Melinda Gates, and Why We Must Talk About Abortion in Feminist and Progressive Circles

While they don’t bother putting her name on the Forbes list, by virtue of marriage Melinda Gates is the richest woman in the world. She proudly considers herself an advocate for family planning and women’s health. “I am focused on one thing,” she wrote in a recent blog post, “the opportunity to make a difference in tens of millions of women’s lives by giving them access to the information and resources they need to plan their families.”

But, there’s a catch: She doesn’t want to talk about abortion, and the Gates Foundation won’t fund it.

“Around the world there is a deep, broad, and powerful consensus: we should provide all women the information and tools to time and space their pregnancies in a safe and healthy way that works for them,” Gates writes. She goes on to express dismay that journalists wish to talk to her about what she calls the “abortion debate,” writing that she “struggle[s] with the issue” and chastising others for “conflating [abortion] with the consensus on so many of the things we need to do to keep women healthy.”

The stakes are high, she claims. “The only way” to provide “tens of millions” of women “the contraceptives that they want” is to be “clear, focused, and committed.” In other words, Gates holds a view of maternal health and women’s empowerment so expansive and huge that a pregnant woman in desperate need of abortion won’t fit.

Her thinking is, to put it mildly, flawed.

Perhaps you have heard of Hobby Lobby or encountered photographs of the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church? There is no consensus on providing all women access to contraception. Further still, the foes of abortion routinely argue that birth control is abortion. Most of all, it’s ludicrous to position yourself as an advocate for reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health if you are willing to ignore women endangered by an unsafe abortion or unsustainable pregnancy.

But what I’d like to explore further is an underlying premise within a Gatesian view of reproductive rights and the women’s movement: That a commitment to abortion rights holds progress for women back.

She is not alone. Conversations about abortion are often assumed “toxic” not just to feminism and the equality movement, but political progress in general. If only, the thinking goes, those who believe in abortion rights and access to family planning could keep their mouths shut at strategic times (like during elections, attempts to get a bill passed, or let’s face it, pretty much any time), other progressive goals could be achieved (never mind the fact that the right opposes them, too) and we wouldn’t attract the attention of those who seek to restrict reproductive rights.


The anti-choice movement includes folks who believe they are on a mission from God, including some organizations that are actively working to infiltrate the government. The anti-choice movement benefits from millions upon millions of funding from the Koch brothers, works hand-in-glove with Republican leadership, and is regularly tolerated as part of an invoked greater good by the Democratic Party in the form of candidates and policy at the national, state, and local levels. (In contradiction to its own platform, mind you: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”)

The anti-choice movement will not slink away quietly if abortion rights advocates keep their mouths shut.

My Dialogue With an Advocate From the Other Side

Recently, I was surprised to see agreement from an unexpected quarter to one of my more passionate tweets on this subject:

Writer and freelance journalist Bret Mavrich, who identifies strongly as “pro-life,” agreed with my statement. After some back-and-forth, he agreed to do a telephone interview with me, and I found the exchange to be remarkable.

When we spoke, Mavrich expressed concern about others who agree with his point of view on reproductive rights while, as he put it, “demonizing and dehumanizing the people who disagree with them.” He told RH Reality Check he thinks respectful dialogue should occur between those of opposing viewpoints on the abortion issue, and that toxic language used by some of his fellow anti-choicers is part of the problem.

“My wife does ministry with post-abortive women. … When we talk with real people, real women that have had an abortion and hear their stories, it is impossible to label them in a blanket way, [like] murderer or baby-killer,” he said. “What you emerge with is a sympathy for women in their circumstances, even if you think abortion is a great evil or wrong.”

In explaining this further, he made an inaccurate claim that “a very high percentage of women who do have abortions feel emotional and psychological trauma,” but I don’t doubt that a self-selected group of women who seek “pro-life” counseling after an abortion may tend to display and even hold strongly negative feelings about their decision.

Still, Mavrich’s willingness to speak frankly, openly, and respectfully with an abortion rights activist writing for an explicitly pro-choice publication is refreshing. It is just one example of the kind of person-to-person conversations taking place every day that reveal the abortion debate is not and need not be considered inherently toxic.

In the course of our conversation, Mavrich expressed his opinion that both sides have a tendency to write off the other side’s views and dismiss entirely the people holding them. “If it’s true that we’re killing babies, this is really huge, and if it’s true that we’re shutting down and oppressing women [as reflected in the language used by the left] … if it’s true that women are being oppressed, then it needs to stop,” he said. “We need a space where we can be passionate but not shred each other because [that] is a profound waste of time and pushes us further apart.”

