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Why I’m a pro-life feminist

As long as I can remember, I've called myself a feminist. I visited the Women's Rights National Historic Park long before I ever went to Disney World. In fifth grade, when we had biography book reports, I proudly put on a lab coat and taught my classmates about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman with a medical degree from an American university. I surprised my college professor by being the only one in our women's studies class to have heard of the Triangle Factory Fire.

Women have a long, muddy history; our struggles both then and now are fascinating. Particularly of interest is the way we can climb and climb (voting rights in the US, access to higher-paying jobs) and still seem to never quite reach the top (like equal pay). I've seen these kinds of struggles up close: During a summer in Washington, DC, where I interned at a newspaper, I had a state senator look me in the face and tell me I shouldn't be working if I wanted kids one day.

I'm also pro-life.

I became involved in the pro-life movement in college, through my friends. They showed me that being pro-life doesn't necessarily mean you're backward, or hateful, or ignorant. It doesn't even have to mean you're religious — I met plenty of passionate pro-life students that weren't religious at all. I started to embrace the idea that being pro-life is pro-woman.

Most of my pro-life friends shudder at the word "feminist." Most of my feminist friends think it's impossible to be "pro-life."

I joined the pro-life campus group at my liberal state school. We prayed outside of a Planned Parenthood (after hours), had discussions with fellow students, and tried to spread a different point of view than typically encountered on a college campus. It was incredibly hard — I once had someone tell me they wished I'd been aborted — but it was also empowering in the way it always is when you feel you're doing the right thing.

Still, I faced skepticism for calling myself pro-life and a feminist. Most of my pro-life friends shudder at the word "feminist." Most of my feminist friends think it's impossible to be "pro-life."

A 2013 Jezebel essay called "There's No Such Thing as a Pro-Life Feminist" does a good job of articulating how a lot of people feel about my position. "Sure, you can be a feminist and make a personal decision to never get an abortion," the author writes. "But who the fuck are you to actively work at taking away other women's right to make their own personal decisions about their uteruses?"

First of all, no one's forcing anyone to do or not do anything: Humans have free will. The pro-life movement is trying to make legal abortion less available, sure, but we're also trying to make cultural changes so that women won't want to seek abortions in the first place, and we have no interest in legal punishment for women who've had abortions.

Second, society projects a moral code on people every day. We have laws to prevent harm. It could easily be said that police are "taking away the right to make their own personal decisions" from burglars or drunk drivers — society has deemed that these things do harm and should not be done. We also hinder body autonomy (snorting cocaine, for example, is illegal).

We as a society agree that we cannot do whatever we want with our bodies. (If you don't agree, try dancing naked in the street and see what happens.)

So not only do I think that there's such thing as a pro-life feminist, I also believe that to be pro-life is to be feminist. To quote the slogan of Feminists for Life, "Women deserve better than abortion." Here is what I wish people understood about my position.

1) I think abortions should be made unnecessary in the first place

Women seek out abortions for a variety of complex reasons. But the often-cited pro-choice reason of life of the mother (ectopic pregnancies, typically) is extremely unusual. Instead, the most common reasons center on not having the support they need to raise the child: The top three reasons women choose to get an abortion, according to a 2013 study in peer-reviewed journal BMC Women's Health, are that it would dramatically change their life, they can't afford a baby, or they don't want to be a single mother.

More on the pro-life movement

"We're in this for the long run"

I've heard this reasoning myself. I used to work as a Catholic missionary. While working on a private school campus, I once had a student tell me she had an abortion because she believed her education was the most important thing to her, and there was no way she could have a baby while studying and taking exams.

It doesn't need to be this way: Bad policies have led many women to believe they are unable to be mothers. The United States is one of the very, very few countries — essentially the only Western country — that does not require paid maternity leave. As a result, pregnant women are often stuck. They need to support themselves; they can't take unpaid leave for things like ultrasounds and breastfeeding classes and, eventually, a sick child.

It's not any easier for women in school: According to a 2011 report, child care facilities at universities are rare. Only 49 to 57 percent of two- and four-year public colleges and universities, and 7 to 9 percent of two- and four-year private colleges, offer child care facilities for their students. Another report found that "in most states, average child care center fees for an infant are higher than a year's tuition and fees at a public college."

Family leave and child care access are areas where the feminist and pro-life agendas perfectly intersect: Better policies are good for women, and could help reduce the perceived need for abortion.

