One of our board members just gave a talk on “Family Planning: Myth, Reality, and the Lifesaving Power of Choice” at the Call to Action Conference, a large gathering of progressive US Catholics. The detailed, amply referenced handout from the presentation is useful for family planning advocates of all faiths and none. Like the presentation itself, it covers the following points.

–Family Planning Freedom Is A Universal Human Right.
–Family Planning Freedom Saves Lives.
–Pregnancy Prevention Choice Is Not Violence Against the Already-Born.
–Pregnancy Prevention Choice Is Not Violence Against the Unborn.
–Natural Family Planning Is A Good Answer for Some, But Not All.
–What You Can Do to Advocate for Family Planning Freedom!

You can download it as a free .pdf here.

Abortion opponents in the US are talking about the horrendous numbers of sex selective abortions in some Asian nations, especially India and China. Kristen Walker Hatten, for example, writes at LifeNews.com about the “horrifying, misogynistic third-world practice of gendercide.”

But she doesn’t offer any plans for transforming the cultural conditions that lead to such wide-scale abortion of baby girls, before or after birth, except to legally ban it. Never mind that in India, for example, there are already legal restrictions on sex selective abortion. And yet it continues, because violence against girls and women at all phases of life persists.

Walker Hatten concludes that if you don’t support a legal ban, you don’t care about the problem. She asks, “Where are the feminists?” when both prolife and prochoice feminists have been speaking up and agitating for years. She seems even less informed about feminists from within India, for example, who both support abortion rights and seek to abolish sex-selective abortion in conjunction with other lethal practices against girls and women. She would do well to familiarize herself with Rita Banerji of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, for one.

Walker Hatten is also quite problematic when she speaks of gendercide as a specifically “third-world practice” that has spread into the US via immigrants. In the process, she trivializes or renders invisible and inaudible any resistance from within Asian countries to sex selective abortion. She simultaneously obscures the violence against women and girls that is also epidemic in the US culture and contributes to the incidence of abortion there and in many other countries, according to recent scientific literature.

Her argument, like that of many other US abortion opponents, draws, however intentionally or not, upon a centuries-old view of brown, non-Christian, “uncivilized,” “unenlightened” people as uniquely guilty of barbarities against women–and white Christians as their “civilized,” “emlightened” saviors from their misogyny. As if violence against women and girls was not a curse of all religions, cultures, and nations; how else is it that one in three females worldwide has been subjected to gender-based violence?

But her argument, like all too many arguments from US abortion opponents, doesn’t help to abolish female feticide. Such antiabortionists hold one part of humankind responsible while letting another part off the hook, or off too lightly. And their accusation that feminists don’t care cuts off the possibilities of cooperative action with feminists, whether prolife or prochoice, who do care profoundly, and in fact have been seeking and working for much deeper, more decisive solutions than a legal ban for a long time.

We agree with Walker Hatten, of course, that female feticide is horrifying and should be abolished. We also believe that unless prenatal lives are generally treated as if they have inherent value, it is much more difficult to make a case, whether legal, ethical, or cultural, against aborting one specific group of fetuses.

But we cannot accept her blanket accusations about feminist indifference or complicity, let alone the attitudes regarding race, religion, culture, and nationality that arguments like hers encode, intentionally or not. In fact, if we didn’t care about abolishing gendercide, why would we risk the wrath of the US antiabortion movement as such?

(Reprinted from the Fall 2012 Life Matters Journal. An earlier version, titled “What the First Wave of Feminism Can Teach the First Wave of Common Ground” appeared at RHRealityCheck.org on July 9, 2009.)

Feminists of the 1960s and 70s were hardly the first to address abortion. Their nineteenth and early twentieth century foremothers also took a strong, if–to many today—unexpectedly oppositional stance. Since at least the late 1980s, prochoicers and prolifers have repeatedly, heatedly disputed the precise content and meaning of this herstory. After over two decades of research and writing on this subject, I cannot agree with prochoicers who outright deny that early feminists opposed abortion, or who claim that this opposition was for now irrelevant or retrograde reasons. Nor can I side with abortion opponents who crudely invoke early feminists even as they defend policies that harm women, such as restricted access to family planning (pregnancy prevention) services.

So what did early feminists really say and do regarding abortion, and why?

While I cannot here do justice to the abundant, many-voiced early feminist literature on abortion, I can briefly outline a consensus shared by everyone from anarchist, freethinking “free lovers” to Women’s Christian Temperance Union members. For documentation of primary and secondary sources, please consult the book I coedited with Rachel MacNair and Linda Naranjo-Huebl, ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today: Second Expanded Edition (FNSA/Xlibris, 2005), as well as my article “Activism Through the Centuries” in Consistently Opposing Killing, edited by Rachel MacNair and Stephen Zunes (Praeger, 2008).

