Can I be a pro-life feminist?

Annie Magee 8 May 2014

Apparently not.

I am signed up to the CUSU Women’s Campaign because I have greatly appreciated and supported their work during my first year at Cambridge. That was until I recently received an email from CUSU Women’s Officer, Lauren Steele, asking me to protest against a debate arguing that ‘genetics and disability should not be used as grounds for abortion’. The debate was co-sponsored by Cambridge Students For Life and MedSoc, moderated by a lecturer in bioethics, and included two speakers for the motion and two against.

What hit me most strongly in this email was the remark from Lauren that “I've even seen groups claiming that the existence of abortion is 'anti-women', that the real feminist position is against reproductive rights”. Clearly, she disagrees with this statement, and I believe that it is her right to hold that opinion, but arguing that this viewpoint is not the ‘real feminist position’ only suggests that she believes in an alternative ‘real feminist position’. The use of this term is self-contradictory and frankly, bizarre.

I’m not talking about whether we should be pro-life or pro-choice, but about being open-minded enough to accept that not all people share the same opinions, and that discussion on controversial topics is fruitful. The email assumed that I, as a feminist, should be not only pro-choice, but also actively against pro-life discussion. My personal stance (pro-choice) is irrelevant, because I want my pro-life peers to feel that they, as feminists, are allowed to express the beliefs that they hold. After all, feminism is about freedom as much as anything else; women’s freedom of speech and of behaviour. Essentially, for women to have the same freedoms as men.

Inevitably, free speech and behaviour will lead to contradictory opinions amongst groups. This is not just the case for feminists but also for all groups of people, but we should overcome this by being able to talk about our views and sensitively debate them. I can be a pro-choice feminist and the man or woman next to me can be a pro-life feminist. It is the ensuing discussion that counts.

I accept pro-choice feminism on the grounds that women should have free control over their bodies and their pregnancies if it is appropriate in the situation. I accept pro-life feminism on the grounds that men and women should be free to hold and express their reasoned arguments against abortion. Whatever the reasoning for being pro-life, it is (at least in Cambridge), likely that it is not primarily because they disagree with women’s rights. The two questions of women’s rights over their body and the belief that it is ethically wrong to abort a pregnancy may well be reconcilable. Feminism should not equate to women being free of ethical boundaries, and it should not mean that women have the right to anything and everything. The key issue, as always with the central meaning of feminism in mind, is equality.

It seems clear to me that this debate was intended by CSFL to be a platform for expressing not only their own beliefs but also for understanding the beliefs of others; to give equality to both viewpoints. By protesting rather than engaging with the debate, the CUSU Women’s Campaign missed an opportunity to express their opinions and engage with people of different beliefs, and they cut out their own voice in not even supporting the defence of pro-choice at the debate. I was very disappointed by this decision on their part, considering the potential they had to spark positive interest in their side of the debate.

It was whilst I read this email that I understood what many a Cambridge student has meant when they said that they felt ‘unwelcome’ in the Cambridge feminist movement. There is, of course, no singular, set, ‘real’ feminist viewpoint. A feminist is free to decide for him or herself where they stand on all issues, including this one. What makes them count as a feminist is the overarching pursuit of gender equality in every walk of life.

Personally, I am pro-choice, but I accept that others have pro-life beliefs which are not inherently anti-feminist. I do hold a ‘real feminist position’, and I am a ‘real feminist’, but if my open-mindedness is not accepted by the CUSU Women’s Campaign, then I shall take my feminism elsewhere.