2) Abortion disproportionately affects female fetuses and women of color

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an African-American woman is five times more likely than a white woman to receive an abortion. This most likely has to do with complicated social structures and other disadvantages that minority women face throughout their lifetimes.

But instead of shrugging shoulders and letting abortion be the solution, society should instead look for ways to tackle these structures at their base and try to realize why exactly so many African-American women find themselves in a situation where they don't have the resources to make it through a pregnancy and potentially adoption or parenthood.

Internationally, fetuses are targeted by gender. In China and India, where baby boys are frequently considered more desirable due to financial gains for a family, sex-selective abortion is thriving. In China and parts of India, 120 boys are being born for every 100 girls.

If the goal of feminism is truly equality with men, this needs to start in the place where everything starts: the womb. Girls are killed before they have a chance to become girls.

The solution to this terrible trend shows yet again how feminism and opposition to abortion go hand in hand. The Economist writes that South Korea has managed to dramatically reduce sex-selective abortions not through legislation but through cultural change:

In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China's. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary.

The larger social issue is that women are seen as less than men, and making a preference for a boy seem unnecessary was key in eliminating the problem. We can't fight one evil with another.

3) Pro-lifers bug me, too

Typical tactics of the pro-life movement simply don't work. I remember being on multiple college campuses during my time as a missionary and walking by graphic images of dead fetuses, being told to "repent," and hearing pro-life protesters call other women "pro-abortion Nazis." Even on a smaller scale, I frequently see Facebook posts in my circle of friends referring to women seeking abortion as needing to learn to "live with their choices" and "grow up."

These means of debate will bring us no closer to an agreement with pro-choice thinkers. They simply enforce the narrative that pro-life people have Donald Trump bumper stickers and an inability to form a complete sentence. And instead of demonstrating an authentic care for women, these tactics shame, embarrass and anger women. They make no effort to understand or empathize, instead choosing to simply scream views with no care to the end outcome.

I see Facebook posts in my circle of friends referring to women seeking abortion as needing to learn to "live with their choices" and "grow up"

Pro-lifers who don't embrace the feminist movement are frequently the reason that pro-choice advocates choose not to engage in discussion. I wouldn't want to engage in discussion with someone waving a dead baby poster either. Until a greater piece of the pro-life movement supports a method that embraces feminism, it will be nearly impossible to have rational conversations with the pro-choice community, and even more impossible to convince anyone of anything.

And rational conversations are possible. While working at a private liberal college, I got a panicked text from a student asking me to show up at a campus pro-life protest before all hell broke loose. A pro-choice counter-protest had popped up, and what was taking place involved shouting matches, chanting, and unruly behavior from both sides.

After a quick pep talk and some deep breaths, we re-approached the situation with calm voices and a tactic more focused on asking questions. Getting to know the people we spoke with was essential to having a dialogue. I sat and talked with one student for more than 30 minutes, simply raising points she possibly hadn't considered and learning more of her story.

At the end, she looked me in the eyes and said, in a friendly tone, "Thanks for actually talking to me like a human. You raised some interesting thoughts, and I have a lot to think about."

When talking with people about abortion, the tactic I've found most helpful is empathy. You never know if the person you're talking to had an abortion (or if their sister did, or their best friend, or their mom). Compassion will always be key to explaining your point of view — and when that compassion is lacking, it sets back any progress the pro-life movement has made tenfold.

The annual March for Life is this week. On Friday, you might glimpse pictures of thousands of freezing people marching on Washington to protest abortion. They are not just conservative, mindless drones. They support women.

Gloria Steinem dedicated her recently published autobiography to the doctor who performed her illegal abortion at age 22. She writes:

"He said, ‘You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.'

"Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I've done the best I could with my life."

Ms. Steinem, a feminist icon who has fought for Title IX rights for rape victims and against the horrors of female genital mutilation, still could have done what she wanted to do with her life if she'd had her baby. Mothers do that, every day.

Hillary Clinton's a mother, and she's running for president. Adele's a mother, and she released the biggest No. 1 single in three years in 2015. Madeleine Albright, J.K. Rowling: Mothers — successful, thriving mothers — are everywhere. Having children should not rob you of your identity or your purpose. Pro-life feminists believe it doesn't have to.

Claire Swinarski is a writer, mom-to-be, and former Catholic missionary. Her work has appeared on Verily, Relevant, Bridal Guide, Paradox, and others. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband. You can follow her on Instagram or check out her website.


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