For a long time, it has been assumed of the women's rights movement generally, and the abortion rights movement specifically, that feminism and abortion naturally go together. Surely, this is what one is made to believe by the majority of public spokespersons, activist representatives, and talking-heads on all sides of the issue. Yet, as I have pondered the feminism to which I ascribe (Christian feminism) and read the works of a variety of other like-minded women, I think that this assumption is sorely mistaken. In fact, I think it is quite legitimate to offer a feminist reasoning against abortion, both as a personal choice and social practice.
First, I think its important to make a distinction between "on the street" feminism and feminism as a worldview. "On the street" feminism, which is what is espoused by your average young American female, understands women's liberation primarily as the right of a woman to do what she pleases. (This may include the right to be paid equally and have equal rights generally, too, but the focus is personal choice.) In this mindset, it is perfectly in keeping with feminism for a woman to work her way through college as an exotic dancer, provided that's what she chooses to do. The issue of main importance is that a woman's choices are not dictated to her by a man (husband, boyfriend, father), or a male-dominated group (government, intelligentsia, church).
Now, this perspective on feminism isn't entirely mistaken. As a movement, feminism is globally and socially focused, directing its efforts toward the emancipation of women as a whole. This is done primarily by seeking for women the same rights as men in modern society, especially in the political, social, and economic realms. Often, these efforts are focused upon the removal of obstacles, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, and social structures, which hinder liberation (read: freedom).
This is somewhat in keeping with the "on the street" feminism described above, in the sense that feminism is seeking for women to be free to form their own future--one without oppression, violence, and hierarchy--and allowing for, yes, personal choice. But, I would argue that as a Christian theology and worldview, feminism is much more than this. If feminism is associated mainly with a woman's choice, it is significantly and dangerously truncated.
In its Christian form, feminism at its best is the pursuit of the flourishing of the human race as a whole and especially marginalized peoples: women of color, children, the impoverished, and the disabled. As I see it, in this "brand" of feminism, the pursuit of female liberation is held in tension with the pursuit of human flourishing. A balance is being pursued between freedom of the self and responsibility to and for the other.
So, getting back to abortion, I think it is "on the street" feminism, largely divorced from its roots in feminism as a worldview (and certainly Christian feminism), that is responsible for the emphasis on the woman's right to choose in today's abortion debates. (I should say that I do not debate in theory, the woman's right to choose what is done to and with her body. There are too many examples worldwide of women's bodies being mutilated and abused against her will for me not to [i.e., female circumcision, wife battering, sex trafficking, etc]. But, I am eager to point out that feminism is much, much more than an ideology that supports personal choice. It has a constructive, redemptive end, as well.)
And so, in an attempt to think about abortion (and the surrounding issue of female sexuality) from a Christian feminist perspective, allow me to tease out some thoughts in a rough, fairly undeveloped form. I know that I am not the first person to think in this way. Feminists of a variety of faiths--especially Catholic feminists--have been saying similar things for some time. But, this topic is fairly new to me. So, in the name of learning, I invite your (charitable) comments and (civil) interaction.
I think it can be argued that many women, particularly young women, have a mixture of antagonism, fear, and confusion regarding their bodies. Although feminism seeks to value the female body and lift it up as good, I think women continue to be informed by the patriarchal majority in how they view their bodies, particularly their sexuality.
For example, for the majority of American men, the feminine ideal is a lean, twenty-something, who dresses provocatively and is comfortable with illicit sexual liaisons. Hence, we hear women on MTV taking great pride in their ability to have a "one night stand" with a man and have no emotional problem with it at all. And, more often than not, this pride in sexual promiscuity is provided for with a variety of birth control methods.
But, Christian feminism would say that there are two major problems with this. First, the female body is not like the male body. Men can have sexual intercourse without consequence to themselves (other than sexually transmitted diseases, of course). Women, however, have the built-in capacity to conceive, carry, and bear children, as a result of their sexual encounters. The idea of sex without consequences, mutual regard, attachment, or responsibility is a very worldly and a very male concept--it arises solely from the male experience. By their very nature, women cannot have sexual intercourse without the possibility--even probability--of conceiving a child. Somehow, American women have lost touch with this reality.
Second, women who have adopted the predominantly male view of their bodies--that they must be able to act as men in their sexual encounters--develop a detrimental and thoroughly un-liberating antagonism toward their reproductive ability. The desire to participate in sexual intercourse in the way men do and the desire to be the detached, infertile, ideal woman that men want, leads them to do a variety of things to squelch their body's natural potential.
Women, by their nature, have the capacity to produce and nurture children. This is a fact. And it is a good thing. This is a primary way women are to be differentiated from men. No matter how hard modern women may try to do so, they cannot ignore their body's natural capabilities without serious consequences.
