empowering women as it has on legally restricting abortion. However, in view of the current religious, regional, and political demographics of the movement, that’s highly unlikely.
What is more likely, I think, is that by joining themselves to a political ideology that is anathema to a significant section of the electorate, the pro-life movement is likely to settle for regional influence at the expense of national scorn. Though free to drastically restrict abortion in the Deep South and a few other Republican states, the pro-life movement is likely to have less influence than ever in more progressive states that will point to the examples of states such as Mississippi as places where low-income women are becoming even poorer and where maternal life expectancy is lower than other parts of the country.
This doesn’t have to happen, because pro-lifers are not opposed to women’s rights. Pro-lifers have historically held to a feminism of difference that is grounded in a deep historical tradition and that has appealed to numerous women. When abortion restrictions in conservative states lead to the further impoverishment of low-income women, it will not be because of an inherent misogyny in the pro-life movement or because of the failure of its historical approach to women’s rights. It will instead be because the conservatives who enact abortion restrictions this year have abandoned that approach and have instead adopted an individualistic view of rights that may share the historic pro-life movement’s defense of fetal rights but has completely abandoned other aspects of the early pro-life movement’s social vision.