WASHINGTON, DC — The Women’s March on Washington drew at least 500,000 people to Washington, DC, Saturday to affirm that “women’s rights are human rights,” and to protest the threat to those rights that they see in President Donald Trump’s new administration.
The march also took place the day before the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. And since reproductive rights face particular threats under a Trump-Pence administration, it’s no surprise that they were a major theme of the Women’s March.
Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards was a headline speaker. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, both powerhouse pro-choice organizations, were sponsors. The march’s official platform called for “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education.” Signs supporting reproductive rights and justice were everywhere — with slogans like “Trust Women,” “Keep Abortion Legal,” and “Protect Access to Health Care,” and more hand-drawn uteruses than you could count.
Still, many pro-life women were just as disgusted by Trump’s comments and actions as pro-choice women were. Some struggled to find their place in the overtly pro-choice Women’s March. A few pro-life feminist groups even asked to be included as partner organizations for the march, but were rejected.
The politics of the Women’s March ended up raising deep, challenging questions about how, or even whether, the fight for women's equality can accommodate women who oppose what many see as a key foundation of equality: a woman’s right to control her fertility and to seek a legal abortion.
Why controversy emerged over the Women’s March and pro-life groups
Emma Green reported for the Atlantic on pro-life women who shared many concerns relevant to the Women’s March, like “cultural misogyny, the state of education and health care, and a desire for their own daughters to be able to lead.” Some members of pro-life organizations wanted to join the march — but either weren’t sure if they’d be welcome, or were less enthused about participating after the march gained Planned Parenthood as a sponsor and put out a pro-choice, progressive platform.
Many pro-life women consider themselves strong feminists — “not just pro-lifers who are also feminists,” but “feminists first and foremost,” as Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, president of the Texas-based pro-life group New Wave Feminists, put it to Green.
New Wave Feminists, Green revealed in her Monday article, had been granted partnership status with the march on the previous Friday. “Intersectional feminism is the future of feminism and of this movement,” Women’s March co-chair Bob Bland told Green. “We must not just talk about feminism as one issue, like access to reproductive care.”
But many prominent pro-choice advocates were confused and outraged by the news about New Wave Feminists. They demanded to know why the march organizers could take such an uncompromising stance for full reproductive rights, and then turn around and partner with organizations that are devoted to the exact opposite goal.
Horrified that the @womensmarch has partnered w/an anti-choice org. Plse reconsider - inclusivity is not about bolstering those who harm us.— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 16, 2017
Women’s March organizers released a statement reaffirming that “from day one” the march had been pro-choice. “The anti-choice organization in question is not a partner of the Women’s March on Washington,” the statement said. “We apologize for this error.”
A few days later, however, word got out that another anti-abortion organization, And Then There Were None, was also included on the Women’s March official list of partner organizations. It was quietly removed soon after that.
Women’s March organizers didn’t respond to a question from Vox about why the March made two such errors, if they were in fact errors to begin with. To be fair, though, the march was a massive event that was pulled together by volunteers on short notice, and the organizing process was often chaotic.
Either way, it was a bit of a public-relations mess, and caused a lot of consternation especially in conservative circles. Writing for The Week, Damon Linker went so far as to claim that the march was “excluding pro-life women.”
How did the Women’s March go for the pro-life women who joined?
Pro-life women weren’t excluded or discouraged from participating in the march; the controversy was over official partnerships with organizations, and whether they undermined the march’s values. But it’s understandable if the incident made pro-life women feel unwelcome.
@JessicaValenti so a woman can't be a feminist if she's pro-life? that excludes a lot of women in developing countries, of different faiths.— Nicole W. C. Yeatman (@nwcyeatman) January 16, 2017
“We are anti-abortion, but we’re also pro-woman,” Kristina Hernandez, director of communications for Students for Life of America, told Vox. “We want to be compassionate and open to dialogue on the other side.”
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.
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 others — especially the younger, savvier, and often more secular pro-lifers of the millennial generation — also argue that women wouldn’t need to turn to abortion out of concern for their education or career if the broader culture was less hostile to women’s fertility and more supportive of mothers.
New Wave Feminists, the group whose temporary partnership status caused controversy to begin with, tends to take this latter approach.
On certain issues, there really is common ground to be found between pro-life and pro-choice feminists.
