‘Feminists for Life:’ A built-in contradiction?

Cross-posted with permission from On The Issues magazine.

Sarah Palin, on the vice-presidential campaign trail in 2008, raised the profile of a previously obscure anti-abortion group, Feminists for Life, by announcing that she herself was a FFL member. The group did not return the favor by endorsing Palin or the Republican ticket, but the group’s new prominence reignited debate about whether it’s possible to call oneself a feminist while also opposing a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Feminists for Life calls itself a “nonpartisan organization” and the FFL website declares that it “welcome(s) all people regardless of political or religious affiliation.” At the same time, the group’s policy agenda — which includes support for a wide range of government-subsidized services for pregnant women and children — does not seem to jibe with the playbook supported by Palin or the Tea Party fans who comprise her base.

That said, it is opposition to abortion that gives FFL its reason for being. And while the definition of feminism continues to vex both activists and scholars, many argue that the right to abortion is a central tenet of feminism; that women’s liberation rests on a foundation of full reproductive options. FFL believes the opposite, arguing that being “prolife” (that is, anti-abortion) is inextricably linked to female empowerment.

FFL was founded in 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave women the legal right to end unwanted pregnancies. The organization’s founders were two members of the National Organization for Women who agreed with NOW’s agenda — except for its support of liberalized abortion. Unable to convince NOW to retract its abortion rights platform, they created FFL to oppose abortion while pushing for the social safety net they believed was necessary to make having a child a viable option. This dual purpose has spurred FFL’s work ever since and Cayce Utley, FFL’s National Program Director — formerly a staff person at Democrats for Life of America, which describes itself as “the pro-life voice and wing of the Democratic Party”—is quick to state that even if Roe is eventually overturned, the group will still have “a lot of work to do in changing the way families are received by society.”

Social Safety Net is Badly Damaged

Indeed, the fact that nearly 40 million Americans, including one in five children under 18, live in poverty indicates how much needs to be done to address the economic disparities that exist throughout the United States. For Feminists for Life, this means working to improve access to benefits supporting healthy families, from increased welfare benefits to increased childcare options for low-and-middle income households. FFL’S website champions a raft of important — and decidedly not Tea Partyish — pro-family policies: Expanded educational opportunities for poor students; additional employment options for women; micro loans and business assistance for would-be entrepreneurs; low-cost health care before, during, and after the birth of a child; clean water; assistance for women trying to leave physically violent or emotionally abusive partners; and support for housing subsidies.

Opposition to Abortion Gives FFL Its Reason for Being

What’s more, FFL was the only anti-choice group to work alongside NOW, NARAL, and the Feminist Majority to push for such legislation as the Violence Against Women Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, the State Child Health Insurance Program, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Most recently, the group campaigned for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnancy and Parenting Student Services Act, approved by Congress this year, which, beginning in 2011, will provide a total of $25 million a year to states for the establishment of services for pregnant students and school-age parents.

In addition, the group has launched an aggressive program on college campuses. According to Utley, FFL will send a speaker — fees range from $1000-$3000 a pop — to campuses anywhere in the country, or will assist women’s groups in organizing rallies and petition drives to demand better resources for students who are pregnant or parenting. “Our goal is to change campus culture, to include resources for students who are about to start a family,” Utley says. “In some colleges the message is pretty clear — have an abortion or your college experience is over. At the same time, we’re fighting against the remnants of higher education that were originally designed to meet the needs of affluent white men.”

But if increasing resources so that young parents don’t have to drop out of school sounds like a no-brainer, that’s because it’s something that reproductive justice activists have been saying — albeit with a prochoice caveat — since the late 1970s: Women have the right to decide when and whether to have a child and should have access to whatever they need to do so, whether it’s a Medicaid-funded abortion or nutritious food.

Some Women Will Still Choose Abortion

And therein lies the conflict between prochoice feminists and those, like FFL members, who oppose abortion. At the crux of the issue is FFL’s refusal to accept that some women will want to end a pregnancy even when they have the economic resources to have a child and even when they have a partner with whom to share responsibilities. FFL members further deny that many women see abortion as a relief and not a last resort.

Carol Hornbeck, a marriage and family therapist with a Master’s degree from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, sees this blind spot as an oversimplification of reality: “Solutions don’t have to be black or white,” she says. “If you believe in the core value of life as sacred, to be protected, you have to engage with the grey areas. Humans have free will and sometimes you have to acknowledge that one person’s needs will come into conflict with another person’s needs. We have the power to choose and sometimes that means a woman places her own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being above the needs of a fertilized egg.”

