Pro-Life Feminist Screening Kit (Minus Red)

When Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa’s New Wave Feminists, a prolife women’s group, was disinvited from the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, it was the best thing ever to happen to the organization. The controversy provided free publicity and attracted new supporters despite the opposition of feminists like Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, and Amanda Marcotte, who argued that feminism had no place for those who were against abortion.

Now, in Pro-Life Feminist, a new documentary directed by Jim Hanon, Hernon-De La Rosa and two other self-described feminists tell the stories of how they came to join the prolife movement. A “manmade feminist,” motivated by the bad behavior of men in her life, Herndon-De La Rosa became pregnant at the age of sixteen and chose to keep her baby. Aimee Murphy, a young, queer, Catholic Latina who directs a prolife nonprofit, also became prolife when faced with an unplanned pregnancy as a teenager. Christina Marie Bennett, an anti-abortion activist and member of the National Black Pro-Life Commission, came to her position as a result of having nearly been aborted herself.  

“Feminism is based on human equality. You can’t just leave some humans out,” says Bennett, as she tells the story of how she was almost left out. Her mother was in a gown at the hospital waiting for an abortion when a janitor encouraged her to keep the baby. She did, despite the doctor telling her she needed to go through with the abortion. Then she married the baby’s father in an attempt to put together a life for Christina. “[The plan] didn’t work for them, but it worked for me,” Bennett tells the camera with a rueful smile and shrug.

The question of who abortion works for is central to the prolife feminists’ project. As Hernon-De La Rose puts it, the prolife movement tends to see one person: the child. The feminist movement tends to see one person, too: the woman. “Pro-life feminists see two people. We want to support and protect two people.”

While the three women profiled in Hanon’s documentary are very clear that abortion is a grave evil because it is, well, bad for the baby, their focus in the film is on why it’s bad for the woman, too. Putting aside questions of its effect on the soul (though at least two of the women are religious, they believe the arguments against abortion are accessible to secular audiences), they argue that abortion is bad for women in three specific ways, echoing arguments of some of feminism’s biggest names.

First, abortion violates principles of nonviolence. When Murphy was sixteen, her ex-boyfriend threatened to murder her if she did not have an abortion, and something in her clicked. An atheist at the time, she wasn’t convinced by religious sanctity-of-life arguments, but she recognized that abortion would perpetuate the violence that was being perpetrated against her. Though she doesn’t mention Adrienne Rich’s name, she is agreeing with that second-wave feminist’s claim in Of Women Born that “abortion is violence…. It is the offspring, and will continue to be the accuser, of a more pervasive and prevalent violence, the violence of rapism.”

After a screening of the film at New York’s Sheen Center, Bennett said that abortion masks “one wound with another wound.” She is no stranger to the truly horrifying circumstances in which some women face pregnancy, and she spoke candidly about occasions when asking women to keep their baby is asking them to do a very hard thing. Still, she also echoes Rich, who wrote that “clearly, the first violence done in abortion is on the body and mind of the pregnant woman herself,” whether or not the abortion is legal or illegal, self-induced or medically supervised.

How can our society take women’s health and agency seriously and also maintain that the taking of innocent life should be avoided whenever possible?

Besides masking the wound to women, abortion allows men to dodge responsibility. Men treat women like toys that are broken by pregnancy, to use Bennett’s simile. This wasn’t news to Andrea Dworkin, who wrote years before Bennett that the impulse behind leftist support of Roe v. Wade was profoundly misogynistic: “It was the brake that pregnancy put on fucking that made abortion a high-priority political issue for men in the 1960s…. The decriminalization of abortion—for that was the political goal—was seen as the final fillip: it would make women absolutely accessible, absolutely ‘free.’”

Calling out “bro-choice” campaigners, voicing concern about women’s health, and calling for non-violence—up to this point, prolife feminists have used textbook women’s studies arguments. Unfortunately, this seems to be as far as the two groups can go together. In Dworkin’s account of feminism’s development, there was a significant change after Roe. Recognizing that abortion was winning them only more exploitation, feminists made the switch from arguing for free love to arguing for “absolute control of her own body in sex and in reproduction. This included not only the right to terminate a pregnancy but also the right to not have sex, to say no, to not be fucked.”

