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Friday, June 8, 2007

Are Feminists for Life Really Feminists? Part Three

On Feminists for Life and pregnancy prevention methods:

Now here is an area where FFL has for years needed to change!

I do remember when the current policy on family planning methods was developed. And as FFL president Serrin Foster discusses in the Mother Jones article, there were elements in it of trying to accomodate a wide range of views within the organization, and not wanting to stretch a strapped-for-resources nonprofit too thin, but instead sticking to its main focus on the unmet needs of women who are already pregnant and beset with pressures towards abortion.

However...a large and pointed however....

The policy has been a cause of ongoing discontent and dissent for me and many prolife feminists ever since, and it's scared off otherwise interested people from joining or staying in the organization.

I and many other prolife feminists are unapologetic advocates of voluntary contraception, as well as any other voluntary, informed, safe methods that women and men can choose to prevent undesired pregnancies--fertility awareness methods, outercourse, abstinence, same-sex relationships, for example. We advocate these methods in their own right and as essential means of reducing abortion.

Something like 85% of people in the abortion-opponent movement support contraception, and I'm willing to bet that percentage is much higher among people who gravitate to both the words "prolife" and "feminist."

So why doesn't FFL's policy reflect our views?

And if FFL still--after all this--wants its policy to reflect a diversity of views and/or not stretch its resources too thin: aren't there other and better ways for FFL to do this?

For example, why can't it set forward an unequivocal, unabashed resolution in favor of the right to voluntary pregnancy prevention, through whatever nonviolent method(s) accord with one's beliefs?

Even if FFL wants to stay focused on women's postconception needs just as other groups focus on the preconception needs...why can't it assert that active respect for the abovementioned human right of women is essential to getting at the root causes of abortion?

Prochoice feminists have also regularly zeroed in on the FFL policy as the definitive proof that there is no such thing as a prolife feminist or that we are at the very least a suspect and (as Frances Kissling put it) "weaselly" bunch.

So the policy has definitely thwarted the capacity of prolife and prochoice feminists to dialogue and work together and with the "general public" on common-ground measures that reduce abortion.

So why does FFL hold onto it? Inquiring minds want to know.


Ben D. said...


Just found your blog, more or less by accident. I've heard some compelling arguments that artificial contraception -- by which I mean any method of avoiding pregnancy that doesn't include avoiding intercourse -- is actually one of the root causes of abortion.

The basic argument, I think, is that the society-wide use of artificial contraception promotes a society-wide mentality that tends to view children as an unfortunate and undesired consequence of intercourse, while at the same time enouraging a massive increase in sexual activity, particularly an increase in intercourse.

But nature tends to assert itself, and artificial contraception is never perfectly reliable. One would initially expect that as the use of artificial contraception increases in a society, the number of conceptions will decrease.

But how dramatically does artificial contraception increase the frequency of intercourse in a society, particularly in contexts where a pregnancy would be extremely undesirable? And if you take into account the practical, real-life failure rates of the contraception that people actually use, does it turn out that conceptions don't drop off as dramatically as one might initially expect? Do they in fact stay relatively level? Or could it even be that they increase? That there are actually more conceptions in a society after artificial contraception becomes widespread, because there is so much more sex?

At any rate it seems very likely that the more a society as a whole uses artificial contraception, the more likely people are to view conception as an unwanted side-effect of intercourse -- because the very fact that artificial contraception is widely used means that most people, most of the time, engage in intercourse with the explicit assumption or even expectation that conception will not occur.

So it seems like it could follow quite easily that the more contraceptive intercourse there is, the more unwanted conceptions there will be.

Seems absurd on its face ("as contraception increases, so do unwanted conceptions"), but it's a possibility.

The last piece of the argument would say that the more unwanted conceptions there are in a society where abortion is very legal, the more abortions there will be. It's hard to see how that could fail to be true.

