I hate to think I have become a cranky old feminist, but some days that is exactly how I feel.
The full-colour brochure that was waiting for me in my mailbox a few weeks ago was one of those days.
I had just returned from a visit with two feminist friends. We met many years ago doing violence against women work and, although our lives have taken us in different directions – literally and figuratively – we have stayed connected and manage one in-person visit a year.
It was 24 wonderful hours of laughter, sharing stories, remembering the work we have done, the mistakes we have made, the lessons we have learned and, given our ages, contemplating the realities of what it means to be a woman getting old. The visit reminded me of how important friendship is and left me feeling restored and even a little bit hopeful about the future. I was anything but cranky.
Until I got home and looked in my mailbox. There it was, an anti-choice brochure replete with colour photos of so-called aborted fetuses — sorry, I should have said “killed children” — and of hugely blown-up images of (apparent) fetuses at different stages of development. Out came the cranky feminist, as I thought to myself
“How dare you! You think you can walk up my driveway, shove these hate- and fear-mongering lies into my mailbox and just walk away? I don’t think so!”
The brochures were stuffed in mailboxes in my neighbourhood in conjunction with an anti-choice demonstration. You know the kind. People, lots of them men who have never had to consider the impact of an unplanned pregnancy, never had to worry about being raped, never had to give up a job or a promotion because of a pregnancy, never had to deal with the consequences of failed contraception, holding up giant banners with obscene images on them.
We have not come a long way, after all
Like many of you, I remember when women could not get abortions legally in Canada. I remember the fight to decriminalize abortion, to legalize clinics, to keep women going into clinics safe, to keep clinics and the people who worked in them safe. I was part of some of those fights; fights that I hoped were in the past.
But of course, we know they are not. Because, horrible brochures aside, we still live in a time and place where many women feel they have to apologize for having an abortion; have to come up with a reason; have to justify their decision. And this is wrong.
Katha Pollitt, the American feminist who has written powerfully and persistently for decades about women’s right to choose, talks about what she calls the “awfulization” of abortion in her book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. She writes:
“Why can’t a woman just say, This wasn’t the right time for me? Or two children (or one, or none) are enough? Why must the woman apologize for not having a baby just because she happened to get pregnant? It’s as if we think motherhood is the default setting for a woman’s life from first period to menopause, and she needs a note from God not to say yes to every zygote that knocks on her door.”
Pollitt lays some of the responsibility for this at the doorstep of the pro-choice movement:
“Anywhere you look or listen, you find pro-choicers falling over themselves to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult.” How often have you heard abortion described as “the hardest decision” or “the most painful choice” a woman ever makes? . . . [This] comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud.”
The power of lies
I agree with Pollitt, but it’s pretty hard to talk about abortion as a positive social good when confronted with the kind of dishonest and emotionally manipulative language that appears in the anti-choice literature, including brochures like the one in my mailbox:
“[I]f we wouldn’t even give the death penalty to the guilty rapist, why would we give it to the innocent child?”
“Abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of the mother and is always wrong.”
Real freedom of choice
But we have to resist the temptation to soft pedal our position. We will never persuade people with rabid anti-choice beliefs just because we speak gently and apologetically about women’s right to choose if and when to have children. Our language needs to speak truth to power, regardless of how the opposition frames its positions. We need to assert that women – all women, everywhere – have the right to make these decisions for ourselves and to be supported socially, politically, legally and medically when doing so.