Pro-life Feminism: Oxymoron or Greater Truth?

In the contemporary American political scene, it is taken to be a truism that feminism is inseparable from support of abortion. This cultural assumption taken to be seemingly obvious ironically is regularly undermined. “Pro-life feminism” has resurfaced in the political mainstream and with it has come a piece of otherwise suppressed history of the women who fought for the 19th Amendment: the feminist movement historically opposed rather than advocated abortion.

The early pioneers of feminism viewed abortion as the killing of an innocent child and the ultimate exploitation of women. The 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, opposed abortion and 19th century feminists followed suit. Susan B. Anthony, one of the most famous American feminists, viewed abortion—as she said in her publication The Revolution—as “child murder” and a “burden” on the “conscience in life” and “the soul in death.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another prominent feminist, called abortion a “crying evil” in Anthony’s weekly journal in March 1868.  In a letter to Julia Ward Howe, Stanton wrote:

“When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”

The first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, was a supporter of women’s rights as well as the rights of the unborn. She once remarked:

“Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.”

It may come as a surprise to some, but even Margaret Sanger, known as the founder of the American Birth Control League (now Planned Parenthood) and for her promotion of eugenics through birth control, thought abortion to be deplorable. It is not clear if Sanger opposed abortion because the abortion procedure was medically unsafe for women at the time, it was a clever way to gain support for contraception as the lesser of the two evils (i.e. Sanger used opposition to abortion as a marketing ploy to encourage women to use birth control, which Planned Parenthood was conveniently in the business of providing before abortion was legal), or she actually found it immoral. What ever the case, Sanger’s comments about abortion do not sing to the tune of the modern pro-abortion lobby. In her book Woman and the New Race, published in 1920, Sanger wrote:

“While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.”

In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger attempted to defend her promotion of eugenics through the use of contraception on the grounds that it did not require killing unborn children.

“To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”

This view, what ever its sincerity, was promulgated by Sanger and her organization Planned Parenthood. A 1963 Planned Parenthood marketing pamphlet entitled “Plan Your Children,” highlights the fact that the pro-abortion grip on feminism is a relatively new phenomenon:

“An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun. It is dangerous to your life and health. It may make you sterile so that when you want a child you cannot have it.”

Margaret Sanger died in 1966 at a time when support for abortion was gaining momentum in many of the same feminist circles already successful in legalizing birth control in the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut. The philosophical prominence of a woman’s self-autonomy as key to liberating women, a theme advocated by Sanger, set the stage in the coming years for the legal fight over abortion-on-demand. The same year Sanger died, the National Organization for Women (NOW) added legalizing abortion to its list of goals. 

In 1972, NOW purged theirs membership of all those who dissented from their organizational stance on abortion. Two disenfranchised members founded Feminists for Life of America (FFL), the largest pro-life feminist organization with signature slogans such as “Peace begins in the Womb” and “Women Deserve Better Than Abortion.” The current president of FFL, Serrin Foster in her popular speech “The Feminist Case Against Abortion” points out the inherent tension between support of abortion and feminism.

“…Ironically, the anti-abortion laws that early feminists worked so hard to enact to protect women and children were the very ones destroyed by the Roe v. Wade decision 100 years later—a decision hailed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) as the ‘emancipation of women.’

The goals of the more recent NOW-led women’s movement with respect to abortion would have outraged the early feminists. What Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a “disgusting and degrading crime” has been heralded…as ‘the most fundamental right of women, without which all other rights are meaningless.’”

Since the early 70’s, the terms “pro-life” and “feminist” have been seen as virtually mutually exclusive. The creative efforts by the pro-abortion lobby to merge support of abortion with support of the legitimate rights of women have undoubtedly perpetuated this perception. But in recent years, the reemergence of pro-life feminism has posed a real challenge to the status quo.

To the pro-life feminist, abortion is not a solution, but rather a symptom of moral disorder and social deficiency. American suffragist Victoria Woodhull wrote in a column published in Woodhull’s and Claffin’s Weekly in 1871 that “abortion is only a symptom of a more deep-seated disorder of the social state…child-bearing is not a disease, but a beautiful office of nature.” Also identifying abortion as a manifestation of moral deficit in the social order, Mattie Brinkerhoff, a prominent 19th feminist, famously said:

“When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society—so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.”

Pro-life feminism, in contrast to contemporary pseudo-feminism, holds that abortion requires rejecting, not embracing, the most fundamental aspect of womanhood: maternity. Even those that who were not mothers, the suffragists argued, still have an innate appreciation for the difference that the creative force of nature, i.e. maternal instinct, makes in the life of a woman.

Today feminist pro-life groups continue the work of the women’s rights activists who pioneered the feminist movement in America. Alongside Feminists for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) serves as a political action committee that works to elect pro-life women to Congress—as opposed to EMILY’s List which has the opposite goal.

Currently the most well known face of pro-life feminism is arguably former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, who on more than one occasion has noted she unapologetically embraces the infamous “f” word.  The pro-abortion lobby, claiming the mantle of feminism, often draws attention to the “absolutism” of pro-life women like Sarah Palin who oppose abortion, even in hard cases—likely as a point of distraction of their own absolutism in failing to oppose partial-birth abortion and even in some cases sex-selective abortions.  In a recent speech at a SBA List Breakfast, Palin remarked “choosing life may not be the easiest path, but it’s always the right path.”