On that point, I wholeheartedly agree. We need more conversation about reproductive rights and justice, not less.

The Indivisibility of the Feminist Cause From Reproductive Rights

Dividing people on the basis of sexuality and reproductive capacity is a central part of how sexism operates. It’s positively jejune to see violence against women, or discrimination against women in the workplace, as wholly independent from views of women by matter of biological destiny as sexual objects to serve men, and caregivers to tend the hearth and home. It was no coincidence or freakish gaffe when Phyllis Schlafly recently claimed that paying women the same as men would make it harder for women to find husbands; she was, very strategically, trying to implant doubt among women that they can be “hot” and call for equality at work at the same time.

Not all women may become pregnant, but it’s true that the specter of pregnancy, caregiving, and presumed heterosexual availability supports discrimination against them. So if we really want constitutional equality, equality in pay and parity in leadership, and an end to violence against women, we do need to acknowledge that the various and far more numerous goals of empowering women will truly work only when women are able to exercise meaningful control over their own lives—including, and especially, their reproductive lives.

But what about those women’s organizations that purposefully avoid taking positions on reproductive rights? One such organization is the New Agenda. Its president, Amy Siskind, told RH Reality Check that the issue simply doesn’t come up in the group’s work, especially in its work with companies and universities to promote networking and professional success for millennial women.

Separate from the organization, Siskind also spoke to RH Reality Check as an individual, explaining that she had gone from supporting Hillary Clinton in 2008 to the John McCain/Sarah Palin ticket. “I honestly believed that the [Republican] mindset was to be not neutral but libertarian on social issues,” she said. “I thought we could put those issues away and start to vote based on other issues. … I’ve been shocked [since] then,” she said, noting that she was caught “totally by surprise” in 2011 by a record-breaking push to enact abortion restrictions.

This is not to say that the New Agenda is bad; if the group wants to bring people of diverse mindsets on choice to support women in other arenas, good for them. But from an explicitly political point of view—which is much bigger than one organization, much less all of them—the only way to hold people accountable to respecting women’s fundamental human rights is to talk about women’s fundamental human rights. A strategy of silence has no track record of proving itself believable.

The abortion debate doesn’t poison political discourse. It is not to blame for stalled progress on other initiatives that would improve women’s lives. In fact, other women’s rights causes would likely benefit a great deal from culture change that affirms the value of abortion—in women’s lives, as a commitment to equality, as a matter of public health.

Melinda Gates and others like her may have a lot of money, but we have a lot of voices. There is no need for reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates to mute ourselves for the greater good. Really, what good would that be?

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  • Russell Crawford

    The whole abortion issue will soon resolve itself. The fact is that abortion is controlled by scientific laws. Those laws show that the pro life movement does not save life, it causes death. The sooner pro choice people learn the laws, apply the laws and support the laws, the sooner women will stop suffering. Until the pro choice movement learns to depend on science and get away from “opinion”, there can be no lasting progress. When the debate is about whether or not a fetus is a person or if the fetus has more rights than the woman, the argument is open to political whim. When the discussion turns on the application of scientific laws to the problems of mankind, then the clarity that scientific law provides, resolves the issue for eternity. Scientific laws are not amenable to change and the theories based upon their truths are only debatable within the framework of the law.
    For example each pro lifer has a choice, they may choose to save either a born person or a fetus, they may not save both. Why, because it is a scientific fact that more people are dying than can be saved. The issue therefore is not whether or not a woman has a right to abortion, the issue is resolved by the fact that an attempt to save a fetus can only proceed by choosing not to save a born life. There are other laws that clarify the issue of abortion and succinctly show the correct path for society to take. It becomes very clear once a person is aware of the laws that the pro life movement is doing more harm than good.

    Pro choice people need to avoid the traps of the pro life movement that direct the issue toward non scientific and mindless propaganda. Photos of dead babies, claims of murder and other tools of propaganda are effective against claims of politically determined rights but are useless against proven scientific laws.

    • Feemster

      blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!!

      Before you waste your time reading Russel Crawford’s latest screed…Go to Google Images and Google late term abortions. The images speak for themselves. They don’t need a 5000 word screed to explain them.

      • purrtriarchy

        You don’t have an argument. Just insipid appeals to gore.


      • Russell Crawford

        Most people see your postings as nothing more an propaganda. I hope you continue to post your pornography, it defines you.