Like some who identify as feminists today, early feminists opposed abortion out of a belief that life began at conception and acquired human rights at that point. The context of this belief was something parallel to a present-day consistent life ethic. Early feminists’ concern for prenatal lives was hardly single-issue. It was interwoven with their robust advocacy for women, especially their defense of women’s nonabortion reproductive rights, and for already-born children. It was hardly unrelated to their challenges against racism, classism, imperialism, the death penalty and war and (in many cases) their promotion of animal welfare and practice of vegetarianism.

Early feminists did not oppose abortion simply in deference to its illegality. They nonviolently challenged many quite legal practices, such as the denial of women’s right to vote, marital rape and domestic violence, and bans on the open discussion and provision of family planning. Early feminists were deeply concerned about the danger to women’s lives from doubly unsafe procedures. At the same time, they spoke about any abortion that killed a woman as a taking of two lives, not one.

Early feminists demanded, and themselves created, greater social supports for pregnant and parenting women and their children. Single mothers and their children were ruthlessly denied food, clothing, shelter, and health care on the grounds that this was aiding and abetting “immorality.” Many single mothers could not survive without going into prostitution. Married mothers, too, struggled in isolation with such difficulties as domestic violence and economic insecurity. If they were middle or upper class, they faced enforced economic dependence; if working class, toxin-riddled, unsafe jobs that failed to pay living wages or allow for healthy child care practices. As happens today, pious rhetoric about the sacredness of marriage, home, and family frequently obscured these difficulties and blocked effective solutions.

Early feminists squarely held men responsible for any children they conceived, inside or outside marriage. They called men to responsibility in an even more radical way, starting with antislavery documentation of sexual and reproductive outrages that white men committed against African American women and children. As Matilda Joslyn Gage stated, no “subject lies deeper down into woman’s wrongs” than “the denial of the right to herself.”

Although this might seem very strange to today’s prochoicers, when early feminists spoke of a woman’s “right to herself” or “right over her own body,” for them this did not include a right to abortion. It did encompass many measures that would empower women to prevent unintended pregnancies, abortions, and cases of difficult motherhood. Woman’s right to her own body unquestionably meant her right to choose whether, when, and with whom she wished to have penis-vagina sex and thus face the possibility of conception. In other words, it meant freedom from rape, inside and outside of marriage—at a time when the very notion of marital rape was laughed at, even more than it is today. Despite the prevailing cultural belief that “virtuous” women should remain ignorant, feminists also insisted upon thorough sexual/reproductive health education as part of woman’s body-right.

Against widespread contempt for “old maids” like Susan B. Anthony, early feminists defended women’s right and ability to choose a generative singlehood. Although voluntary pregnancy prevention was cast and abhorred as some monstrously wicked, selfish shirking of maternal duty, many early feminists stood up for women’s liberty to use contraceptives and even resort to “Dianaism,” or sexual practices other than penis-vagina intercourse. In a time when women were reviled or pitied even more than they are today for not marrying men, a number of women’s rights activists openly chose “Boston marriages,” or committed same-sex domestic partnerships, or at the very least warmly supported their friends and colleagues who made this choice.

Could the herstory of early feminists on abortion still mean something for today’s abortion debate–other than more pointless, unproductive argument that leaves real-life women and children, born and unborn, out in the cold? Despite all the bickering I have heard and despaired over, I dare to hope so. I believe that this herstory holds two-at least two–big lessons for the present time.

First, many—not all, but many—prochoicers and prolifers alike can validly claim these pioneering feminists as foremothers. Substantial numbers on both “sides” share a consciousness of women’s and already-born children’s rights arising from shared historical sources. Second, if people from both “sides” share this consciousness, they can together contemplate the early feminist analysis of causes and solutions for unintended pregnancy and abortion. They can ask: How does this analysis fit and no longer fit the present? To what particular collective as well as individual responsibilities does it invite us?

What if a strong prochoice-prolife coalition demanded a toxin-free environment, a better child support enforcement system, a living wage, paid family leave, and genuinely universal health care, including a full choice of voluntary family planning methods, prompt access to quality prenatal care, and drug rehabilitation for those who need it? What if we redesigned schools, workplaces, places of recreation, and religious facilities to be truly family-friendly, to all kinds of families?