Students for Life organizes at more than 1,100 high school and college campuses, Hernandez said, and they work with pro-choice student groups on some of their projects. For instance, a program called Pregnant on Campus lobbies schools to provide better resources for pregnant students, like lactation rooms, diaper decks, and reasonable accommodations for things like housing arrangements and course responsibilities.
Pro-choice feminists also do a lot of work to fight discrimination based on pregnancy status, and to promote family-friendly work policies like paid leave for new parents. And they fight rape on college campuses using the same Title IX law against gender discrimination that Students for Life members use to promote the rights of pregnant students.
When Students for Life showed up to the Women’s March with signs like “Abortion Betrays Women,” however, they didn’t get the friendly response that they might have if they focused on parenting students.
“It was brutal,” Hernandez said. “We had marchers screaming at us, ripping up our signs, one spit on us.” Not everybody reacted that way, though; she said that one group of young women with pro-choice signs “shouted at us, ‘We still love you!’ I almost ran over and hugged them.”
Members of New Wave Feminists reported much more positive experiences on social media.
A key question for pro-choice marchers: Is it even possible to be a “pro-life feminist”?
As for the pro-choice Women’s March attendees, many told me that they do indeed see room at rallies like this, and in the feminist movement more broadly, for pro-life women.
“I would never say, ‘Oh, you’re not a feminist because you don't support abortion,” said Abby Boitnott, a 16-year-old high school junior, who came to the march from Charlottesville, Virginia. “If you want to call yourself a feminist and you want to stand next to me, that's phenomenal, and I commend that.”
Some took a harder line. Emily Ching, 23, simply said “No” when I asked her if it’s possible to be a “pro-life feminist.”
“It’s our right to choose, point-blank,” Ching said. “There’s really no other way of describing it.” Ching added that she came to the march to support Planned Parenthood — which she said got her out of “a really bad situation” when she needed affordable emergency contraception — and said she strongly opposes efforts by Trump and congressional Republicans to defund the organization.
Other pro-choice marchers felt more conflicted. Many argued that there’s a very important distinction between having a personal, moral objection to abortion, and actively fighting against other women’s rights to access it if they choose.
“I support people who would never want to have an abortion — but that's their choice,” said Rosemarie Day of Somerville, Massachusetts, who came to the march with her 17-year-old daughter and her 80-year-old mother. “I’m not going to say you have to be somebody who would accept the idea of abortion [to be considered a feminist]. I could understand if you have deeply held religious convictions. But don't tell me what to do.”
It’s hard to restrict feminism to “one certain definition,” said Jess Mulvihill, 25 — but one core thing that everybody should be able to agree on is that feminism is “all about giving women choices and freedoms.”
“I see the anti-choice movement — I'll call it ‘anti-choice,’ because I don't think it's even very ‘pro-life’ — as the very opposite of that core of feminism,” Mulvihill said. “I think [feminism] should accept a whole bunch of different people from diverse viewpoints. But as soon as you start trying to restrict people’s freedoms, then you are going against feminism. And hopefully, if [the people who are doing that] are meeting opposition, they will try to educate themselves about why they are meeting that opposition.”
Pro-life and pro-choice feminists can agree on many things. But there are serious limits to that.
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.
It’s true that 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 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.
We need to stop the myth that feminism is simply 'anything a woman does.' Feminism is a movement for justice - abortion access is central.— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 16, 2017
For most intersectional feminists, that inevitable “but” is worse than a non-starter. It’s an act of aggression against the progress that feminism has been fighting for, and slowly losing, for decades.
For reproductive justice advocates, all the compassion for women in the world, no matter how genuine, can’t justify fighting to eliminate women’s family-planning options — or put their health at risk by mandating that every pregnancy must always be carried to term no matter what.
The uncomfortable truth is that while most pro-life people do feel genuine compassion toward women, pro-life movement leaders have often used that compassion as a reason to pass restrictive laws that claim to protect women’s health and safety, but that in fact do nothing but close quality abortion clinics.
Pro-life women and feminists often feel understandably hurt and excluded from the broader feminist movement because of their views. But these hurt feelings also sometimes conflate political opposition with personal rejection.
When it comes to abortion and reproductive rights more broadly, pro-choice feminists argue, it’s not just about the “views” you hold or your personal values. It’s also about the political statements, and political actions, you choose to take that can and do have serious real-world consequences for other women.
And when you think of feminism as a political movement rather than just a personal one, even a philosophy of radical inclusivity has its limits.