      • fiona64

        Before you waste any more of our time, go to Google and look up the actual percentage of late-term abortions (fewer than 1 percent … and always on pregnancies that have gone horribly wrong for a number of reasons).

        Reality speaks for itself. Here is what the typical abortion looks like: – indistinguishable from menses.

        • Barbara D Holtzman

          Or for women who will actually die if the pregnancy is not terminated, in the case of preeclampsia for one.

          • fiona64

            That would be a pregnancy gone horribly wrong, for certain.

      • cjvg

        Disrespectful, dismissive and to ignorant and arrogant to actually read and address what is written with real facts instead of dishonest emotional pleas.

        Late term abortion is done to safe the life and/or health of the pregnant women (thereby saving and extending an existing life) or because the fetus is incompatible with life (thereby sparing women the futility and added risk of continuing a doomed pregnancy and going through child birth as well as saving the fetus added suffering)

        I guess you and your culture of death would rather have the woman die or be irreparable harmed!

        Why don’t you show an image of a first trimester abortion in which the overwhelming majority of them take place? Not really what you need for your dishonest and ineffectual emotional appeals is it!

      • colleen2

        can we see photos of the just discovered skeletons of 896 infants and toddlers, actual BORN children the ‘pro-life’ Catholic church hid in a septic tank too?

        Because the notion that the men and women of the religious right value life is absurd. Y’all are cheap, cruel and dishonest and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere NEAR women or children.

  • Zoe Nicholson

    Leadership requires that you reach to the most removed from the center and begin collecting from there. You don’t advance those with the least objectionable position and then attempt to include the more variant. It is a very faulty idea that you attain equality for the LGB and then go back for the T. Start with ALL. Many spiritual leaders have made a big note of this.
    Complete domain over one’s body is both fundamental and the extent of ownership. I was really glad that my Medical Ethics graduate class in 1975 taught this. Melinda wants to help those who are bringing the least heat. The most inclusive move is to begin there. Herd the duckling in the greatest need and the rest will roll in.

    • cjvg

      I disagree, all big social changes started with taking a firm stance
      Ending slavery
      Getting women the right to vote
      Marriage equality
      The right to abortion in the US
      None were achieved with incremental change it takes more then that

      • lady_black

        I think that’s what she’s saying.

      • Zoe Nicholson

        Thank you Lady_Black it is what I am saying. Increments and then reaching for more disenfranchised is not the way to go. Unity from the start and that occurs by including the most disenfranchised from the beginning.

        • cjvg

          Sorry read that wrong.

  • Arekushieru

    To go back to the very first point made in the article I would like to add that the Harperialists have recently committed to some 3.2 billion CAD in funding towards International Maternal Health programs. The thing is that Harper had his international aid (at the time), Bev Oda, agree to undercut funding to International Planned Parenthood organizations through CIDA. He certainly seems to miss the point just as much as Ms. Gates does.

  • okieggma

    The argument is not whether abortion is good or bad or right or wrong, those are subjective views. The argument is whether women have a right to decide for themselves about themselves.

    • Russell Crawford

      You are right, whether abortion is good or bad or right or wrong are not the issues, but neither is the argument of whether or not a woman has a right to decide for herself. There is no question as to the woman’s rights, but pro lifers claim the fetus also has rights. Therefore that issue is not dispositive.
      The only non debatable issues that control abortion are those that cannot and will not change for either party in the dispute. Scientific laws do not change, cannot be legislated away and they do determine what happens when abortion is considered. Those issues ultimately control abortion no matter what your personal beliefs may be.
      In my mind a woman has complete control of her body. The issue ends there for me. But for others the issue is more complex. I believe they are wrong, but they are willing to take away a woman’s rights regardless of what others say. The only means of altering their position is to show with certainty that the issue is controlled by scientific laws. Once they see that their efforts cannot lead to a net increase in life and will in fact lead to a decrease in life, then the issue can be resolved. Nature itself controls this issue, we can only control who will live, either born people or unborn products of conception.

      • lady_black

        Pro-lifers may claim that a fetus has rights. They can claim a tapeworm has rights. But they cannot prove it. I can very easily prove that I have no right to demand that another person do my breathing for me. That pretty much goes without saying. You cannot even take organs from a CORPSE without permission. Therefore, the “pro-lifers” have a very high hurdle in proving to me that a pre-viable fetus has any rights whatsoever. I do believe the situation changes when viability is possible. BUT that still doesn’t require the woman to remain pregnant when the pregnancy is risking her health. The pregnancy can be ended with a delivery, and if the fetus makes it, fine. If it doesn’t make it, oh well. That’s sad, but it wasn’t meant to be. That the woman has rights exceeding that of a corpse should never even be questioned, and that’s why pro-lifers piss me off.