I'm not sure how well one could judge this empirically, because, at least in this country, the Pill appeared over a decade before widespread legal abortion -- so you can't just look at the numbers and see how, if at all, the abortion rate changed after the Pill was introduced. I wonder if there is any country in which legal abortion came first?

At least one bit of empirical evidence I've heard to back up this argument, though, is that, according to Planned Parenthood's statistics, a substantial number (40%?) of women who seek abortions do so after their contraception has failed. If that's true, and if the oft-quoted figure is accurate, of 40+ million abortions in this country since Roe v. Wade was decided, then we're looking at close to half-a-million abortions per year that contraception did not prevent, but perhaps actually facilitated.

I've not done any independent research to verify that 40% figure, though, and I've sketched out my argument pretty hastily, so I'm sure it has some problems. Also, I have no idea whether FFL is thinking along these lines or has in mind something else entirely. But I don't think it's totally wacky to simultaneously oppose abortion and artifical contraception.

I can also imagine other reasons why an organization that identifies itself as "feminist" might oppose contraception: for example, one could argue that, far from liberating women, artificial contraception actually promotes a relatively subtle form of sexual exploitation. But that's a whole separate discussion -- I was interested mostly in responding to your identification of artificial contraception as a method of preventing undesired pregnancies. I wonder if, in the long run, it ends up being just the opposite.

Marysia said...

Hi ben d.,


It's a biiiigggg stretch for me...but I think I have some glimpse of where you're coming from on this. And yet still I must respectfully and firmly disagree, for reasons that are multitudinous and complex.

By the way, nothing I say here is meant to contest *your* personal right to refrain from what you term "artificial" methods, if they are against your conscience and religious/spiritual beliefs.

But just as you should have that right, the rest of us should have *our* rights to resort to the prevention methods that accord with *our* consciences and beliefs.

Onto those many reasons...

One is the empirical evidence. One powerful example...In the former Soviet Union, abortion rates were simply unbelievable because adequate "artificial" contraception was not made available, in concert with widespread poverty. It was not uncommon for a woman to undergo as many as seven or eight abortions.

In denying adequate birth control methods, the authorities were being complicit with a widespread attitude of male sexual exploitation that decreed it was far, far better to put women and unborn babies through this than to challenge men's behaviors, let alone make it safe for women to enjoy themselves sexually, or ensure basic human rights and services for all, from conception onwards.

In many of the former Soviet republics and Soviet-occupied nations, widespread poverty continues. Male sexual exploitation continues. Yet in a number of these countries, abortion rates are dropping dramatically. Women and children are at least in this one necessary sense getting safer!

Why? Because better contraception is getting to these nations's populations, and much more of it!

The methods you categorize as "artificial" contraception do not in and of themselves *cause* men to sexually exploit women or children of unplanned pregnancies to be regarded as disposable (whether through abortion, lifelong denial of basic human rights & services, or both).

The use of such methods can be accompanied by one or both of these attitudes, but it need not, and in my own personal view decidedly should not!!

If voluntarily chosen, accessible to all, safe and healthful... the "artificial" methods can represent empowerment and liberation for women, including & especially empowerment and liberation in the fight to prevent and avoid abortions, and in our struggle to realize ourselves as sexual beings capable and deserving of sexual pleasure, to realize ourselves as beings who are not simply (or at all) creators of children (as wonderful & desirable a goal as creating a child can be sometimes).

And like all prevention methods, "artificial" ones actually are most likely to work at preventing pregnancy in contexts where men and women share the responsibilities and pleasures of intercourse, instead of the ment taking all the pleasures and the women getting stuck with all the responsibilities!

Yes, these methods, like "natural" ones, do not always work for the intended purpose, no matter how correctly and diligently used...Precisely why I conceived my one and only child back in the day...I am well aware of this issue!!