In regard to abortion itself, today’s prolifers and prochoicers obviously draw the parameters of a woman’s body-right differently. For many prolifers, pregnancy interconnects two equally valuable bodies and lives. For many prochoicers, pregnancy is a matter of one body and life, the woman’s, and/or perhaps a fully realized life nurturing a potential life inside of herself. But why can’t both “sides” at least cooperate on defending a woman’s body-right before conception?

Comprehensive sex education already enjoys a broad base of public support. It can incorporate strong messages of male responsibility and nonviolence towards women and children, as well as teaching young women the assertiveness and self-respect vital to making positive decisions about their bodies and lives.

And rooted as it is basic rights of health, speech, association, religion, and privacy—freedom of conscience in pregnancy prevention is another potentially large area of common ground. This includes the right to personally choose, or not choose, from among the various reversible or permanent contraceptive methods, fertility awareness/natural family planning, abstinence/celibacy, and sexual practices other than penis-vagina sex, whether in the context of straight or LGBT relationships. I’m not one of them, but I hope people with religious or ethical objections to any of these practices can agree that it is not government’s place to decide specifically how any of us do or do not exercise this right—even if government is responsible for ensuring that everyone can exercise it freely.

At the same time, I would like skeptical prochoicers to consider that prolifers may already be more supportive of woman’s body-right than expected. I personally have advocated this right for years, and know other prolifers who have done the same. We are not isolated cases—as shown by the appeal of All Our Lives, a nonprofit that I cofounded with Jen Roth. This nonprofit organization describes itself as “pro every life” and “pro nonviolent sexual and reproductive choices.”

If prolifers and prochoicers both take up and work steadily on these shared reproductive justice responsibilities, both at the collective and individual levels: what will our descendants be talking about and doing in a century or two? What places will unintended pregnancy and abortion have and not have in their society? I for one would love to know! Surely such a cooperative effort will both expand women’s choices and protect the lives of the unborn. And—even though we cannot be sure of what they would think—wouldn’t our feminist foremothers be proud of us, at long last?

In countries where there is a vocal, well-funded minority against contraception, stereotypes against women who use it abound.

In the United States, for example, women who use contraceptives–the overwhelming majority of women, by the way–have been derided as feckless, irresponsible, selfish, monstrously unnatural, man-hating, child-hating sluts who want to live parasitically off hard-working, moral-paragon taxpayers, and who automatically have abortions without a thought if they become unintentionally pregnant. Women who do not use contraceptives, on the other hand, are praised as spiritually superior, virtuous, man-loving, child-loving, fruitful Good Girls who know their ordained place in G*d’s Order of Things.

What a different, and much more flattering, much more accurate picture emerges from a new Guttmacher Institute study, Reasons for Contraception: Perspectives of US Women Seeking Care at Specialized Family Planning Clinics, which is forthcoming in the journal Contraception.

From a release about the study:

“Women value the ability to plan their childbearing, and view doing so as critical to being able to achieve their life goals,” says study author Laura Lindberg. “They need continued access to a wide range of contraceptives so they can plan their families and determine when they are ready to have children.”

Few studies in the United States have asked women directly why they use contraception and what benefits they expect or have achieved from its use. To fill this gap, the authors surveyed 2,094 women receiving services at 22 family planning clinics nationwide.

The majority of participants reported that contraception has had a significant impact on their lives, allowing them to take better care of themselves or their families (63%), support themselves financially (56%), complete their education (51%), or keep or get a job (50%).

When asked why they are seeking contraceptive services now, women expressed concerns about the consequences of an unintended pregnancy on their families’ and their own lives. The single most frequently cited reason for using contraception was that women could not afford to take care of a baby at that time (65%). Nearly one in four women reported that they or their partners were unemployed, which was a very important reason for their contraceptive use. Among women with children, nearly all reported that their desire to care for their current children was a reason for contraceptive use.

Many women reported interrelated reasons for using contraception, suggesting that the complexities of women’s lives influence their decision to use contraception and their choice of method. Other reasons for using contraception, reported by a majority of respondents, include not being ready to have children (63%), feeling that using birth control gives them better control over their lives (60%) and wanting to wait until their lives are more stable to have a baby (60%).

The release also includes this commentary.

“Notably, the reasons women give for using contraception are similar to the reasons they give for seeking an abortion,” according to Lawrence B. Finer, author of a previous Guttmacher study on that topic. “This means we should see access to abortion in the broader context of women’s lives and their efforts to avoid unplanned childbearing, in light of its potential consequences for them and their families.”

What does this study mean from an All Our Lives sort of perspective? For one, it fits well with what we already know experientially about the critical reasons why women need and want access to the full range of pregnancy prevention methods. Reasons that have nothing to do with the abovementioned belittling stereotypes.

