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There's No Such Thing As A 'Pro-Life Feminist'

Gone are the days of Phyllis Schlafly's rigid anti-feminist crusade—today's anti-abortion leaders are pandering to young people with "pro-life feminism."

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Photo: Saul Loeb (Getty Images)

Even as FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story took us back in time to the 1990s this summer, the show about the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton was fundamentally modern in its unsettling explorations of the women who helped screw over Monica Lewinsky. One of those women is Susan Carpenter-McMillan, president of the notably conservative Women’s Coalition, advisor to Paula Jones, and, predictably enough, a leading anti-abortion activist. She tells Paula in the second episode of Impeachment, “People get confused when I tell them I’m a conservative feminist. But you don’t have to be a lesbian or an abortionist to believe a woman deserves equal respect to a man.”

The line marks a notable and distinctly modern departure from an anti-abortion movement, which, despite having historically railed against feminism, has more recently deployed a shift in language and leadership as it’s become desperate to court young people and exploit their affinity for social justice. Phyllis Schlafly, the face of the 20th century’s triumphant movement to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment out of concern it would allow women to leave their houses and get abortions, spent the last decades until her 2016 death accusing feminism of making women “unhappy.” But like Carpenter-McMillan on Impeachment, today’s leading anti-abortion activists have learned to brand themselves as the “real” feminists.

Shortly after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the New York Times published an op-ed by an anti-abortion author and priest titled, “Why the Feminist Movement Needs Pro-Life People.” The column came at roughly the same time The Lily published a controversial profile of the female attorney general of Mississippi, who’s leading the charge to end legal abortion via the Dobbs case and believes her gender necessarily makes this a feminist undertaking. Another Washington Post article headline reads, “The new face of the antiabortion movement is a young mom of six who listens to Lizzo” — a headline that notably obscures how this young mom of six is trying to take Lizzo’s reproductive rights away. And this summer, a “feminist” author and Catholic scholar published a whole book that attempts to make the case for “pro-life feminism.” All of these sentiments echo a 2018 radio segment in which the president of the anti-abortion group Human Coalition assured listeners that someday we’d all look back and recognize the “original feminists were pro-life.”

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His message seems to have resonated: A casual scroll of image results of anti-abortion protests reveals more and more posters declaring “pro-life is pro-women,” or “I’m with HER” (referring to “unborn” women and girls), alongside the usual posters of graphic images of aborted fetuses that share striking resemblance with Lord of the Ring’s Gollum.

In other words, gone is the “barefoot in the kitchen” messaging approach of Phyllis Schlafly. Enter, instead, a new branding approach that’s no longer as overtly, rabidly sexist, but is somehow arguably more sinister — “pro-life feminism.”

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In co-opting feminist branding, anti-abortion activists aren’t just attempting to frame their movement as socially progressive — they’re also aligning it with a vastly more popular movement. Believe it or not, loudly declaring “we want to put people in jail for having abortions!” isn’t exactly a winning political slogan these days, but being “pro-woman” is.

“Pro-life feminism” has increasingly become a fixture in electoral politics of late, since 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina branded herself as pro-women while fanatically claiming she witnessed video proof of Planned Parenthood “harvesting” aborted fetuses’ brains. Throughout her father’s presidency, Ivanka Trump similarly appointed herself the White House women’s rights czar, all while stumping for female, anti-abortion politicians throughout her the Trump presidency. It was just this summer that Sarah Palin called herself the “real feminist,” compared to fake feminists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who “milk the whole female thing” with their support for reproductive rights and sexual assault survivors.

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The reality, of course, is that “pro-life feminism” is a misnomer — the two ideologies are mutually exclusive, and the phrase makes about as much sense as a dystopian 1984 tagline like 2+2=5. Believing in “pro-life feminism” is much like believing in Santa Claus — both are ultimately figments of society’s imagination aimed at kids. Contrary to the increasingly commercialized, depoliticized sentiments of conservative and some liberal strains of feminism that regard women wearing powersuits and running exploitative corporations as “feminist,” feminism is a set of actual values to advance gender and social justice rather than anything an individual woman says or does. Forcing pregnant people to give birth against their will, criminalizing people for their pregnancy outcomes including abortion, and consequently placing pregnant people at greater risk of domestic violence and maternal death, all fall squarely in the anti-feminist category.

Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, says her abortion-providing clinic is part of a nationwide network that was founded in the 1970s, when feminist organizers “became interested in developing health centers and spaces where women could have the autonomy and authority to direct their own health care and fix the ways paternalism and patriarchy have existed in traditional health systems.”

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Contrary to pro-life feminism’s insistence that abortion is inherently disempowering and that pregnant people “deserve better” than abortion, Jackson notes that everyone’s abortion experience is different. It can be an empowering health service for many people, just as choosing to have children according to your own timeline can be empowering for others.

“Anything that might compromise our abilities to make our own choices that are best for us is simply contrary to feminism,” Jackson told Jezebel. “At my clinic, we’ve always said we want people to have a multitude of choices, and we don’t want people to be limited in the options they have available to them.

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“We’re supporting people in their pregnancies, whether they’re wanted and planned, or unintended, to have all the resources they need to deliver safely, to have a healthy community to raise children. But abortion cannot be off the table if we’re going to have real feminist spaces.” In other words, even if anti-abortion activists did support a robust social safety net (they very much do not), the availability of abortion remains essential to the dignity and safety of pregnant people.

Still, logic and other inconveniences (like the meaning of words) haven’t stopped the anti-abortion movement from its dogged pursuit of reaching young people with girl-power language and imagery and the general pink-washing of patriarchal abuse. The movement continues to grow its digital presence, particularly through ad buys and exploiting lax social media moderation.

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A cursory scroll through the Instagram account of the Texas-based crisis pregnancy network, The Source, yields handfuls of graphics and art heavily featuring Black and brown women alongside quote graphics with famous feminist figures like Lily Tomlin, Serena Williams, and even the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who ironically devoted her career to fighting for reproductive freedom. Tomlin stars in Grandma, a 2015 movie that features a teenager’s quest to navigate barriers to abortion with her lesbian grandma, while Williams has been outspoken about her harrowing experiences with near-fatal, birth-related complications as a Black woman in a racist health system.

All of their quotes featured on The Source’s Instagram page are decontextualized from their support for reproductive health and rights, as the anti-abortion organization co-opts their images and activism to brand itself as a trusted, feminist health center and peddles dangerous lies about abortion.

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Anti-abortion groups’ use of images of women of color is especially egregious considering that people of color comprise the majority of those who have abortions and are especially harmed by anti-abortion politics. Black women suffer from the highest maternal mortality rates in the US, particularly in states with more abortion restrictions, and people of color are also more vulnerable to criminalization and punishment for the outcomes of their pregnancies, as we’ve seen in the cases of Marshae Jones, a Black woman who was shot in the stomach and jailed for losing her pregnancy in 2019; Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman who was imprisoned for allegedly taking abortion pills in 2015; and Brittney Poolaw, a Comanche Nation woman sentenced to four years in prison for substance use and losing her pregnancy earlier this year.

The anti-abortion movement has always been closely linked to white supremacy, colonization, and eugenics, with the fundamental goal of policing and coercing the pregnancies of poor people of color. One anti-abortion group, New Wave Feminists, gained national attention when it was ousted from participating in the 2017 Women’s March, and the group’s former vice president Kristen Walker Hatten came forward as a proud white nationalist that same year. It makes sense that in this dystopian reality in which we live, the movement is attempting to overcompensate for its innate racism by diversifying its propaganda with college brochure-like imagery.

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Anna, a 21-year-old organizer with Jane’s Due Process (JDP), works with the Texas-based abortion fund in its mission to help primarily minors and young people navigate the state’s restrictive parental consent laws to get abortion and other reproductive care. She became involved in the reproductive justice movement after repeatedly facing barriers and even harassment trying to get birth control pills and then Plan B, eventually seeking JDP’s help to get an abortion at 17. Anna told Jezebel she had been struck by how “all the adults that had the power to help me used it against me, and put me in a position where I would be forced to become a mother.” She’s been politically organizing ever since.

