Dear Real Life Feminist,
I don’t believe in abortion. I believe in equal rights and equal pay for women, but abortion doesn’t seem to be related to those things. Can I still call myself a feminist?
Confused Imaginary Reader
Dear Confused Reader,
Oh. My. That’s a very hard question to answer. And you haven't explained WHY you don’t believe in abortion or for whom you don’t believe in abortion. That leaves me with quite a lot to explore. How nice for me to have such free rein to talk about abortion and feminism!
Former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders said, “If you can't control your bodies and your reproduction, you can't control your life.” That speaks — loudly and directly — to the notion of personal autonomy for women being central to self-determination, a central tenet of feminism. Women should have the right to control their bodies at every stage of the reproductive process, because the reproductive process doesn’t supersede the basic rights of the woman.
But what does that mean in practice? It means, if I may be so bold as to speak for my entire gender, that women have the right to sex for pleasure as well as the right to sex for reproduction. Women have the right to welcome pregnancy or deny pregnancy. And no two women are required to do any of that in the same way.
There are women for whom the denial of pregnancy is best obtained through abstinence (abstinence works really well). There are women who prefer to deny pregnancy via birth control. Some birth control works really well. (Some doesn’t, and access to birth control is often inversely proportional to its effectiveness.) Some women deny pregnancy after a pregnancy has occurred via medical or surgical abortion. These are truths and, in the US, they are rights.
Now, when you say you don’t believe in abortion, who are you talking about? Yourself? That’s cool. There have been times in my (feminist) life that I would not have chosen an abortion in the event of a pregnancy. There have been times when I would have. I feel OK about knowing that my personal position on getting an abortion has changed over the course of my life because lots of other things changed, too. We all feel differently about pregnancy over time, and that’s OK. My body, my choices, my life.
If your lack of belief in abortion starts to spill over and affect other people, well, then we have a problem.
You see, abortion, whether you believe in it or not, is a thing. Abortion, whether it’s legal or not, is a thing. Abortion, whether it’s safe or not, is a thing. In all of human history, there have been women who were pregnant when they did not wish to be and they found ways to end the pregnancies. Abortion has always existed and it always will. If you look around the world, you will see that even in countries where abortion is prohibited, abortions take place at much the same rates as in countries where abortion is legal.
Abortion does not require your belief. Abortion happens without regard to you.
People who don’t believe in abortion talk a lot about shutting down access to abortion, as if supply were the issue. Women don’t get abortions because abortions are available. It’s the other way around: abortion is available because women demand them. Just because a clinic closes down, doesn’t mean women won’t abort pregnancies. It just means they’ll do it under much shadier, much less safe circumstances than they would have if other people’s beliefs hadn’t gotten in the way.
If you not believing in abortion means you desire to prohibit other women from obtaining abortions, what you are saying is that your beliefs matter more than the safety of the woman seeking the abortion. You care more about your personal opinions than about ensuring that women are able to get abortions in safe, sterile circumstances by well-trained, competent medical professionals. You think your beliefs matter more than the autonomy and self-determination of women, even women who believe differently than you.
As to the original question, I guess you can still call yourself a feminist if you want to. But I get to call you a jerk who doesn’t really respect the rights of other women.