While the right to say “no” is valued by most pro-life feminists, the shift toward “absolute control” of one’s own body is where they part ways with Dworkin. It’s one thing to believe that no one should force sex on another person. It’s another to make a shift toward prioritizing bodily autonomy above all other considerations. If autonomy is the standard by which every situation must be judged, where does that leave others in a condition of dependency—e.g., infants, the severely disabled, and the elderly? Second-wave feminists argued that these questions were slippery-slope fallacies, but today’s discussions of euthanasia and the eradication of disabled fetuses appear to prove otherwise.

Murphy describes the split differently. “Second- and third-wave movements put the focus on liberation,” she says. “If you put liberation above equality, it becomes problematic.”

Yet an argument for “equality” is also troubling. Both the mother and unborn child are human beings with lives of equal value, but their relationship is unique in that they cannot have equal say. The voiceless must be defended, but where does that defense end? Who decides if the mother can take her depression medication or have that glass of wine or partake in that activity that is slightly risky but probably fine? Is she impinging on the rights of her child if she makes a decision that is best for her in the long term but also suboptimal for the child?

A better question might be how contemporary society can develop a healthy ethic of interdependence. What does it mean for two lives to be intertwined? What does it mean to value the child without treating the mother as a vehicle for the child’s delivery? What does it mean to rectify systemic oppression of women in a way that doesn’t treat children as a consumer product? How can our society take women’s health and agency seriously and also maintain that the taking of innocent life should be avoided whenever possible?

Pro-life Feminist doesn’t answer these questions. It also doesn’t grapple as deeply as it might have with the arguments brilliant women on both sides of the issue have already made, never noting by name the feminists who made the arguments they repeat, let alone those feminists’ specific objections to the prolife cause. The film admirably allows its subjects to speak for themselves, but other voices would have added depth.  

Traditional natural-law arguments against abortion might have been more persuasive to some viewers, but the omission of such arguments in Pro-life Feminist is strategic. To many women, such arguments sound like little more than an excuse to keep women down. When most prolife Christians vote for a man who has bragged about his objectification of women, and when conservative men worried about population-replacement rates tend to sound as if they do indeed view women as incubators, suspicion of prolife activists and politicians is understandable.

In view of that suspicion, why not simply allow women to choose? This was the question asked by a prochoice feminist who sat in the front row of the film’s Sheen Center screening. No woman really wants an abortion. Why shouldn’t we trust her if she says she needs one?

Perhaps the most candid and consistent answer would have been that ending an innocent life is wicked. Instead, the women disarmed her suspicion by pointing out that “choice” is often offered with a nudge and the hint that a woman gets what’s coming to her if she doesn’t make the choice to end a pregnancy. They acknowledged in the film that “it’s hard to give that compassionate care to someone growing inside you when they feel they haven’t received that for themselves.” And Bennett admitted that she hears from other members of the black community that when they look for help they see Planned Parenthood, not the prolife community. After the prolife feminists at the Sheen Center reiterated that our whole society, including the prolife movement, needs to do much, much more to support pregnant women in distress, the prochoice woman in the front row said, “That’s the first thing I’ve agreed with all evening.”

It’s unlikely that the prominent feminists who opposed the inclusion of anti-abortion advocates at the Women’s March will be convinced by Hanon’s documentary. Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich, who had no use for “complicit women,” would no doubt come back to haunt any woman who suggested that they’d ever be won over to the prolife movement. Nevertheless, Pro-Life Feminist’s demonstration of good faith has already proved capable of prompting important questions in the minds of young prochoice women. A few open conversations with students may be too little too late, but it’s better than nothing—at least until the prolife movement gets its own Dworkin.  

Bria Sandford is a senior editor at Penguin Random House.

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