No one has yet devised a foolproof method despite my & many others's fervent prayers for that blessed day to come...But that's not an argument against "artificial" methods, not in my book, it's an argument for more research into better and better methods, and for unconditional, full societal support for all women and children, especially those involved in unplanned conceptions...before, during, and ever after.

In the meantime, I think it is vital for all prevention methods to be used most mindfully, with the understanding that despite our best & most informed efforts, an unplanned conception may result, and that said conception starts a life with as much right to be here as any other.

This is precisely the attitude that many of us bring to contraceptive use, and in fact it makes us work harder to use it correctly, while realizing that sometimes it doesn't, no matter how hard anyone tries, and at the same time that
the violence of abortion is not a good solution to any of the problems that might surround the existence of the pregnancy and the child.

Luckily, if an individual or couple judges even that small probability of conception involved in mindful, diligent contraception to be personally unacceptable...there are many, many ethically & spiritually sound (in my view) options besides penis-vagina intercourse for achieving sexual intimacy and pleasure.

And that brings me to yet another reason why I disagree with your take on "artificial" methods...Please correct me if I'm wrong, but generally it seems like arguments such as yours are based on a certain view of what is sexually "natural" and "unnatural."

Namely, that "natural" and therefore ethically good sex chiefly means penis-vagina intercourse, and that its primary purpose is procreation (although in some variants of this stance, it's OK, perhaps even encouraged, for married couples to experience pleasure and closeness with the act, as long as "artificial" methods are not employed).

Without minimizing the importance of penis-vagina intercourse or its ability to result in procreation...I think such a definition of "natural" is too narrow.

For one...of too many to get into here...why on Earth did women evolve/be created to have a clitoris, an organ which has no procreative purpose at all but is most women's primary source of sexual pleasure? The clitoris is a great gift of nature!

And this brings me to another objection to your apparent natural-versus-artificial distinction...Sexuality builds on nature, to be sure, but it is powerfully affected by culture, it can be quite humanly shaped, for better or for worse.

An example: sometimes (though not always) the abovementioned view of "natural" sex (uncontracepted penis-vagina intercourse between a man & woman married to each other) is not so much based on "nature" but on cultural assumptions that men should be able to control women's sexuality and the production of offspring.

Thus other sexual practices get defined as "unnatural" and therefore bad...when really "nature" is a cover for culture based on male domination of women and children...

When it would far more "natural" for men to respect the nonprocreative power of the clitoris and learn how to please women sexually in ways that do not risk the dangers & problems of undesired and/or too-frequent pregnancies.

ben, I'm not leaping to the conclusion that this covert patriarchy is what you, personally, are about in objecting to contraception...Indeed, I doubt you are, because otherwise you would not be concerned about the power imbalance between men and women, you would be holding *that* up as "natural" when obviously you don't think it is!

I'm just trying to explain some of the reasons why I find your take on "artificial" methods problematic, and why I personally remain determined to promote all voluntary, safe, nonabortion methods...even as I defend your right to use/not use whatever methods you find acceptable. Hope I've done so respectfully, I've tried to do that.

Ben D. said...


Thanks for the in-depth reply. I'm very interested in learning more about the empirical evidence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. If you can provide any links to source material, I would be much obliged.

I regret using the word "artificial" because I did not intend to attach a value judgment to it, but I see now that the word comes pre-loaded. I only meant it as a descriptive term, to indicate something that can only exist with the help of human ingenuity and effort; i.e., with the help of human "artifice".

In this sense a solid-wood table, or a 100%-wool sock, is "artificial" -- simply because it's man-made.

As I think about it more I start to think that the word may not be helpful in a discussion of contraception, or at least in this discussion, so I'm happy to leave it aside.

I really only meant to address the specific question of whether there might be some unforeseen ethical consequences of engaging in male-female vaginal intercourse with the intention of preventing conception.

You said: "The use of such methods can be accompanied by one or both of these attitudes [i.e., that women are to be exploited or that children are disposable], but it need not, and in my own personal view decidedly should not!!"