Along the way, Anna says she’s encountered some of the particularly deceptive, seemingly “feminist” branding tactics of online anti-abortion activists, herself. “Crisis pregnancy centers do a really great job of just luring people, deceiving with feminist language, confusing people long enough that they might just miss the mark and can’t have an abortion,” Anna said. “The consequence of their tactics is it delays people, it causes people to wait on something as time-sensitive as abortion, when they could find actual resources, and could miss the window for an abortion.” It’s not lost on Anna, who got her abortion nearly four years ago at six weeks and one day into her pregnancy, that a matter of days can make the difference between whether or not someone is forced to give birth.

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Jackson, who’s supported young people seeking reproductive health care and also worked closely with younger organizers in the reproductive justice space, says she isn’t surprised by the anti-abortion movement’s increasingly deceptive efforts to appeal to younger generations. “All kinds of tactics, especially co-optation, aren’t unusual when folks are desperate and trying to persuade their point of view to those who otherwise wouldn’t listen.”

Just a couple examples of this: “We have protesters outside our building who yell at both our patients and staff, and often use the language of the movement for Black lives,” Jackson said. “It rings hollow. We understand it’s a manipulation tool, not genuine care for Black lives. Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of use of ‘my body, my choice’ language of anti-vaxxers to rally not for bodily autonomy, but against vaccines and masks.”

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But the thing about co-optation, Jackson notes, is that “with any level of scrutiny, their arguments fall apart, and carefully curated, manipulated, or distorted words do not hold up to an entire body of work, or entire lifetime of service, in support of an issue like feminism and health care.”

Anna is particularly wary of self-identified pro-life feminists’ performances of intersectionality. On top of The Source’s prevalent use of stock images of women of color, New Wave Feminists sells merch that quotes queer, Black feminist icon Roxane Gay, while the group’s female president has quoted Ta-Nehisi Coates and claimed his “views on personhood … are so in sync” with “pro-life feminism.”

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Anna says the faux intersectionality of the anti-abortion movement’s “feminism” also adeptly contrasts with racist blindspots in some liberal and white “pro-choice” spaces, which often have different reactions to the abortion experiences of white women versus women of color. “People of color will face more questioning of, like, ‘Why don’t you take birth control? Why don’t you just not have sex?’ or about their economic situations, even from supposed allies.

“And then we’ll hear and see all of these things that sound so right from anti-abortion propaganda. Of course for young people, in this formative time, who aren’t getting the sexual and reproductive education they deserve, they’re going to be vulnerable to all of this propaganda.”

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Speaking of propaganda, Feminists for Life President Serrin Foster made several notable media appearances over the course of the 2017 rise of #MeToo — to discredit rape victims, and criticize rape exceptions to abortion restrictions, in the name of feminism, of course.

It’s not as if rape exceptions function to help anyone other than anti-abortion politicians trying to come off as humane — they still require victims seeking abortions to prove their traumas to doctors or law enforcement in exchange for health care that should simply be their right. But a “pro-life feminist” leader’s unfiltered disdain for rape victims speaks volumes about the fundamental incompatibility of the “pro-life” and feminist movements. Forcing people to remain pregnant without their consent will always carry tremendous harm for pregnant people who are survivors, and no amount of social justice language can alleviate this.

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Drawing on her lived experiences and work to support young people navigating discriminatory barriers to abortion care, Anna knows they’ll never be a political monolith. Some millennials and Gen Z’ers oppose abortion rights and some will inevitably be susceptible to the anti-abortion movement’s digital feminist posturing. Still, she remains optimistic about the growing role of young people of color in leading the reproductive justice movement.

“My abortion saved the life I want for myself,” Anna said. “It let me control my own body, it proved to me I’m not just a government baby-making machine. That’s absolutely feminist, and empowering, especially as a young person of color. Young people of color are the future, and we should be leading the way on this.”

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As the conservative-majority Supreme Court prepares to rule on the fate of Roe and states enact one abortion ban after another, Jackson hopes the urgent political tide will motivate people to educate themselves against anti-abortion misinformation.

“I always encourage folks who are interested in reproductive justice to commit to study, to reading the literature, understand what’s been happening over generations,” she said. “If you’re confused about why [anti-abortion activists] are bringing up Margaret Sanger and eugenics, then learn about eugenics, learn about the history of this country. We can’t live based off of a nice Canva quote — we all need to go deeper to understand what’s happening.”