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Did feminism have a place at the March for Life?

We asked marchers what a "pro-life, pro-woman" agenda looks like.

Sarah Frostenson/Vox

WASHINGTON — Every year in January, anti-abortion protesters mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade at the March for Life in Washington, DC. This year, however, the March for Life came less than a week after half a million demonstrators — most of whom were pro-choice — came to DC for the Women’s March on Washington to put the Trump administration on notice about women’s rights.

Many pro-life feminists were also outraged by Trump’s behavior, however, and some felt unwelcome at the explicitly pro-choice Women’s March. Last week I reported on why the question of what pro-life feminism looks like, and whether it’s possible to be a true feminist while also opposing a woman’s right to choose an abortion, was a potent one at the Women’s March.

So at the March for Life on Friday, I asked attendees about some of the same issues: Do you consider yourself a feminist? Is it possible, or even desirable, to be a “pro-life feminist” — and what does that look like in practice?

The answers I got suggest that while the pro-life movement as a whole is eager to talk about why opposing abortion is pro-woman, many pro-lifers are wary of feminism as either a label or a concept. And they don’t always have a clear or unified vision of what it means to be pro-woman in ways that go beyond opposing abortion.

Do pro-lifers consider themselves feminists? It depends.

From left: Rachel Stoball and Louisa Coello, both juniors at Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and their theology teacher, Christine Ostendorf.
Emily Crockett/Vox

Some March for Life attendees saw no contradiction between their own values and feminism, and even embraced the term.

“Isn't every woman a feminist?” said Mary Reda, 21, who came to the march with her Catholic campus ministry from the University of Virginia.

Christine Ostendorf, 27, cheered loudly at a speech from Rep. Mia Love (R-UT): “Yes! You are a true feminist!” When I asked Ostendorf if she herself identified as a feminist — and if it’s possible to be a “pro-life feminist” more generally — she immediately replied, “Totally, in every way, shape, and form.”

Ostendorf, who teaches theology at Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, added: “I think sometimes our pro-life organizations don't realize the amount of work and stress and concern that a woman who chooses life rather than abortion [goes through]. I want to be there helping that woman make the decision to choose life throughout her entire pregnancy, throughout her entire time of deciding [whether she wants to choose] adoption or not.”

But most marchers I talked to either paused thoughtfully before answering or hedged in some way, when asked if they considered themselves feminists.

Lindsey Dorenkott, a “former feminist” who now supports President Trump.
Emily Crockett/Vox

“I’m struggling with myself to decide how I feel about that word, just because it's one of those things where the label has so many other things attached to it,” said Anna Namyst, 26, of Waldorf, Maryland. “I've never felt held back as a woman. I’ve never felt like being a woman is a disadvantage or that people are out to get me. So I'm just very confused by all of that.”

Patricia Haviland, 61, of northern Virginia, said, “I'm not militant. I'm in favor of all things that improve women's lives, but I don't think that the feminist movement necessarily addresses that. They want to put women in a box ... and sometimes they just don't understand that women want to be mothers and stay home with their kids.”

Lindsey Dorenkott of Pittsburgh, 18, called herself a “former feminist.”

“I still believe in [eliminating] the wage gap and things like that, but the feminist movement in my opinion has turned from something that was just very pro-women, [pro-]equality, and it's turned into this female superiority, getting-triggered-at-everything kind of movement,” she said.

“I’m not against feminism, but I think they’re representing it in the wrong way,” said Rachel Stoball, 17, one of Ostendorf’s students. “In my own way, I think in the right way, I’m a feminist — not twisted.”

Stoball’s classmate Louisa Coello, 17, called herself a “feminist” without hesitation — but added that for her that also means, “We can’t push men down to build ourselves up.”

What does a pro-life, “pro-woman” agenda actually look like?

Anna Namyst, left, says she wishes many women didn’t feel like abortion is their “only option.”
Emily Crockett/Vox

Coello, echoing a common theme on the March for Life stage, also said that abortion means “pushing women down and making them victims. We need to empower women and say your options are adoption or to keep the baby, and those are so much better than abortion.”

The idea of showing compassion for women who seek abortion has become much more common in the pro-life movement over the past few decades than fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. Pro-life advocates frequently argue that while abortion is wrong because it takes a human life, women also “deserve better” than abortion.

“I’m pro-woman, but I'm not pro-choice,” Ostendorf said. “I am pro-life. And I wish that we could see those two things together.”

