A womanist culture of life

Q: Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion in all circumstances? Can you be a person of faith and … Continued

Q: Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion in all circumstances? Can you be a person of faith and support abortion in some circumstances?

It is not possible to be a feminist who opposes abortion in ALL circumstances. This is because a feminist will care about the life and health of women. It is possible to be a feminist who opposes abortion in most circumstances. It is also possible to be a person of faith who supports abortion in some circumstances. It is possible to be a person of faith who supports a woman’s legal right to choose an abortion at her own discretion. The larger question is: what is the meaning of abortion for public policy based on a culture of life?

Feminism has always taken many forms. There is not now nor has there ever been an essential feminism. There is also no such thing as a natural woman or an essential female. There are feminists who would argue this point and say that there are necessarily attributes that make a woman a woman. I am not one of them. I am a womanist and an existential feminist. I agree with Simone de Beauvoir that existence precedes essence, that women are made and not born. As a womanist, I think that the meaning of our lives as women is shaped by historical and cultural time and space. Race, class, sex, and sexual orientation are among the factors that influence how women interpret and live their reality in the world.

When we consider the objection to abortion of 19th century American feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and others, it is important to understand their argument. They opposed abortion because they considered it as a way for men to abdicate their financial responsibilities to women and to their children. An analogy between women and female grizzly bears and pit bulls is not convincing here. While human beings are animals, we are the animal with the capacity for rational thought. Our feminist foremothers wanted respect for women’s ability to reason for themselves and to participate in the politics of the nation because of this capacity. If we extend that logic, it is reasonable to presume that they would support a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.

The pro-choice stream of feminist and womanist thought argues that the choices of a woman regarding her body ought to be respected, that there ought not to be legal requirements placed upon a woman’s body without her consent. Pro-choice feminist and womanists also remember the lived history of women in the United States and in the world regarding abortion. Women have died because of illegal abortion. There was a time in the not too distant history of the United States when women ran a kind of Underground Railroad to take women with unplanned, problem or dangerous pregnancies from states that did not allow legal abortion to states that did. And the tragedy of death by abortion fell disproportionately on poor women since wealthy women could have it done by their private physicians or leave the country to get a legal procedure.

The choice of abortion is a matter of personal liberty. The state has an obligation to allow its female citizens the freedom to make their own reproductive decisions. Further, the state has an obligation to the life and the health of women whether they decide to terminate a pregnancy or to carry a pregnancy to term.

Faith communities also have obligations to their female members. They have an ethical obligation to teach the moral tenants of their belief systems. Their teaching will and ought to influence the moral reasoning of women. The caution I issue is against idolatry. If a faith community’s religious doctrine requires a woman to bear a child at the cost of her own life, then that community has begun to worship the doctrine rather than a God of love and mercy.

The issue of abortion is delicate and complicated. There is no space for one woman to judge another woman’s choice. It is not as simple as Sarah Palin’s pronouncement: “choosing life may not be the easiest path, but it is always the right path.” To whose life does she refer? In the case of a woman who could lose her life if she does not have an abortion, Palin’s statement is tragically meaningless.

This is why it is difficult to take Sarah Palin seriously on much of what she says. She speaks in superficial and vacuous conservative slogans worn threadbare with repetition. Her pronouncements often indicate a lack of information regarding public policy and/or outright prevarication. This is evinced by her claim that the new health care law allows for public funding of abortion. I have read the sections on abortion in the law. There is no public funding. Law professors have read the abortion language and cannot find a provision that allows for public funding of abortions. The Hyde Amendment remains in force.

When she speaks of frontier feminism and women going west where there were no women, she fails to consider the presence of Native American women in the western United States. They were there for thousands of years before Europeans discovered that the world was round. She fails to consider what we can learn from the lives, history, social organization, religion and morals of these indigenous women. When Palin speaks of abstinence as the most effective form of birth control, she fails to consider that when young women are not taught a comprehensive course in human sexuality that includes information about birth control and the prevention of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases they are more likely to experience unplanned pregnancy and contraction of STDs. Her analysis is much too shallow to become the basis of making good public policy.

Similarly, the tea party movement that she praises as “a beautiful movement” is incoherent. Its supporters complain about budget deficits and high taxes. Yet, we hear no advocacy for an end to or a reduction of Medicare and social security. We do not hear a critique of war and of defense spending. These are the largest portions of the federal budget. The budget deficit will require higher taxes, yet they falsely claim that taxes have gone up for most American during the Obama administration. They have no credible position on taxes that will bring down the deficit.

When tea party people speak of taking our country back, from whom do they want to reclaim it? Do they want to take it back from the 10% of the American population that owns it? G. William Domhoff of the sociology department of the University of California at Santa Cruz, writing in an on-line essay entitled “Wealth, Income and Power” says the following:

“In terms of types of financial wealth, the top one percent of households have 38.3% of all privately held stock, 60.6% of financial securities, and 62.4% of business equity and over 75% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.” As far as I know, the Tea Party is silent about income disparity and the structural violence that such does to a society. This includes the economics of abortion.

When we consider abortion within the context of a culture of life, it is important to understand that a culture of life ought to be a culture of whole life. It is a holistic spiritual morality. It is a culture of care for the lives of women, for children outside of the womb, for the quality of life of warriors returning home with life-altering physical and psychological injuries and the stresses this puts upon their families. It is a culture that recognizes the madness of war and recognizes that noncombatants always bear the brunt of violent conflict. Life is aborted in war. It is a culture of love that respects the earth and the plant and animal life that lives on it and inside of it. A culture of life is concerned with the coral reefs that could suffer irreparable damage because of oil spilling into their space. Another kind of abortion.

All life is connected. All life shares the holy breath that is the mystery of life itself. If religion teaches us anything, it teaches us the meaning, the beauty and the responsibility of this connectedness. Aborted life in all its iterations is a tragedy. Public policies that reduce economic disparity, that provides health care and comprehensive sex education, that ends war and that protects the environment, will reduce the tragedy of abortion. This is feminist and womanist. Such is a culture of life.

  • twmatthews

    Wow, a very comprehensive discussion on a range of issues from feminism to tea party politics. Well said Valerie. I particularly liked your venture into a discussion about taking the country back — from whom.

  • IsadoraN

    Well said and beautifully written. There are people who are comfortable with the shallow sound-bite slogans that validate the beliefs they adopt without question or critical examination. Those people, and many of the people leading them around by the nose, would wither upon reading this essay.