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Will the Real Feminists Please Stand Up?

Tuesday, 28 February 2012  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

Melinda Tankard Reist is a well known Canberra writer and political activist  who describes herself as a feminist and an advocate for women and girls. Her most recent work has been in opposing the sexualisation of girls and exposing the global pornography industry. She has taken on powerful forces, and is used to being in the media spotlight. But a few weeks ago she found herself the target of strident attacks by a number of women bloggers and writers who sought to discredit her. The first claim to be made was that she was deceitful because she failed to disclose her religious views (according to a report in the Age, her religion is ‘evangelical Baptism’). The  next, which elicited even more commentary, was that she could not be a genuine feminist because she is ‘pro-life’.

Jill Singer in The Herald Sun described Tankard Reist’s brand of feminism as ‘highly contentious’. She pointed out, as did almost every commentator, that Tankard Reist had worked in the past for Senator Brian Harradine and campaigned against abortion. “There is no such thing as a pro-life feminist” was the heading of an article by Anne Summers in The Sunday Age, in which she claimed that you cannot support women’s rights without supporting abortion.  According to Summers, Tankard Reist is not entitled to call herself a feminist, because “feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women's ability to be independent”, and  “there are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one's fertility”.

These attacks prompted other writers to protest against the exclusive right of the ‘self-appointed sisterhood’  to define who is a  feminist and to attempt to stifle debate. But while defending Tankard Reist’s right to express her views on abortion, they mostly were at pains to say they disagreed with it.  So how is it that feminism has become synonymous with being ‘pro-choice’ for so many people?

It has not always been so. The early feminists defended the rights of both women and unborn children and deplored the crime of abortion. More recently, the Pro-life feminist movement (ironically described by its detractors as’ revisionist’) argues that far from being liberating for women, abortion practices primarily serve the interests of men, enabling them to avoid responsibility for  their sexual promiscuity because there is a ‘solution’ to unplanned pregnancy. It is also being increasingly recognised that abortion often harms women. Tankard Reist’s book Giving Sorrow Words contains the personal accounts of many women who, thinking abortion would be a solution to their problem, were unprepared for the grief and suffering it caused.

But the claim that real feminists are pro-life goes beyond a utilitarian argument that abortion is often, perhaps almost always, harmful for women. Indeed, the very basis of the claim to equality argued by the early feminists, and still today by evangelical egalitarians, is also the basis for protecting the unborn.

The claim to equality for women is based not on their womanhood, but on their humanity. For Christians, this derives from the biblical doctrine of the creation of humanity , male and female, in the image of God. John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) outlines the moral principles on which the early women’s movement was based, but which logically should also apply to our understanding of the unborn, as equally human. First, a woman’s value is determined by her humanity, not by the value a man places on her. In contrast, pro-choice feminists often argue that, while the foetus is undeniably human, she has no inherent value unless and until her mother chooses to take on responsibility for her. 

Second, differences between men and women are inconsequential to their humanity, which is the basis of their equal rights. In particular, Mill argued that the greater strength and power of men does not give them the right to exercise that power to subjugate or abuse women.  In contrast, pro-choice feminists argue that a woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body (which she shares with the foetus when she is pregnant) because she has the power to do so. But if women expect the law to protect them when they are vulnerable to being harmed by men, why should it not protect the vulnerable unborn ?

Applying the arguments for women’s rights consistently will lead to a pro-life, not a pro-choice position, even while recognising the necessity of  terminating a pregnancy in rare, tragic circumstances.  And the rights of women should not be pitted against the rights of their children. In most cases, abortion harms both of them. So, will the real feminists please stand up?

Denise Cooper-Clarke
is a medical ethicist and researcher for ETHOS.

This article draws significantly on Sulia and Karen Mason, “Feminism and Abortion” in Discovering Biblical Equality (IVP, 2004)



Charles Sherlock
March 1, 2012, 12:32PM
Thanks - a helpful insight into a world I'm largely unfamiliar with.
Gordon Preece
March 1, 2012, 7:36PM
Well done, Denise, in showing up the problems of fundamentalist feminism. I wonder if what we're seeing is three different political forms of feminism: Anne Summers and co's fundamentalist libertarian feminism, where choice is all in relation to abortion or porn; liberal feminism which seeks to balance choice and equality; and conservative, communal feminism which has a more organic notion of order, tying women's and children's rights together in a form of bodily union.
Erin Deppeler
March 17, 2012, 2:38PM
Abortion is NOT a crime. Rape is a crime. While I understand that abortion may threaten women's emotional and physical health, there are worse things. Imagine the terror of a 12yo sexual abuse victim who discovers her molester has made her pregnant. She might be your daughter, niece or granddaughter. In such a situation abortion is the ONLY way to protect a helpless child. No strident religious views should ever be allowed to subject her to more torture. She must never suffer any more horror and pain, now or 15 years later when the adopted out child asks about their origins, receives a hideous answer and is psychologically destroyed by addiction, mental illness etc. Better never born than to grow up knowing your father raped your mother.
Murder is a crime also. Imagine pregnancy endangers a woman's life - only termination can save her, but she is pressured by "religious" fanatics into continuing the pregnancy and dies. They killed her.
Pro life AND pro choice groups must realise there is a time and place for abortion. I realise it, as a woman and a feminist. I do not advocate it wholesale or after @the 20th week (except in medical emergency). All I ask on behalf of my sisters is that they have the choice.

Erin from B'dale

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