For another, any serious effort to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions must include expanded access to the full range of methods and understanding and alleviation of any problems that might hinder their effectiveness.

We do not advocate this course because we equate contraception with abortion, let alone believe the hype about some foreordained, inevitable “contraceptive mentality.” We advocate it because it works best in the real world, honors most women’s preferences to avert rather than interrupt unintended pregnancies, and does not involve the taking of prenatal lives. In other words, it evinces the most respect for human beings and universal human rights.

For yet another–the study findings call into question the sharp division between women who use contraception and those who do not. All Our Lives has long questioned this as just another brutal variant on the sundering of womankind into Madonnas and Whores. We assert the right of all women to use/not use any particular method of pregnancy prevention in accordance with their own preferences, values, and circumstances.

Thanks, Cristina Page, for bringing the Guttmacher study to our attention.

Because of the London Family Planning Summit, the British newspaper Financial Times has just published a special report on sexual and reproductive health.

And we get a little mention in at least the print and .pdf versions–see page 6, under the “North America” heading (although we would have preferred “Global.”) We join nearly 1300 other civil society organizations, many from the Two Thirds World, who agree that “Family Planning Saves Lives.”

You can also see the full list of endorsers here.

We are not specifically mentioned, but we are also one of the 200-plus organizational members of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, whose ad appears on page 1 of the Financial Times report.

The ad mentions “unsafe abortion” as one consequence of lacking contraceptive access. All abortions are unsafe for unborn children. Some are maternally unsafe as well.

Wonder if any other endorsers of the civil society declaration would agree with us.

Next month in London, England, the British government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will convene a global summit on family planning. All Our Lives has endorsed two important human rights declarations created in anticipation of the summit.

“Women’s Human Rights Must be at the Center of the Family Planning Summit” warns:

Our experience, built over decades of work around the world, has taught us that the failure to take actions guided by women’s human rights – to health, to life, to live free from discrimination among others – can have devastating consequences. Policies that accept or tacitly condone forced sterilization, the coercive provision of contraceptives, and the denial of essential services to the young, poor and marginalized women that need them every day have violated, and continue to violate, women’s human rights.

Nearly twenty years ago, governments at the [1994 Cairo] International Conference on Population and Development agreed that respect for women’s reproductive autonomy is the cornerstone of population policy. Any return to coercive family planning programs where quality of care and informed consent are ignored would be both shocking and retrograde.

A global letter of support for the summit emphasizes a program of action to increase family planning access to the millions of human beings who currently lack it.

We applaud the London Summit on Family Planning for its commitment to work with poor and vulnerable populations to increase individual awareness, address socio-cultural barriers, and increase community acceptability of family planning, including comprehensive sexuality education. In particular, we applaud the initiative’s emphasis on empowering women and girls, and delivery through increased service provision. We encourage you to focus on providing information and services to those who have historically faced poor access to family planning, especially young people, poor women, people with disabilities; rural, indigenous, displaced and post crisis populations. Similarly, we encourage you to make linkages to other programmes including those for economic development, education (especially for girls), environmental protection, HIV/AIDS,maternal and child health, security and youth.

We commit to working with communities and reaching poor and vulnerable women and girls with evidence-based information so that they can make informed choices regarding their fertility and choice of contraceptive method.

Yes and yes. If we are the sole prolife group signing on to these statements, well, it’s got to start somewhere.

On Truthout, Eleanor J. Bader favorably mentions All Our Lives in her article Criminalizing Pregnancy: How Feticide Laws Made Common Ground for Pro- and Anti-Choice Groups.

Although…it would be nice not to be called “anti-choice.” It’s not what we call ourselves, and in fact we are about creating and expanding other and better choices than abortion. “Anti-choice” suggests a categorical opposition to women’s self-determination. It does not fit us.

Daily Cloudt, a new activism platform, is running as its lead story an article I wrote about why All Our Lives, in contrast to Feminists for Life, works for family planning freedom. Unfortunately, the site put a title and a summary on the article that are more antagonistic than I wanted them to be.

Probably it is better to be heard under a problematic label than not to be heard at all. Maybe someday. Though today would be preferable.

Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant living in Indiana, was shamed and abandoned by her boyfriend when she told him she was pregnant. She became so despondent that she attempted suicide by eating rat poison. Because friends and medical personnel intervened, she survived, and tried to make sure that her daughter, whom she named Angel, did too. Unfortunately Angel died in her arms a few days after birth. Bei Bei Shuai was then charged and imprisoned for feticide and murder. She recently lost her appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court to have the charges dropped.