In 1960, the Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyla (later and better known as Pope John Paul II) published "Love & Responsibility," a seminal treatise on sexual ethics, based entirely, as far as I know, on secular philosophical principles.

In the book, which he wrote as a philosopher and not as a religious leader, he builds a compelling case that sexual activity can only be ethical when it is an expression of authentic, mutual love.

Because of the psychological intensity of sexual pleasure, he argues, and because -- for the most part -- that pleasure is elicited by other persons, it must be "tamed" by love -- that is to say, by genuine concern for the whole good of the other person -- or else it will incline one toward seeking one's own pleasure at the expense of another.

From this he draws a number of conclusions, some of them surprising coming from a future pope -- including the assertion that in intercourse the man ought to take care to ensure that the woman reaches climax, as opposed to focusing on his own enjoyment without regard for hers.

All of these conclusions revolve around the notion that sex is fundamentally, or at least ought to be, a giving, and not a taking -- and not just a giving of pleasure, although this is certainly involved, but also a deeper giving, of one's self.

The argument is long and dense; I'm just trying to hit the high points here and of course I'm probably doing a poor job of it, so don't take my word for it absolutely.

But I think this notion of self-giving is the foundation for his assertion that contraception is incompatible with authentic, loving sex -- because with contraception there is always a "holding back" of some sort, an unwillingness to trust one's whole self to the other person, including even one's potential motherhood or fatherhood.

This subtle but fundamental attitude of holding-back, he argues, is inescapably built in to contraceptive sex -- so that no matter what one's surface attitudes are, deep down there is an unwillingness to give that contradicts the meaning of sex.

All of this, of course, rests on the assumption that procreation is the primary purpose of sex -- an assumption that you challenged in your reply. I'd like to push back a little bit on that if I might.

If we can set aside the question of whether there is an ethic of sexual activity, and so forth, and just look at the physical, biological phenomena, I'm hard-pressed to see how anything other than procreation could be the primary purpose of male-female vaginal intercourse. I think that it has many purposes (for example, pleasure and union), but none of these is the act itself, in the way that "introducing male gametes into the female reproductive system" is.

So, calling procreation the "primary" purpose of sexual intercourse does not, in my mind, demean the other purposes -- it just indicates the fundamental, physical reality of the act, that in normal circumstances can't be separated from the act except by some sort of, well, violence -- to use the word in a very generic sense.

In a way, contraception actually attests to this: we put so much effort into preventing conception precisely because sex, in itself, is so closely tied with procreation. The two stubbornly refuse to be separated, and when we contracept, we don't change the act itself, we just circumvent its normal effect. This is all I would mean by "primary purpose".

Marysia said...

Hi ben d.,

The overwhelming public health consensus from worldwide empirical evidence is that contraception reduces abortion. I will post a list of representative studies after I've had a chance to assemble it. Now you may not agree that contraception is an ethically fine or neutral way to reduce abortion, but the empirical fact is that it does.

I'm glad that the late Karol Wojtyla, Jan Pawel II as he is called in one of my ancestral countries, called for men to give sexual pleasure to their wives, and that he was concerned about the sexual exploitation of persons, just as he was concerned about other forms of exploitation and oppression.

In my view, his concern about the treatment of persons as disposable have a deep moral credence because they are connected to his experiences as a survivor and resistor of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of our shared homeland.

...And hopefully his views will give some patriarchally minded men of the Catholic persuasion some Serious Big Pause. (Note: Patriarchal men are of all sorts, I'm not just picking on Catholics here!)

However....I don't think concern to prevent sexual exploitation necessarily translates into opposing contraception. It can, obviously, but it's not, I believe, an automatic connection. And a case can be made that regarding sex and procreation as inextricably linked itself can result in the exploitation of women.

For one, there are many forms of sex that are inherently nonprocreative. Even penis-vagina intercourse is nonprocreative except for a few days out of each month (though of course it can be tricky to precisely identify which days).