Feminists for Life Subtly Discourages Birth Control

Not surprisingly, you won’t see or hear that tension, that conflict, if you talk to FFL or peruse their materials. Several FFL videos, for example, make a compelling case for choosing childbirth over abortion. Chauncie’s Journey, for one, tells the story of Chauncie Saelins Brusie — now a FFL staffer — who became pregnant during her senior year of college. Her emotional account describes a university bureaucracy that was unprepared for her decision to continue her pregnancy. Maternity coverage was not provided by the school health plan she’d purchased and there were neither family dorms nor childcare facilities on campus. “I understand the sheer panic that could lead a woman to abortion,” Chauncie says in the film. Her ultimate decision to marry her boyfriend and bear the child is told with passion and genuine feeling. What’s missing is the realization that Chauncie made the choice that was right for her, a choice that might be completely wrong for someone else.

Joyce Ann McCauley Benner stars in another of FFL’s heart-rending videos. She begins by describing her journey from home to a college 1100 miles from where she grew up. Working two jobs to support herself, she looks directly into the camera to describe being raped by a co-worker and subsequently learning that she was pregnant. “I felt unready to be a mom,” she confesses. “I had no health insurance and was in a daze.” Then, after weeks of grappling with what to do, she decided to have the baby. “I realized that I knew who the mother was and there was as much of me inside this baby as there was of the rapist,” she says.

There’s no way to argue with Benner’s decision and all viewers can do is hope that she never regrets her choice. It’s poignant stuff, but the equally poignant reality that other women have no desire to bear the child of a rapist — let alone raise it or place it for adoption–seems lost on Benner and FFL.

Contraception: Mixed Messages and Misinformation

Then there’s the issue of birth control, a subject Feminists for Life both skirts and subtly discourages. According to the FFL website, “There is no FFL position on contraception except when it presents a threat to women’s health. Some FFL members support the use of contraception as long as there is no abortifacient effect, while others oppose it. Some oppose all forms of contraception for health reasons, others for religious reasons. Others prefer natural methods to plan a family.”

On the subject of Emergency Contraception, aka “Plan B” or the “Morning After Pill,” the website refers readers to optionline.org — a misnomer if there ever was one — that blatantly discourages the use of the drug. Full of misinformation, the site includes erroneous statements such as this: “You can only become pregnant on certain days of the month — around the time you ovulate.” The site also resorts to scare tactics, contending, for instance, that “Taking the Morning After Pill at a time when you cannot become pregnant needlessly exposes you to large doses of hormones. If you are already pregnant from an earlier sexual encounter taking the Morning After Pill is of no value and may cause harm.”

FFL has also been criticized for distorting history in the service of its anti-choice agenda. To wit, the group contends that the 19th century founders of the women’s movement were unequivocally against abortion. “Women deserve better than abortion,” their website states, and “those who walk in the shoes of early American feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton are invited to call FFL home.” FFL member Carol Crossed recently purchased the Adams, Massachusetts birthplace of Stanton’s colleague, Susan B. Anthony, and turned it into a museum. But even though the group calls Anthony an anti-abortion foremother, a host of historians — including staff at the Susan. B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership at the University of Rochester and Anthony scholars Lynn Sherr and Ann Gordon — have contested this interpretation of Anthony’s position.

FFL has come under further fire for honoring conservative anti-abortion blogger and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, whose writing is contemptuous of virtually every social initiative that FFL claims to hold dear. And even though FFL did not endorse Sarah Palin’s vice presidential run, the fact that the group has never criticized her political wish-list makes one question whether their purported support of pro-family initiates in somehow negotiable. Indeed, this omission has prompted prochoice feminists to wonder if FFL is willing to jettison its laudable social welfare agenda in exchange for support of policies that will curtail abortion access.

“We’re not a Political Action Committee,” National Program Director Cayce Utley says. “Anyone can join FFL without a political litmus test and some people on board with us are conservative and others are liberal. We’re an education and advocacy group. Our aim is to educate prolifers to our point of view, what we think it means to be a prolife feminist. We try to help people connect the dots between supporting policies that help pregnant women raise healthy children and seeing that if they don’t support public welfare programs women will likely make decisions about pregnancy that they won’t like.”

As for feminism, Utley concedes that the word’s meaning has become increasingly murky. Does that matter? I ask her. “Feminists for Life walks the talk,” she says. “We support progressive solutions for women and families.”