Many pro-lifers repeat false claims that abortion is more dangerous than it is, or that it causes breast cancer, to argue that abortion harms women. But another emerging message in the movement is that women wouldn’t need to turn to abortion out of concern for their education or career if the broader culture were less hostile to women’s fertility and more supportive of mothers.

Namyst said that a personal motivation for her to come to the march was her grandmother’s recent death. Her grandmother, Namyst recalled tearfully, had told her about the struggles she had had with raising two children, having several other miscarriages, and giving birth to babies with neurological defects who died very early.

“During all of this difficulty she didn't have the support she needed from my grandfather,” Namyst said. “So finally when she found herself pregnant again, for her, she felt that her only option was to abort that child that she wanted very dearly. And for me, it's just frustrating to see so many women who are not supported, who feel like this is their only option.”

Namyst said that anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers could offer women this kind of support. Some marchers argued that adoption needed to be better promoted and less stigmatized for pregnant women, and that the adoption process needed to be less arduous and expensive for adoptive families. Ostendorf even suggested a government-funded facility for pregnant women who couldn’t afford to live on their own, “in hopes that they will give the baby up for adoption if that's not where they're at.”

Dorenkott, the self-identified “former feminist,” called for better contraception — a position that is not universally embraced in the pro-life movement. “I think not a lot of people talk about it, especially Republicans, but I think if we want to truly stop abortion, there needs to be universal birth control,” Dorenkott said. “Obviously people aren't going to want to spend taxpayer money, but even if that would save the life of one person, I think pro-lifers should be more willing and open to that kind of policy.”

Some marchers agreed that policies like paid family leave, affordable child care, and fighting discrimination against pregnant women and mothers in the workplace would be important pro-life, pro-mother issues. But nobody I talked to brought up those issues unprompted.

Ostendorf enthusiastically endorsed the idea of welfare and other financial assistance for poor mothers. “As a Catholic, I believe in the dignity of all human life, and I’m not okay with the way that we treat the poor,” she said. But she also cheered the US House’s recent move to make the Hyde Amendment permanent as a “step in the right direction,” even though she acknowledged that, “unfortunately,” Hyde mostly affects poor women by banning federal funds like Medicaid from covering abortion.

Pro-life and pro-choice feminists can agree on many things. But there are serious limits to that.

The Women’s March on Washington on January 21.
Emily Crockett/Vox

Many “pro-life” and “pro-choice” feminists can actually agree on a surprising range of issues — like the idea that pregnant women and mothers deserve equal protection under the law, or that women deserve equal pay for equal work, or that violence against women and misogyny are unacceptable.

Today, many pro-choice feminists actually prefer to focus more on the idea of “reproductive justice” than on the idea of “choice.” They point out that not all women have the same range of choices to begin with when it comes to health care, income, or the safety of the environment they live in.

Reproductive justice isn’t just about having the right to birth control or abortion, issues that many advocates prioritize. So many other factors determine what a woman’s reproductive life looks like in practice, and not just in theory — like whether there are quality health care providers available in her community, whether she can get insurance coverage for those health services, and whether she lives in a supportive enough environment that she can bear the pregnancies she does choose to carry to term, and raise the children she chooses to raise, in safety and dignity.

It’s a very intersectional feminist analysis of reproductive issues — which is precisely aligned with the goals and tactics of the Women’s March. It’s about looking at how different types of oppression like racism, income inequality, and misogyny actually intersect and complicate one another, rather than looking at those problems as separate issues that hurt separate communities of people in separate ways.

It’s a “yes and” strategy, not a “yes but” one. Yes, fund Planned Parenthood — and make abortion affordable for poor women by letting Medicaid cover it, and stop communities of color from being torn apart by mass deportation, and make sure everybody has clean drinking water, and stop police from unjustly killing black men and sexually assaulting vulnerable black women, and fight to make sure everyone who works for a living (not just people whose generous employers offer nice benefits packages) can get paid family leave and affordable child care.

Some of those who identify as pro-life feminists — especially younger generations with a more hip, modern sensibility — also take a decidedly intersectional “yes and” approach. Yes, treat pregnant women with dignity, and support new mothers and children by aggressively fighting poverty, and create a culture that celebrates fertility and femininity instead of fearing or repressing it, and oppose the death penalty, and fight for racial justice.

But. There is always the one “but” that most other feminists can’t get over: the idea that abortion is not the solution and harms women, and that it must therefore be outlawed or heavily restricted while we work on building a “culture of life” that will one day eliminate the need for any and all abortion.

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