Can you be a feminist and be against abortion? Feminists for Life claims to be both, and if you listen long enough to its voluble and likable president, Serrin Foster, you might almost think it’s true. FFL is on a major publicity roll these days, because Jane Roberts, wife of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, is a pro bono legal adviser, former officer and significant donor (she gave between $1,000 and $2,499 in 2003). When I caught up with Foster at the end of a long day that included an hour on NPR’s On Point, she talked a blue and quite amusing streak, and although it can be hard to follow an aria that swoops from Susan B. Anthony to telecommuting to water pollution, while never quite answering the actual question, I’m sure she means every word of it. How can you argue with FFL’s contention that America does not give pregnant women and mothers the support they need? Feminists, the prochoice kind, have been saying this for years. So far as I can tell, FFL is the only “prolife” organization that talks about women’s rights to work and education and the need to make both more compatible with motherhood. It has helped bring housing for mothers and children to Georgetown University and supports the Violence Against Women Act; Foster reminded me that she and I had been on the same side in the mid-1990s in opposing family caps, the denial of additional benefits to women who had more children while on welfare. Why, she wondered, couldn’t we all just work together to “help pregnant women”?
The problem is that FFL doesn’t just oppose abortion. FFL wants abortion to be illegal. All abortions, period, including those for rape, incest, health, major fetal defects and, although Foster resisted admitting this, even some abortions most doctors would say were necessary to save the woman’s life. (Although FFL is not a Catholic organization, its rejection of therapeutic abortion follows Catholic doctrine.) FFL wants doctors who perform abortions to be punished, possibly with prison terms.
It was extremely difficult to get Foster to say what she thought would happen if abortion was banned. At one point she would not concede that women would continue to have abortions if it was recriminalized; at another she argued that criminalization was no big deal: Instructions on self-abortion were posted on the Internet. I had to work to get her to admit that illegal abortion was common before Roe, and that it was dangerous–numbers on abortion deaths were concocted by pre-Roe legalization advocates, she told me. Yet the FFL website prominently features gory stories of abortion mishaps and discredited claims that abortion causes breast cancer. (Challenged on the cancer connection, Foster says they just want women to have medical information. Asked why they don’t then link to the 2004 Lancet article debunking their cancer claims, she says they are not medical experts and have considered taking the cancer pages down.) So legal abortion is dangerous but illegal abortion would be safe? When I pointed out that in countries where the operation is banned, such as Brazil and Peru, rates are sky-high and abortion a major cause of injury and death, she professed ignorance.
I got similarly evasive answers when I asked why FFL didn’t promote birth control, and when I asked if FFL considered the pill an “abortifacient.” She did tell me that “birth control doesn’t work” for swing-shift nurses because they lose track of their body clock–interesting, if true–or for teenagers, which I know to be false. “We just want to focus on meeting the everyday needs of women,” she told me. But when I asked how the everyday needs of women with unwanted pregnancies would be served by encouraging them to bear children and place them for adoption, Foster didn’t answer. Instead, she extolled the benefits of open adoption.
In the FFL view, women have abortions because they are victims–of shamed parents, abusive boyfriends, prochoice propaganda and a society hostile to motherhood. Only a “few percent” of women who have abortions have what they need to choose childbirth instead–the rest are like prostitutes, Foster told me, coerced women falsely said to be making a free choice. The FFL vision is that women should embrace motherhood whenever a wayward sperm meets an egg, and that this is what women really want to do, and would do if given support. When I pointed out that Scandinavia provides a raft of benefits for mothers and children, yet many women there still seek abortions for about a million reasons, Foster conceded the point and moved right along.
It is indeed feminist to say no woman should have to abort a wanted child to stay in school or have a career–FFL’s line is thus an advance on the more typical antichoice position, which is that women have abortions to go to Europe or fit into their prom dress. You can see why their upbeat, rebellious slogans–“refuse to choose,” “question abortion,” “women deserve better”–appeal to students. (But what do those students think when they find that the postabortion resources links are all to Christian groups and that FFL’s sunny pregnancy-assistance advice includes going on food stamps or welfare?) Exposing the constraints on women’s choices, however, is only one side of feminism. The other is acknowledging women as moral agents, trusting women to decide what is best for themselves. For FFL there’s only one right decision: Have that baby. And since women’s moral judgment cannot be trusted, abortion must be outlawed, whatever the consequences for women’s lives and health–for rape victims and 12-year-olds and 50-year-olds, women carrying Tay-Sachs fetuses and women at risk of heart attack or stroke, women who have all the children they can handle and women who don’t want children at all. FFL argues that abortion harms women–that’s why it clings to the outdated cancer claims. But it would oppose abortion just as strongly if it prevented breast cancer, filled every woman’s heart with joy, lowered the national deficit and found Jimmy Hoffa. That’s because they aren’t really feminists–a feminist could not force another woman to bear a child, any more than she could turn a pregnant teenager out into a snowstorm. They are fetalists.