Maybe it comes down to the word progressive, and whether pro-family solutions can be deemed progressive if they demonize abortion — something women opt for whether the procedure is legal or not, despite FFL blather to the contrary, because not every child is wanted — and dance around the efficacy of birth control. The world may change, and language, too, but one thing remains obvious: The onus is on FFL to assess Palin’s platform — and that of Tea Party activists across the country — and call them what they are: Anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-worker programs that are wholly antithetical to the interests of most U.S. families.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • arekushieru

    In general, I liked the article, but it ended on a rather ambivalent note.  Feminism was coined as a term for a movement that advocated for women’s equal rights.  If a group does not consider abortion an option, then that group believes that women don’t have the full right to bodily autonomy that anyone else has, meaning, of course, that it believes women shouldn’t have equal rights.  Saying women deserve better than abortion is like saying people who were slaves deserved better than freedom.  Why?  Because both deny a fundamental right of humanity to a specific class of humans, partly due to the functions of their body.

    The co-opting of Susan B Anthony’s name for an anti-choice organization is ironic, yet not surprising.  Susan B Anthony fought against forced abortion as a tool of the patriarchy, and a dangerous and risky procedure, just as ProChoicers of present day fight against forced pregnancy as a tool of the patriarchy. 

    And, believe me, for all their doublespeak and gentler, kinder treatment of women with unwanted pregnancies, FFL is still a coercive organization.

    Plus, female empowerment doesn’t mean empowering women so that they will make only one choice, to do what only their bodies were designed to do.  That is evidence of a singular LACK of female empowerment, as no other class of human is ’empowered’ in such a way.

    Not only does a woman have to suffer, like everyone else, a lack of choice in their biology, but a lack of options, full rights and empowerment.  



  • princess-rot

    I never liked these organizations that bastardize feminism for their own interests. They call themselves feminists and proclaim that women are better off as mothers at all costs, without paying one iota of attention to rape culture, male entitlement to PIV, the strange dearth of a push toward male birth control and male responsibility when engaging in PIV, extensive sex education that stands for truth and de-centralizes PIV, the dismantling of the cult of the child and taking the focus away from what women can do for society with their wombs. What galls me is the complete lack of realization that something which turned out to be a blessing for them will be a curse for someone else, and they have no right to make that decision for anyone but themselves.

  • liberaldem

    If FFL is not going to support contraception they’re dishonest.  Without access to all forms of birth control, then we’re talking about forced pregnany.  Is that a feminist position? I think not.

  • crowepps

    Went and did a little exploring on the Feminists for Life website. First, was very disappointed to see they were perpetuating the abortion/breast cancer manufactureversy. Any organization which really was unbiased and basing their positions on facts wouldn’t include that as a ‘fact’ behind their position.

    Second, was very taken aback to see that they don’t discuss birth control at all because they take no position on it as a “preconception issue”. They do have a LOT of stuff about how sterilization is a genocidal government plot. Considering that the vast majority of women use birth control at some point in their lives, this is a major omission that seems to indicate their ‘feminist’ focus is enabling those who are or can become mothers. If a woman doesn’t want children, or doesn’t want MORE children, they’re not going to represent her interests.

  • saraeanderson

    When I first read this, I thought it was referring to a woman aging out of her reproductive years and losing touch with the visceral threat of reproductive coercion.  Not that I think the sympathy truly goes away, but it can become less urgent when you’re not facing the immediate threat yourself.  


    I  must add, however, that while I think FFL is deeply dishonest and disrespectful to women, I have a modicum of respect for them because they emphasize getting rid of the systemic reasons a lot of women are reluctantly forced to choose abortion.  And not having caring to fight for the right to abortion allows them to concentrate on those issues more than pro-choice feminist organizations can, so they probably can be more effective.  

  • crowepps

    Unfortunately, they are not more effective, because they are distracted by their efforts to ABOLISH the right to abortion.


    I agree that the organizations out there that focus on policy changes that are helpful for mothers, like MomsRising, can be very effective and open up more choices for people.  They do NOT waste any time touting motherhood itself to women or trying to ban abortion.



  • goatini

    and I have found that I am just as in “touch”, if not more, with the “visceral threat of reproductive coercion”.

    I consider those who find the cause of full humanity, dignity, and personal autonomy to be “less urgent” when they no longer have any skin in the game, to be hypocrites.