On this National Sanctity of Human Life Day (which is one of those last-minute proclamations that George W. Bush is pushing through while nobody is paying attention to him), I went to the Pioneer Square Park to observe Oregon Right to Life’s anti-abortion rally and the counter-rally organised by Radical Women/Freedom Socialist Party.
Well, the rally was pretty big. I think there were a thousand people or two, which may not seem that large to some, but I haven’t personally been to many rallies that are so big in Portland. I walked around the square, reading and taking pictures of the signs people were holding, as it has become my personal anthropological research project to survey political rhetoric at political rallies. Some slogans I found on banners and signs that appear to have been provided by the organisers are:
“Stop Abortion Now”
“We Are Women Hurt by Abortion / We Are Silent No More”
“A Pregnant Woman Needs Support Not Abortion”
“Pro-Choice is No Choice for the Unborn”
“As a Former Fetus I Oppose Abortion”
“Women Deserve Better than Abortion”
“Abortion Stops a Beating Heart”
“I Regret My Abortion”
In addition, I saw many homemade signs that participants brought:
“Abortion is a Failure of Love”
“Peace in the Womb”
“Peace Begins in the Womb”
“Right to Choose? Or Right to Be Used?”
“Abortion is the Leading Cause of Death!”
“Human Life at Conception = Biology, Not Opinion”
“Abortion Kills Children”
“Love’s Choice is Life”
“A Person’s a Person No Matter How Small – Dr. Suess”
“Planned Parenthood Kills Babies”
“Adoption Not Abortion”
“How Can You Not Love a Baby”
“Margaret Sanger was a Racist”
I make the distinction between the two types of signs, because I assume that the statewide “pro-life” group, which is an affiliate of National Right to Life Committee, uses focus groups and marketing techniques to pick slogans that prove to be most effective, while individual participants basically put on their signs what each person feels is important or witty. In other words, if homemade signs are a window into abortion opponents’ psyche, professionally produced signs show what messages appeal to a wide audience.
Looking at the list of official slogans, the pattern should be obvious: the blatant co-optation of feminist rhetoric and sentiment in defense of women, which is employed to advance a political goal that deprives women of their constitutional right. As one speaker at the rally said: “we must defend our right to choose life” by prohibiting abortion. Apparently, the coupling of social conservativism with the public display of compassion (“compassionate conservativism”!) is still effective, or else they would not be using it in their signs.
In the meantime, here are some of the signs I found on Radical Women’s side:
“We Will Not Lose the Right to Choose”
“General Strike for Queer Rights”
“Not the Church, Not the State, Women Must Choose Their Fate”
“Pro-Life Bigots Stay Away! Abortion Rights are Here to Stay”
“Keep Abortion Legal!!”
I’m pro-choice, so I happen to agree with these positions–but I find these signs to be too legalistic and archaic almost, lacking persuasive power. At least, it offers nothing to the woman who was holding the sign “I Regret My Abortion” on the other side of the street. While the “pro-life” side is co-opting compassionate faux-feminist rhetoric to court supporters, the real feminists are failing to attract women who are not already “one of us.”
Pro-choice feminists tend to think of the abortion debate in strictly legalistic terms: the question is simply whether or not the State should stop women from choosing abortion. One could justify abortion rights on the basis of individual’s right to privacy or even on the basis of gender equality (i.e. no undue burden on one sex over another), but the bottom line is: there will be greater tragedies and injustices unless abortion is made available legally, regardless of how we might personally feel about it.
Some feminists oppose abortion on moral grounds, but does not believe that the State should enforce her morality on others, either on principle (i.e. State must remain neutral on the matter of morality), or because, as I wrote above, prohibiting abortion would lead to greater tragedies. Many feminists also recognise that abortion is not desirable, even as they support women’s legal right to have one, and work toward reducing the need for it. These stances do not make someone “pro-life,” because, in pro-choice feminists’ construction, being “pro-life” is not about supporting life, but about opposing the legal option of abortion.
But many people do not share these strictly legalistic definitions of “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” When thinking about abortion, many people–especially women–do not just think of just a woman and her body; they think about a woman and the fetus, and it offends them when feminists suggest that a fetus is just “lump of cells”–they agree with “it’s not a choice, it’s a baby.” And they feel sympathetic when they see “I Regret My Abortion” and “Women are Hurt by Abortion.”
The “pro-life” political movement has kept the meaning of “pro-life” deliberately ambiguous, and it is working to their advantage. Who isn’t for “life” after all? It is easy to point to the hypocrisy of their support for the death penalty-loving, war-mongering administration as they scream “right to life,” or their opposition to comprehensive sex education that could reduce the number of abortions that have to be performed, but I worry that the debate is framed to favour the anti-abortion side.
Perhaps what we need is a true feminist “pro-life” movement, which is concerned about women as well as (although not necessarily to the same degree) their fetuses, and for that reason works to end abortion, not by prohibiting it, but by combating unwanted pregnancies, poverty, prejudices toward and lack of publicly funded care for people with disabilities, sexual assault, etc. There certainly seems to be an opening for it. Sure, Feminists for Life already exists, but its positions are no different from traditional “pro-life” groups that employ superficially pro-women rhetoric: it focuses on making abortion unavailable through legal changes, rather than addressing economic and social conditions that make so many abortions necessary.
Pro-choice feminists would insist that such “feminist pro-life” movement is in fact pro-choice, and they are of course technically correct. But wouldn’t we make better pro-lifers than the “pro-lifers” themselves?