These forms of sex do not necessarily translate into sexual exploitation of one's partner. They can be fully and reciprocally enjoyed in a relationship of equality, trust, and compassion.

It is the overall human context in which the sex occurs that makes it a positive or destructive thing--not its link/nonlink to procreation or the possibility of it.

Also...I'm not saying that this is what you, personally, are about, however, it needs to be pointed out..

The argument that privileges the one form of sex, penis-vagina intercourse, the only form of sex that can result in procreation, can itself result in many forms of exploitation and oppression.

Fixation on this one form of sex alone and insistence on its indissoluble link to procreation can harm:

--Women. This sort of attitude can reduce women to "breeders" who can only "breed" in the "correct" situations (and so abortion becomes pressured upon women who "breed out of line."

It can deny them their right to enjoy penis-vagina intercourse for its own sake. And many women achieve sexual pleasure and satisfaction through or in concert with other forms of sex.

--Men. This sort of argument can be, and all often is, used to bolster patriarchal systems of family and societal control. Reducing men to "patriarchs" or "studs" is demeaning, and it causes men to demean others.

This kind of setup results, for example, in men pressuring women to have abortions because they feel entitled to have absolute control of what they regard as "their sperm" and not their living child nested in the body of an equally valuable living woman, both of whom have their own separate and precious own identities.

--Persons with disabilities. Some people with disabilities cannot physically achieve socalled "normal" sex, but other forms of sexual expression are entirely possible. Also, pregnancy can be quite medically risky for some women with disabilities, and some of them, according to their own chocies, not eugenic social pressures, wish to sexually enjoy life with their partners without utterly fearing the medical risks of pregnancy.

--Infertile persons. Such an argument can cause infertile persons to feel that they are somehow inferior beings, and people who have no business having or wanting sex.

--Elderly persons. Although this is starting to change, there is a deepseated cultural assumption that sex is really only for the young, and there is somethin nasty or weird about older people, even spouses wanting sex or having sex.

--LGBT persons. Penis-vagina intercourse is a nonsequitur to same-sex relationships. Yet there exist many, many same-sex partnerships that put a lot of heterosexual marriages to shame. Some of these partnerships invovle the nurturing of children, even parenting of one's own.

Yet the above attitude to sexuality all too often renders same-sex couples invisible, pathological, calls them pathologically narcissistic and damaging to society...causing great, unjust, unnecessary suffering.

We are all sexual beings, and what matters most is not whether we procreate or reduce our chances of procreation, but.... that we express our sexuality in a way that treats ourselves and our partners as ends in themeselves, not mere means to our own ends. I don't see why contraception necessarily sabotages good treatment of one's partner. It all depends on the spirit and the context in which it is considered and applied.

Marysia said...


Here are just a few samples from the literature on conraception and its ability to reduce abortion. These are all from peer-reviewed scientific publications.

One could presumably argue that the researchers all have a certain ideology. However, their science is good.

Contraceptive Use Is Key to Reducing Abortion Worldwide

Promoting Prevention to Reduce the Need for Abortion: Good Policy, Good Politics

As Desired Fertility Falls, Contraceptive Services Help Women Avoid Abortions

The Tblisi Declaration

Out from behind the contraceptive Iron Curtain

Relationships Between Contraception and Abortion: A Review of the Evidence

ben d. said...


Thanks for the links. I've started to look at them and will look more as I can. Life is pretty hectic for me right now.

It seems clear from your last post that we differ on too many fundamental principles to make much headway discussing contraception from a philosophical standpoint. So I'll stick with the empirical argument for now.

I've looked at the Guttmacher article and I want to look at it more closely later, and also to look at the other articles. But let me ask you, just so I know where you stand: do you consider the use of "Plan B"-style drugs -- by which I mean any chemical that prevents, or could prevent, the implantation of a fertilized embryo -- to be "contraceptive" or "abortive"?

