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Sherry F. Colb

Feminists For Life and the Hard Questions It Must Confront


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Last week, Karen Shablin, a spokesperson for Feminists For Life ("FFL"), gave a lecture at Cornell, at an event sponsored by the Cornell Coalition for Life ("CCL"). Her speech was passionate and eloquent and highlighted some important shortcomings in the status quo with respect to reproductive choice. As important as what Shablin said in her speech, however, is what she refused to say – that contraception has an important role to play in empowering women. This omission – one that Shablin explicitly attributed to FFL – suggests that the word "Feminists" in the organization's name may not be entirely accurate.

FFL Questions the Notion that Women Truly Have a "Choice"

For some people who support reproductive choice, this right amounts to the absence of legal restrictions against women seeking to terminate their pregnancies and providers performing abortions. The term "pro-choice," of course, necessarily contemplates the freedom not to have an abortion as well. If a proposed law were to require some or all women to terminate their pregnancies, it would accordingly be inaccurate to describe such a law as "pro-choice."

The generally-inaccurate term "pro-abortion" – often wrongly directed at those who support the freedom to decide whether or not to remain pregnant – would be far more apt in this limited, hypothetical context. Compulsion to terminate one's pregnancy is no more a "choice" than is compulsion to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

A point made by Shablin in her speech, and an important part of FFL's message, is that even though there are no legal prohibitions in the U.S. against a woman's choosing to remain pregnant, there still exist many practical obstacles that may make this choice seem untenable. The main obstacle that Shablin identified in her speech was financial, although she spoke of peer pressure and the lack of emotional support as well. One of FFL's ads states, taking a pregnant college student's perspective, that "[w]ithout housing on campus for me and my baby, without on-site daycare, without maternity coverage in my health insurance, it sure doesn't feel like I have much of a choice."

The point is one familiar to most feminists, though from a slightly different context. Feminists have consistently argued that when a working woman has children, the lack of workplace support for mothers will too often push her to abandon a career that she would have liked to pursue. It is, for this reason, highly misleading to suggest – as some have – that professional women are freely "opting out" of the work force in favor of stay-at-home mothering.

To be able truly and freely to "choose" whether to work or to stay home, a woman must not be forced to decide between spending almost no time with her infant, on the one hand, and losing her job, on the other. Having to select between two undesirable alternatives, in this context as in the circumstance of an unplanned pregnancy, provides a highly impoverished and illusory "choice." Feminists for choice undoubtedly share FFL's belief "that women should not feel forced to sacrifice our children for an education or a career."

To be sure, FFL does not appear to have much to offer women who truly want to terminate their pregnancies, even in the presence of economically realistic alternatives. Nonetheless, FFL deserves a lot of credit for identifying the social and economic realities that often drive women who would otherwise want to remain pregnant to terminate their pregnancies instead. An anti-feminist might argue that education and career are not worthwhile – or ideal – pursuits for women, and that terminating a pregnancy to promote one's career demonstrates that a woman is callous or inappropriately ambitious for her sex. Thankfully, by contrast, FFL supports a woman's right to seek an education and a career and faults society – and its failure to support and make such pursuits possible for mothers – when a woman feels compelled to terminate a pregnancy for economic reasons.

In the ideal world for FFL, it seems, mothers would have access to the same opportunities for advancement that fathers have, and the current disparity between the two groups' wages and general economic wellbeing would be eliminated entirely. Because many women in fact do choose to have children, combating such obstacles to mothers represents an important priority for all feminists to share, however they may view the abortion question.

FFL's Disappointing Stance on Contraception

At one point during the question-and-answer period of Shablin's lecture, a young man in the audience asked the speaker whether, in the service of promoting women's choices, she supports the distribution of condoms in school and the abolition of "abstinence only" education. Shablin responded that FFL does not take an official position on contraception or birth control, because some members of the organization oppose this option, while others support it. She added that if you want to survive in this world, you have to select one issue and focus on that; FFL's focus, she added, is on abortion.

At first glance, this claim sounds reasonable enough. An organization necessarily seeks unity, and though individuals within the group might differ on a variety of issues, the organization – out of respect for diversity within its ranks – must sometimes avoid taking positions on controversial questions. The problem with applying this reasoning to FFL, though, is that its explicit mission is to provide women with options other than abortion.

Abortion, by FFL's lights, is "a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women." Yet one pressing need that women have is to avoid being in an almost constant state of pregnancy throughout their child-bearing years. In the absence of contraception, however, this need cannot be met – for women who are sexually active – except by recourse to abortion. To state the point a bit differently, a person who is sincerely committed to women's physical and emotional wellbeing cannot simply sit out the question of contraception. It is not the equivalent, for example, of an environmental awareness organization refusing to take a position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

During her speech, Shablin made a statement that one of my own students – who was in attendance – wisely questioned afterward. Shablin said that because we know many college students are sexually active, it is hard to account for how very few pregnant students we see on campus, other than by concluding that the pregnant ones must have had abortions. As my student observed, however, the absence of pregnant students is really not such a puzzle, if we assume that women are using birth control. Used correctly, contraception is very effective. And if students are either not using contraception or using it incorrectly, then FFL could make a significant contribution by supporting the distribution of birth control and the provision of instructions on its proper and effective use.

Addressing Opponents of Contraception

An opponent of contraception might argue, in response, that women who want to avoid becoming pregnant can simply abstain from having sex. While accurate, so far as it goes, this response ignores the fact that even married women (who presumably are not expected to remain celibate throughout their marriages) may wish to limit the number of pregnancies and births they experience during their lives. In theory, a woman who marries (or otherwise becomes sexually active) in her twenties and uses no birth control could produce between eight and twenty offspring by the time she stops menstruating. A person who argues that such prolific fertility is simply the fate of women, which they must passively accept, would hardly qualify for the title "feminist."

Other opponents of contraception might suggest that women should control their fertility by using the Fertility Awareness Method (described here), which does not require resort to "artificial contraception." Though this approach can work well for some women (who are willing and able to measure their basal body temperatures every morning or otherwise track their ovulatory cycles), it will likely pose insurmountable challenges for women whose cycles are highly irregular, or whose schedules do not allow time for such intensive self-monitoring. More importantly, it is unclear why a feminist would oppose a woman's use of "artificial" contraception – such as condoms – to control her fertility.

Such use might violate religious prohibitions, but there is nothing "feminist" about opposing it. Once again, if a woman must undergo pregnancy after pregnancy as the price of being sexually active, within or without marriage, then this reality – no less than financially-pressured abortions – "is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women."

I have heard some argue that if a man is not committed enough to a woman to co-parent with her, then he has no business having sex with her either. Even if one accepts this argument, however, it hardly follows that a man who has fathered several children with a woman with whom he has decided to share his life, is not sufficiently committed to her if he prefers not to father another ten. Furthermore, because pregnancy imposes a unique physiological burden on women, there are plenty of couples in which the man would happily father more children, but the woman wants to stop at two (or three or four or five).

To be a feminist – particularly a feminist who wants to help women avoid circumstances in which they feel that abortion is their only option – is to protect a woman's right to say no to pregnancy, before the fact. It would appear to be religious dogma, and not a concern for the real-life impact of repeated unwanted pregnancies on women, that keeps contraception "off the table" for a group that calls itself "Feminists For Life."

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is available on Amazon.

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