Today Shots, the health blog of National Public Radio, reports that Bei Bei Shuai’s bail has been set at $50,000, a daunting amount, especially for someone without money. According to Shots:

Meanwhile, the groups now fighting to have women spared from prosecution under fetal homicide laws are turning to those who advocated for them in the first place — anti-abortion groups. Those groups, however, have been uncharacteristically quiet. Neither of two of the more outspoken groups; the National Right to Life Committee nor the Susan B. Anthony List, would comment on the issue.

My feedback to Shots:

I serve on the board of a prolife group, All Our Lives (http://www.allourlives.org), that *is* taking a stand for women like Bei Bei Shuai and Christine Taylor. We have sent a letter of support to Bei Bei Shuai and signed onto National Advocates for Pregnant Women’s amicus brief in the Alabama Kimbrough/Ankrom case, which is about prosecuting pregnant women who use substances.

We do not believe that prosecuting and scapegoating women for substance use/abuse or fetal homicide is the way to bring about respect and support for both of the inestimably valuable lives, the mother’s and the baby’s, in each and every pregnancy. In fact, such criminalization can pressure women into having abortions.

How about instead guaranteeing that every woman-with-child can access, and promptly,  all the health and social services, such as substance abuse treatment and mental health care, necessary to give life and health to *both*?

I also wonder why the Susan B. Anthony List, if it wants to genuinely follow in Anthony’s footsteps, would stay quiet about these criminalization cases. After all, during the late 1860s, Susan B. Anthony advocated strongly for Hester Vaughan, a penniless immigrant woman impregnated and then brutally abandoned and turned into the streets by her employer. Vaughan was then imprisoned and sentenced to death when her baby died shortly after she gave birth in an unheated garret in wintertime. Because Anthony and other feminists–including Dr. Charlotte Denman Lozier, for whom the SBA LIST has named its new public policy wing–rallied to Vaughan’s aid, Vaughan was pardoned and helped back to her home in England.

Anthony and her compatriots opposed abortion and infanticide, yes–they even used the terms interchangeably–and they worked vigorously to alleviate the root causes of these practices, through legislation and other means, such as calling men to sexual and reproductive accountability and promoting voluntary motherhood. But they did not want pregnant and postpartum women to be criminalized. Their stance was of its time, and yet it still has something to teach ours.

The organization Liberty Counsel has its own amicus brief in support of Alabama’s drive to criminally prosecute pregnant women who use substances.

Why? On the grounds that the unborn child is a full-fledged human being.

Liberty Counsel amasses historical evidence that the law has treated unborn children as human beings like any other.

But its brief does nothing to assess whether in the real world, the criminal prosecutions in Alabama actually foster the treatment of unborn children–not to mention their mothers!–as full-fledged human beings.

Liberty Counsel thus takes an enormous and unwarranted leap from the claim of fetal humanity to a position that *threatens* fetal and female lives, health, wellbeing, and rights.

Any such claim needs to have advocacy of robust, generous, nonpunitive assistance with abortion alternatives written right into it, or it has no validity whatsoever.

In the case of pregnant women who abuse substances and their fetuses, that means immediately accessible, free/affordable, specialized, high quality drug treatment programs.

Liberty Counsel mentions nothing of the sort in the brief, or anywhere else.

It also invokes nineteenth century physicians and academics who opposed abortion, without mentioning or discussing the fair amount of misogyny mixed into their views.

The brief does quote the antiabortion views of one feminist doctor, Mary Dixon Jones. But it omits her connections to the women’s rights movement.

It says nothing of early feminists’ consensus on abortion. They defined it as unjust prenatal lifetaking that could not be opposed without simultaneously and throughly challenging its root causes, such as the denial of women’s sex education and family planning rights, and the criminalization of single mothers as sex offenders.

Small wonder that All Our Lives got behind the opposing brief, not Liberty Counsel’s!

Joining over 40 other organizations concerned about maternal and child health and welfare, All Our Lives has signed onto an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief documenting the many evidence-based reasons why the State of Alabama should not criminalize substance using pregnant women.

One reason is that women will feel pressure to have abortions because substance abuse treatment is so difficult for them to access during pregnancy and they fear prosecution. Yet this criminalization is pushed in the name of establishing rights for unborn children! Punishing women and driving up the abortion rate doesn’t accomplish that in the real world.

We signed onto the brief after reaching out to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, in response to an RH Reality Check article by their attorneys Lynn Paltrow and Emma Ketteringham, Now It’s Clear: Pro-Life Means Pro-Imprisonment.

It doesn’t have to. And it won’t, if we can at all help it!

Thanks especially to Emma Ketteringham for her help.