        • Russell Crawford

          You don’t have to convince me of your absolute right to bodily autonomy. I fully agree.

          I even believe autonomy trumps viability.

          But our argument is not accepted by half the population.

          It doesn’t matter if a person believes in scientific law, I operates with or without approval.

          • lady_black

            The argument is “pretended” not to be believed by “half” the population. When it affects them personally, they convince themselves they are somehow different. Just like Rick Santorum stated, saving his wife’s life by ending her septic pregnancy was “a no-brainer.” Yes, that’s exactly what it is, Ricky. It’s a no-brainer, and it is for every woman who terminates a life-threatening pregnancy. It’s also interesting that half of all people identify as “pro-life” although most do not believe abortion should be illegal. That makes them pro-choice, not pro-life. Only a small minority of people believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, and they must not be permitted to make the rules for everyone else.

          • Russell Crawford

            Several excellent points.

      • PictishMonster

        There is a bit more force to the rights argument without resorting to the scientific, Russell. Human rights are not granted by political factions, they are an inherent part of being human. Rights can be recognised by political entities, or not as the case may be. Bodily autonomy and the right to be free from physical assault are human rights. Even if one conceded (as I do not) that the foetus is in a position to enjoy the full spectrum of human rights under the UDHR, it would still have no right to infringe on the rights of the woman it inhabits. She still has the right to consent to its remaining or to refuse consent and have it removed.

        A woman with a wanted pregnancy is a mother-to-be, a woman with an unwanted pregnancy has a treatable medical condition.

        • purrtriarchy

          Not human rights. Person rights. Human is not synonymous with person, and it is possible to be a person without human DNA. Koko the gorrila, corvids and possibly even dolphins can qualify as ‘persons’. A mindless human body does not qualify as a person – a braindead corpse with a functioning brainstem is alive, and human, but is mindless, and therefore no longer a person. Which is why in such cases life support/feeding tubes etc. are disconnected, and it is not considered murder. A zef does not qualify as a person, as a zef is mindless.

          • Shan

            “Which is why in such cases life support/feeding tubes etc. are disconnected, and it is not considered murder.”

            Creepily, that reminds me of the states now attempting to enact laws which turn brain-dead women literally into organic life-support machines by making it illegal to “unplug” a dead pregnant woman. Just a more up-front “pro-life” maneuver, I guess. Ugh.

        • Russell Crawford

          You know that I agree with your bodily autonomy claims. But others believe the fetus has more of a claim to autonomy than you. Scientific law clarifies that you are right and they are wrong.That makes the scientific aspect more important than the autonomy aspect. One is proof of the other.

          • Arekushieru

            Okay, totally agree with you in that case, then, Russell! Sorry it took me this long to realize what you were saying! >_<

  • okieggma

    Melinda has not struggled very hard as she refuses to even discuss the issue of women dying from self induced abortions which is where we are headed.

    • Russell Crawford

      She is in a delicate situation. Her — access– to the poor of the world can be impeded by religious factions that believe abortion is murder. She has taken a reasonable course.
      However that course will change as the laws that control abortion are spread. Even the Pope and other religious leaders must follow scientific laws or be the cause of death for millions of people.

  • Suba gunawardana

    Any purported “violence” matters ONLY when the individual being killed is sentient. Considering fetuses are not sentient, the method of killing is irrelevant, and brought up only for emotional appeal.

    EVEN IF there were some concern regarding potential fetal pain at late stages of gestation, the answer is not to abolish abortion but to provide fetal anesthesia.

    • Shan

      “the answer is not to abolish abortion but to provide fetal anesthesia.”

      That already happens from 20wks LMP (18wks gestation).

      So all the 20wk bans based on the idea that a fetus can feel pain at that stage are completely bogus.

      • Arekushieru

        Exactly, given that there are a couple of other reasons, besides the fact that the CNS isn’t connected at the time most abortions are performed, that a fetus doesn’t feel pain.

  • BJ Survivor

    Pregnancy and labor are also violent. Try again.

