Feminist Futures: Reimagining Arguments for Abortion
By Brittany R. Leach | July 7, 2022
Following the leaked Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, some state legislatures passed new anti-abortion laws. Severe and numerous state-level restrictions on abortion, however, predate Dobbs v. Jackson. This policy trajectory is driven by the pro-life movement’s decades-long, unyielding activism and lobbying. The pro-life movement’s recent successes were enabled by the adoption of a superficially “pro-woman” approach in the 2010s―a strategy they have now abandoned. This creates an opportunity for feminists, who have long been in a defensive position, to reimagine arguments for abortion. Feminists can go on the offensive by fearlessly defending our values and visions of the future, affirming diversity, and addressing the emotional dimensions of reproductive politics.
Feminists can go on the offensive by fearlessly defending our values and visions of the future, affirming diversity, and addressing the emotional dimensions of reproductive politics.
Recent History of the Pro-Life Movement
The pro-life movement is highly effective at imagining futures where their political goals are realized and developing strategies for creating those futures. Their strategies evoke powerful emotions and exploit the weaknesses of mainstream pro-choice rhetoric. As the pro-life movement gained power, they shifted away from co-opting feminist language towards more aggressive and punitive language. Their policy strategy shifted accordingly. Laws exploiting jurisprudential loopholes, such as misleading “informed consent” provisions passed by many states in the 2000s and Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws in the 2010s, gave way by 2019 to outright bans and exorbitant penalties like 30-year prison sentences and $20,000 fines.
This turn towards―and then away from―a softer approach can be traced through the evolving strategies of Americans United for Life (AUL). AUL is an influential pro-life group that produces annual strategy guides, draft legislation, and other advocacy materials. In the early 2010s, AUL developed the “mother-child strategy,” which argues that abortion is harmful to women and fetuses. This strategy presents women as victims of a “profit-driven abortion industry” which convinces them they must abort their pregnancies to have successful careers and happy lives. It co-opts the language of women’s empowerment to argue for policies that fundamentally restrict women’s freedoms. The “mother-child strategy” presents anti-abortion laws as pro-woman. The AUL drafted and defended TRAP laws as necessary for women’s safety. They also lobbied for state-level restrictions that subtly inserted the idea of fetal personhood into the law without challenging Casey. For instance, fetal remains disposal regulations (a.k.a. fetus funeral laws) required burying or cremating aborted fetuses in cemeteries or funeral homes, instead of discarding them as medical waste.
Around 2018, the mother-child strategy was augmented by an increasingly punitive and triumphalist pro-life strategy. AUL’s 2017 Defending Life strategy guide reaffirmed the mother-child strategy and promised “future efforts to protect women and their unborn children from the harms inherent in abortion.” However, the 2018 edition promised to overturn Roe and boldly proclaimed a powerful vision of a world without abortion. Catherine Glenn Foster, then President of AUL, wrote that she dreams of “a day when abortion is not only illegal, but unthinkable.” The mother-child strategy deceptively presents women’s and fetuses’ interests as aligned by erasing women’s actual desires and assuming motherhood is a universal destiny, not a willing choice. Glenn Foster illustrates the horrifying endpoint of this seemingly “gentler” approach: a world where the pro-life viewpoint becomes so dominant that no one desires or even imagines having an abortion. Another fracture appears in the conflicting pro-life dissents in Garza v. Hargan (2018), an appellate case about undocumented minors’ abortion rights. Brett Kavanaugh endorses the mother-child strategy, defending delaying the minor’s abortion for her own good. Meanwhile, Karen LeCraft Henderson follows the new playbook, attacking the minor’s character, rights, and even her status as a person under the law.
Pro-life activists and legislators have adopted harsh rhetoric and policies, actively criminalizing abortion doctors, people who have abortions, and anyone who assists out-of-state abortions. By abandoning the mother-child strategy, the pro-life movement revealed that their supposed concern for women is insincere. This presents an opportunity to persuade moderately pro-life women who disapprove of abortion but never wanted miscarriages treated as potential homicide investigations. Outreach, while indispensable, should not sacrifice a bold, intersectional vision of the feminist future.
What Should Feminists Do?
Roe and Casey are now gone. One possible response to the pro-life movement’s success is for feminists to adopt the tactics that worked for their opponents. However, we should not uncritically adopt all pro-life tactics. The pro-life movement is highly disciplined and coordinated, with a relatively uniform message and policy strategy. Conversely, abortion rights advocates are ideologically and demographically diverse. Rather than worrying about fragmentation or inconsistent messaging, feminists should see diverse perspectives as a powerful strength that enables us to present many different arguments for abortion rights. We need multiple visions of feminist futures that reflect the myriad needs, desires, interests, experiences, and values of people who can become pregnant.
Rather than worrying about fragmentation or inconsistent messaging, feminists should see diverse perspectives as a powerful strength that enables us to present many different arguments for abortion rights.
Cisgender women, trans men, and nonbinary people from all racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds are affected by anti-abortion laws. Contesting these laws requires intersectional frameworks like reproductive justice that address multiple forms of oppression and build coalitions. Solidarity with queer/trans feminists is especially vital. This means highlighting overlaps between attacks on abortion rights and medical care for trans youth and aligning with LGBTQ movements for bodily autonomy. In response to cases like Garza v. Hargan, feminists should staunchly defend immigrants’ rights to abortion and healthy pregnancies. Criticizing all reproductive injustices in immigration detention―denial of prenatal care and treatment for incomplete miscarriages, forced sterilization, prison conditions that exacerbate miscarriage risk, shackling―best supports reproductive justice. Supporting the reproductive rights of detained immigrants may potentially divide moderates attracted by “mother-child strategy” rhetoric from the far-right extremists who seek to punish women, especially women of color.
Feminists must also address the emotional dimensions of reproductive politics. At times, pro-choice advocates have responded to controversies over fetal remains by appealing to neutral medical and legal standards. By contrast, pro-life activists have monopolized emotional appeals to gain support for fetus funeral laws. The experiences they exploit―such as mourning fetal death or celebrating an expected child―are real, but their connections with pro-life policy are dubious. Mourning miscarriage or stillbirth is common and legitimate; ending a wanted pregnancy that’s become life-threatening can be similarly devastating. Few regret abortion, but ending an unwanted pregnancy is emotionally quite different from aborting an otherwise welcome pregnancy because you can’t afford another child. There’s no contradiction between affirming these varied, sometimes messy emotions and defending abortion rights. Feminism is well-equipped to navigate this emotional complexity while promoting alternative policies that better address the concerns exploited by pro-life movements. For example, feminists can argue that differing feelings about fetal tissue means pregnant people (not governments or hospitals) should decide whether their miscarried or aborted fetuses are treated as medical waste or human remains.
Potentiality in Intersectional Feminism
The pro-life movement is abandoning the “mother-child” strategy that enabled its unprecedented success. This is an opportunity for feminists to deepen our defense of reproductive justice. Rather than avoiding emotion or watering down feminist values, we should persuade moderates with emotional appeals and also unreservedly center marginalized people. Only intersectional feminism addresses the full spectrum of reproductive experiences and emotions: the horrors of forced birth and forced sterilization; support for grieving pregnancy loss; the joys of gender-affirming healthcare and birth justice; and ambivalence about bringing wanted children into an unjust world.
Brittany R. Leach is Assistant Professor in the School of Anthropology, Political Science, and Sociology at Southern Illinois University.
Photo: iStock.com/Muhammad Safuan