Pro-life feminists though tireless in their efforts against abortion are compassionate toward those who resort to it. From a feminist viewpoint, they argue, abortion pits women against their children and women against men. Abortion does not “liberate” women; it liberates men from their natural vocation to fatherhood, from responsibility, and the duty to respect women in what is becoming an increasingly fatherless society. With abortion, employers do not have to make concessions to pregnant mothers in terms of maternal leave or assisting in their health care costs, and schools and other institutions in society do not have incentive to accommodate the needs of parents. The pornography industry is one the biggest financers of abortion. Human trafficking of young women is more successful today because of abortion-on-demand. The result is a society that does not value life, motherhood, or family and such a society cannot value women. In short, abortion hurts women and does not affirm feminine dignity.

In the face of such facts, the recovery of the forgotten piece of feminist history—its pro-life tradition—gives tremendous hope to the right-to-life cause as well as the further integration of women into all areas of society. The legal efforts to ban abortion is vitally important in the fight for the sanctity of life, but the gift of true feminism reminds us that changing abortion laws without changing the moral character of society would be, in the words of Susan B. Anthony, to mow “off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains.” Support of women is support of life and the vice versa and the promulgation of this truth may at last eliminate the false dichotomy of having to “choose” between a woman and her unborn child.

7 Responses to Pro-life Feminism: Oxymoron or Greater Truth?

  1. Germaine says:

    For great information, resources, and abortion statistics, please visit

  2. restrainedradical says:

    I’d recommend pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf’s piece on abortion:

    The first step in transforming the pro-choice feminist movement is to get them to acknowledge that abortion ends a life, usually a girl’s life.

    It would also help if conservatives would stop bashing on feminism. Sarah Palin has done her part. But I can’t help but pray for someone more widely respected than her to carry the mantle.

  3. Robert says:

    ‘Abortion does not “liberate” women; it liberates men from their natural vocation to fatherhood, from responsibility, and the duty to respect women in what is becoming an increasingly fatherless society.’

    When are we going to stop referring to women as if they are not fully equal moral agents and instead, infantile victims. Not wanting to deny that the negligence of some men contributes greatly to abortion should not mean denying that a lot of abortions happen because some women do not want to be go on being mothers.

    At the heart of feminism is conceit. If regard for the wellbeing of ‘the other’ is at the heart of ‘New Feminism’ then it is not feminism at all.

    It might be useful politically to retain the term but it strikes me as (even unintentionally) dishonest.


  4. T. Shaw says:

    An example of pro-life feminism (I think) we can endorse:

    “Looking down on the ocean from the Presidio, San Francisco’s history-encrusted Army post, Master Sergeant Leo P. Day saw what happened next. ‘I could see the boy in the foaming red water, shouting and signaling someone to “go back, go back.” Then I saw the girl, swimming toward him, completely ignoring his warning. It was the greatest exhibition of courage I have ever seen.’

    “When she was near enough, a fisherman threw her a line. After they were on the sand, Shirley, a Roman Catholic, scooped up some sea water and let it run over the head of her friend (who had never been baptized and belonged to no specific faith). “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”

    “Just before Albert Kogler lapsed into unconsciousness, he whispered: “I love God, and I love my mother and I love my father. Oh God, help me.” Two hours later, in the Presidio’s Letterman General Hospital, he died.” TIME, quoted by CatholicDadsonline.

    I envy the woman’s charity, courage, hope, and faith. The female of the species is more courageous than the male.

  5. Gabriel Austin says:

    It is interesting to note how in our times, no reference is made to process which leads to pregnancy – copulation. The feminists who are for abortion are also for copulation without responsibility. Mrs. Anthony and her cohorts recognized this, and were especially ferocious in their condemnations of brothels. And of the all too common street sight of prostitutes, many of whom were poor girls.

    Sanger’s plea for birth control – birth prevention – was simply a plea for unlimited copulation [in which she herself indulged].

  6. “Pro-life feminism, in contrast to contemporary pseudo-feminism, holds that abortion requires rejecting, not embracing, the most fundamental aspect of womanhood: maternity”

    Feminism is very often tied up with careerism, a generally anti-maternal ideology. This tension is pretty clear in pro-life feminism which tries to promote a “you can have it all” attitude towards motherhood and work.

    “With abortion, employers do not have to make concessions to pregnant mothers in terms of maternal leave or assisting in their health care costs, and schools and other institutions in society do not have incentive to accommodate the needs of parents.”

    Obviously, current employment and educational practices were formed under Roe v. Wade. Pro-choice feminists are wise to argue that the “progress” of women in the workplace, as it happened in the U.S., would have been impossible without abortion.

    There is a real difficulty here for a pro-life feminist who accepts the world formed by Roe as a worthy goal. What if abortion really is so integral to the present order that removing it would fundamentally change the country in a way that inhibits feminism?

    Another point: feminism is often individualistic. The needs of “parents,” especially married parents, aren’t often on the radar unless they can be presented in an equal way or a way that favors women. Paying more to an employee whose wife is pregnant used to be common practice, but feminist ideas of equality seem to ban that way of helping mothers.

    It is no longer clear to me that feminism, even pro-life feminism, is reconcilable with a good society.

    For instance, is your comment about “further integration of women into all areas of society” just another way of saying “the further destruction of non-feminist institutions”? My skepticism about feminism might be unwarranted, but there aren’t many non-feminist institutions left to judge.

  7. […] July 20, 2010 Blaise Alleyne Leave a comment Go to comments The American Catholic has a comprehensive post on the history and question of pro-life feminism. In the contemporary American political scene, it is taken to be a truism that feminism is […]

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