    • Arekushieru

      Especially forced pregnancy and labour! Correct as always, BJ! :)

  • Arekushieru

    Sorry, but it IS all about choice. Even Pro-Lifers agree about that, in all other circumstances EXCEPT when it comes to a woman exercising a right to bodily autonomy that applies only to her. Also, Pro-Choicers are not arguing for abortion but for every individual woman’s RIGHT to choose whether to terminate OR continue their pregnancies.

    You mention a ‘just war doctrine’ and the death penalty, but the death penalty and wars where we are the aggressor are just as an egregious violation of rights as forced gestation and birth. It’s why I disagree with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc… (as well as the death penalty) but not the wars that resulted in the freeing of slaves or Jews, although I do admit that at least the latter was partly our fault, as well. So, I was wrong. Women’s bodily autonomy is NOT the only circumstance that Pro-Lifers disagree they should be allowed to violate, because they also generally tend to support the death penalty and wars of all kinds. (At least with my position I am CONSISTENTLY pro-choice, they, however, are only Pro-Life in SOME circumstances. Oops.) But, in both cases, if you will notice, the rights they violate generally tend to be those with lesser privilege than themselves. JUST as tends to be the case with women and their right to choose. So, frankly, the only ones using euphemisms are your ilk and the Pro-‘life’ movement. SFS.

    My own mother has chosen to terminate one pregnancy and continue two. And THAT is what we are supporting, her, and women’s, like her, CHOICE, not the act of terminating a PREGNANCY, itself. So, sorry, no euphemisms, here.

    Besides, to make an ACTUAL analogy, you are saying that a rape where a victim used deadly force to defend themselves from said rape must be talked about in terms of what the RENDERING of that choice entailed on the rapist rather than the violation, itself. As I’ve said above, not even most Pro-Lifers would agree with that. so their hypocrisy makes that point moot, in the FIRST place. What also ‘renders’ it moot, is the FACT that rape happens because of the victims that are hurt not (just) because the rapist is evil.

    Also, putting the word fetus in quotes but not baby is rather hypocritical when you are judging US for using emotionally laden terms then go on to make an emotional APPEAL of your own. Oops.

    FACT: a fetus has no members of which to speak by the time MOST abortions are performed. Late-term abortions are done to protect the health and life of the woman and prevent a fetus from suffering during what would most likely be a VERY short-lived life. So, again, you make an emotional appeal. And, apparently, you think it’s only right for your ilk but not others?

    You DO know that it is ob/gyns who perform abortions, right? Why all the ‘concern’ trolling for licensing doctors who perform abortions, but not the doctors who assist in pregnancy and childbirth, which results in far greater harms and risks to women than abortion does. Oh, but I forgot, you aren’t concerned about the woman, at all.

    As your entire post demonstrates, after all, you only want to talk about what effects the rendering of ONE of the options of the CHOICE for which we advocate will have on the FETUS but NOT the effects of what the rendering of one of the options for which YOUR ilk advocates will have on the WOMAN. You people are hypocrites, plain and simple.

  • Arekushieru

    So, would you also say that she has a right to deny support to black people and spend her wealth where she chooses although the white privilege in which she basks is responsible for the creation of that problem in the first place? If not, you are a hypocrite, ESPECIALLY on the question of whether abortion rights are totally different from her ‘right’ to spend her money where she wishes. If yes, you are a bigot. No, you and people LIKE you can NOT ‘win’. SFS.

  • cjvg

    Wrong, straight from planned parenthood information page:
    “At 21.6 menstrual weeks and later, the first step in the abortion procedure on day one is an injection of digoxin and potassium chloride into the fetal heart, Intramuscularly, or within the amniotic fluid (sac around fetus) to cease fetal heart activity.

    In a late second trimester abortions (17-24) weeks the patient is given drugs to initiate labor and cervical dilation. If the patient does not deliver spontaneously after been given a trial of multiple insertions of Misoprostol & Laminaria, rupturing of the membranes, and a high dose oxytocin protocol, it may require that the physician perform a surgical evacuation of the uterus (dilation and evacuation i.e., D&E)

    The physician uses instruments such as forceps to remove the fetus and placenta. The choice of procedural technique is dictated by the patient’s health and safety and individual Physician preference.”

    No dismemberment is taking place, but that does not suit your narrative does it!
    These abortions are rarely done and only under special circumstances were either the life of the mother is in danger or the fetus is incompatible with life. Only 0.08% of abortions are done at this time!

    I guess to you risking the life of a woman for a dead or dying fetus or plain risking her life because she can not continue the pregnancy and life is not a violent and depraved act

    • purrtriarchy

      good find