Christian feminism seeks to embrace the female body's reproductive power, to honor, protect, and nurture it for the benefit both of self and society. The female body is good. For centuries men characterized the female form as weak and contrary to the ideal. Men were associated with the mind (all things rational, strong, and powerful) and women were associated with the body (all things emotional, earthly, and weak). Because of the bodily changes women undergo--especially menstruation and childbirth--women were considered defective, dirty, and problematic. I think this idea is still embedded in the way women's bodies are spoken of, by men and women alike, and it is something that feminism should oppose.
And so, while it is certainly within a woman's rights to choose to have sexual intercourse with whoever she pleases (she is liberated, after all, and has embraced the fact that she's a "sexual being"), it is unnatural and wrong for her to expect that her body can cease its ability to conceive children when she does so--even with the use of a variety of birth controls.
In my opinion, the feminist ideal would be for women to embrace their reproductive potential--their natural ability to make children--and seek to live in responsible relationship to it. Live according to your moral convictions (or lack thereof), certainly. But do so with a view to your nature as a woman--your nature as a sexual and reproductive being.
Moreover, just as the female body is good, so also the fruit of the female body is good. The capacity to bring forth life is natural to the way of women and, going further, something to be valued and honored. Even as feminism seeks to create a world where women live without fear of exploitation, abuse, rape, and murder, so also feminism should seek to create world where the fruit of women's bodies are welcomed, cherished, and believed valuable enough to protect.
Life is, indeed, sacred. Women know this instinctively. And the lives women hold within them are sacred. And, going further, the lives women (and men) bring into the world and nurture into adulthood are sacred. For a feminist, then, sanctity of life means not just preventing a woman's child from being killed in the womb, but also ensuring the child's nourishment, health, and development outside the womb. (Hence, I believe the issue of abortion must not be divorced from the issues of poverty, health care, and education. But these are topics for another time.)
Finally, there is something deeply problematic in the way women have been conditioned to view children. Although I am by no means a believer in "quiverfull" ideology, and would have serious differences with their sympathizers on a number of levels (and they with me), the general view of American society that children are a problem, an obstruction even, to the lives of women, is false. This is the perspective held by many and is especially apparent in the view of (mostly male) employers regarding their female employees.
Christian feminism says that children are not an obstruction, either to women's liberation or the female pursuit of self-fulfillment (whether in a particular line of work or some other arena). As I see it, this negative view of children is mostly the product of a male-dominated society (and some feminist's imbibing of their ethos), which doesn't want to take responsibility for the fruit of their loins or partner fully with women in child-rearing. Further, male employers don't want either to provide financial security for women attending to the earliest stages of motherhood (maternity leave) or accept the possible financial repercussions of women placing ultimate significance in new life and mothering. God forbid the almighty dollar bow at the feet of a mere child!
Along these lines, I think a feminist must reject both the male-chauvinist rejection of working mothers (because of the financial liability) and the traditionalist rejection of working mothers (because of sharply differentiated gender roles), concluding that mothering and working go hand-in-hand, no matter what one's work is conceived to be (from accounting to quilting to zoology). Using one's gifts and abilities to serve one's neighbor and the common good (the proper Christian understanding of "work") is not closed off to women because they accept and follow-through on their body's capacity to bear children. But, once again, this means that feminists can and should support efforts to change the way society views and organizes "work," so that it is a more inviting environment, conducive to the valuing of mothering in general, and children in particular.
All this taken together leads me to conclude that abortion is not just wrong from a Christian perspective (as most of my evangelical friends argue the point), but also wrong from a feminist perspective. Women should value their bodies as distinctly female--capable of producing new life--and live responsibly in light of this truth. The fruit of their bodies--living, breathing, vulnerable children--is to be protected and nurtured, not treated as a problem to be done away with. The feminist drive to work for the flourishing of the human race extends to unborn children, as well, and desires a civil society that will value the fruit of their bodies and foster the lives of children. As an accepted social practice, abortion does not lead to the flourishing of women in particular, or the human race in general, especially in case of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us--the unborn.
In saying all this, though, I should say that I am not an idealist, nor am I unaware of the difficulties and complexities of many women's personal circumstances. I have never been faced with a surprising and unwelcome pregnancy. I am not familiar with the many difficult circumstances under which women choose an abortion (i.e., poverty, abuse, rape, and others). I am not calloused to the very real fear and anxiety that drives such women to abortion clinics. And, I am painfully aware that we live in a society where many who are adamantly opposed to abortion are just as adamantly opposed to lifting a finger (or paying a cent more in taxes) toward helping the woman who bravely chooses life.
Yet, I have concluded that ultimately, it does not benefit women or contribute to human flourishing to have a society that views their body's fertility as a problem and the children they produce as an obstruction. As a general practice, abortion contributes to this and should be opposed.
The details as to how to do this are another matter, entirely (another post for another time). For now, the above ideas are what I've been thinking recently about the relation of abortion to Christian feminism. Hopefully this can be good "food for thought" for feminists and traditionalists, alike. I'm interested in what you think.