How abortion divides the feminist movement

By Stephanie Pacheco

On a Monday afternoon, a panel of seven women, some dressed in blazers, others in colorful skirts and sporting hair colors from blue to purple to gray to black, sat on stage to discuss–civilly–a topic that tends to ignite irresolvable arguing: abortion, and its place within feminism.

The discussion, hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America, included activists from across the aisle, seeking to understand and contemplate feminism and life issues in light of the two January 2017 marches in Washington DC. One was the March for Life; the other was the March for Women, an event which came to center on abortion rights.

The disagreement in starting points and perspectives remained a major barrier, but the willingness of all to hear each other revealed at least three areas of consensus:

  1. Abortion Has Structural Roots – No one wants women to be forced into abortion.

feministOne of the pro-abortion panelists, Prof. Klein-Hattori, defended abortion as socially constructed. However, her stance did not stop her from acknowledging the problematic cultural values which pit individual achievement versus parenting, and wage labor against fertility, motherhood and nurturing. The social conditions of labor often lead women in hard situations to feel like there is no other choice.

Destiny H. de la Rosa of New Wave Feminism and Aimee Murphy, two of the pro-life speakers, likewise condemned the lack of social support for women facing unplanned pregnancies and how the scarcity of resources: financial, childcare, medical or otherwise, is a terrible situation that they want to make obsolete.

  1. Women’s empowerment is good for women and for society.

Though they disagreed on the definition, all the panelists called themselves feminists–they wanted to see the value of women in society increase to be treated as fully equal. They called out to recognize women’s unique gifts and contributions, something Pamela Merritt, a pro-abortion panelist, added while still diverging on the inclusion of pro-life within feminism.

Pro-life Cessilye Smith of Doulas for Life sounded the clarion that “We birth the nation,” and that the contributions of this essential but overlooked “superpower” are something we should pay more attention to and celebrate. She also brought emphasis to the problem of losing more black babies, born and unborn, and mothers to abortion and complications of labor and delivery.

  1. Unjust violence against all people matters – Across the board, the panelists wanted every person to be treated with justice.

Murphy and de la Rosa brought particular emphasis to the ideal of human equality, that all life matters and that no one should be subject to unjust violence including capital punishment, unjust war, or because of their nationality or legal status

Among the pro-abortion panelists, both Klein-Hattori and Merritt seemed genuinely surprised–and pleasantly so– by the language of the pro-life women on the panel with their whole life ethic, including calls end to all violence against innocents and their cries to meet and aide women in challenging situations in addition to their celebration of women’s unique life-giving potential.

This part of the dialogue went a long way toward dispelling some of the stereotypes of pro-life people as only caring about the unborn and being inconsistent about valuing the lives of immigrants or non-Americans.

Still, key definitions and practicalities divided the six-woman panel.

  1. Whether abortion counts as murder of an innocent person

The question of personhood or when a developing baby becomes a “person” with rights was a point of contention with abortion supporters and almost became a major diversion. Pro-life Murphy easily extended rights to the developing embryo, pointing out the person sitting in the chair today was the same being that grew in the womb years ago.

Merritt and Klein-Hattori believed that the adult woman still mattered more and should be granted rights over the fetus. Dr. Knobel skillfully brought the discussion back to the role of abortion in feminism by pointing out that some abortion defenders philosophically grant the fetus full personhood and still defend the practice.

  1. Whether abortion contributes positively or negatively to women’s empowerment

Then they addressed whether abortion is good for women. Merritt, who works for a pro-abortion advocacy non-profit, argued that abortion was good for women. Klein-Hattori echoed the call to “trust” women and added that giving women control over their reproduction was key to women’s empowerment.

De la Rosa, from the pro-life camp, agreed that a woman should be charge of whether she had children or not, but that abortion was not the right path to do that. She emphasized autonomy, and alluded both to the value of big families and to the importance of choosing to conceive. She thought that valuing fertility as opposed to ending it would benefit the perception of women’s unique value.

  1. Whether abortion was inevitable and how that affects its legality.

All the pro-choice speakers agreed that because abortion happened historically and across cultures, that it simply would always happen, and that it was a necessary option that was inseparable from women’s empowerment. The idea of absolute moral prohibitions such as we have against murder did not sway them.

Aimee Murphy argued that regardless of its apparent inevitability abortion should still be illegal, presumably because like, murder, it is inherently wrong. De la Rosa added a pro-life counter point that saw banning abortion as unnecessary, just as banning suicide is unnecessary. Her focus was to find ways to help people avoid it rather than use legal means.


Best, was both sides recognizing the structural factors lead to the demand for abortion and agree that those are problems. The demands of caring for young children can prevent hard-up women from from supporting themselves. As pro-life Catholics, glossing over these realities makes us lose our credibility.

Meanwhile, hearing the abortion supporters articulate the philosophical worthlessness of the person: whether born, developing, dying or suffering was the most tragic part. This mentality that easily permits physician-assisted suicide, abortion in general and abortion of the disabled, poses a rapidly-eroding threat to the value of life which must undergird a healthy society, one that values all its members.

The focus of the pro-life movement has its work cut out: show the humanitarian value of those whose lives are said not to matter: the disabled, the dying, the very young, the ill and the homeless, and others who find themselves alone. Functioning in a way that values women, children and that supports people through difficult circumstances is one way to show the fruits of a better philosophy that can hopefully work a revival in our cultural towards valuing all people.

spachecoStephanie Pacheco is a freelance writer and convert from Northern Virginia. She earned a M.A. in Theological Studies, summa cum laude, from Christendom College and holds a B.A. from the University of Virginia in Religious Studies with a minor in Government and Political Theory. Her work has been featured in America Magazine, Crisis Magazine, Soul Gardening Journal and syndicated by EWTN and Zenit. She blogs about making sense of the Catholic Faith in modern life at theoress.wordpress.com and lives with her husband and two young children.
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