I ask because I wonder how much of the data in the studies you've cited depends on how one defines contraception>

Marysia said...

Hi again, ben--

Here's to some calm in your hectic life.

If by making much headway you mean persuading one another-wellll, personally I believe that persuasion is not the only possible reason for airing differences of opinion.

Understanding can be another important purpose of such discussions. If we are going to live on the same planet, the least we can try to do to for one another is understand why we disagree so deeply over such an important matter.

So, if you personally want to continue discussing our philosophical disagreements on contraception--it's fine with me if it's fine with you.

As for the distinction between "contraceptive" and "abortifacient"...

The blurring of the line between contraception and abortion is a long historical one that I am very suspicious of (see the book ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today for documentation of this history).

Some prolifers have blurred this line for the sake of presenting genuine contraception as a murderous horror. This can be seen, for example, in the widespread portrayal of condoms as deathly--when there is no question at all that condoms work by keeping sperm apart from egg.

And some prochoicers have blurred the line for the sake of minimizing and denying the violence that takes place in abortion.

That much said, I think you are touching on a valid concern. I am all for research that improves any method with any ambiguity in its effects to the point where it is 100% without question about preventing conception rather than implantation.

At the same time, an investigation by several Christian members of the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that the scientific literature did not overall support the hypothesis that hormonal methods have an abortifacient mechanism of action.

The abortifacient mechanism of hormonal contraception is not an established fact; it is a hypothesis, and a very tenuous one at best.

I also have to wonder why so much is made of the possible abortifacient effects of hormonal contraception, yet at the same time the much, much better documented maternal/fetal harms of so many other compounds, especially common environmental toxins, are not considered.

If one is to be fully and genuinely concerned about abortifacient chemicals, one must be equally concerned about all of them, instead of focusing exclusively on the ones that women use to enjoy sex without fearing undesired pregnancies. (Assuming, of course, that hormonal methods can be unequivocally established to have abortifacient effects at all...which seems not too likely...)

Marysia said...

Sorry, ben, I messed up the link to the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists discussion. Here is the correct link.

Jane said...

Isn't Feminists for Life an oxymoron?

Marysia said...

Well--I think the organization Feminists for Life is missing out on a critical part of feminist advocacy by not taking a proactive stance on prevention as a means to reduce abortion and as a human right in and of itself.

However...as for being both feminist and prolife/antiabortion? I don't think that's an oxymoron at all. I've been that way myself for decades and haven't caved in on myself yet (:

Those who oppose abortion while undermining women's rights actually *cause* abortions.

And I think any feminist who has women's and children's interests at heart needs to acknowledge--whether he or she ultimately self-defines as prolife or prochoice on abortion--that abortion has many negative dimensions for women as well as for fetuses/unborn children.

Prolife feminism may sure look and sound like an oxymoron within one certain band of the feminist spectrum--the sort of feminism happening since the late 1960s, and populated largely by white, able-bodied, middle to upper class women in the richer countries.

But in time, space, and demography, that is only one part of the long historical and global struggle for women's rights. And its generally held position on abortion is not the only one possible or existent among women's rights supporters.

Feminism is far more complicated and diverse than the version of it that gets the most attention.

Dismissing prolife feminism as an impossible oxymoron simply cuts out vast numbers of feminists from possibilities for cooperative action on those vast areas of common ground regarding reproductive justice.

For example, reducing abortion, promoting family planning, and putting an end to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, abolishing sterilization abuse and environmental toxins that trash the reproductive system...to name just a few things.

Jane, before you write off prolife feminism as an oxymoron, I would ask you to explore the Nonviolent Choice Directory and Blog and keep an open mind.

I would also recommend the book that gave rise to this site, ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today, Second Expanded Edition. You can pruchase it through this link.

Or you can search WorldCat to see if it's in a library near you. If not, you might be able to get a copy through Interlibrary Loan.