Can pro-life and feminist ideologies be reconciled? During her visit last Monday, Molly Pannell, a spokeswoman for Feminists for Life, answered yes, the origins of the pro-life movement lie in early feminist activism.
Her statement runs contrary to the thoughts of many in the Williams community. Presentations like hers challenge assumptions made about feminism and the pro-life movement.
“On this campus, there’s a lot of talk with respect to diversity, but not diversity about ideas. I feel that a lot of liberal ideology on this campus doesn’t leave room for discussion,” Tracy Rocha ’00 said.
The lecture sparked interest in reviving the dormant Williams for Life organization. Feminists for Life, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., opposes “all forms of violence — including abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment — as they are inconsistent with the core feminist principles of justice, non-violence and non-discrimination.”
Pannell welcomed pro-life, pro-choice and undecided members of the audience. She discussed the pro-life stances of early feminists, the “subversion of feminism” during the sixties, and pro-life feminism “as we enter the twenty-first century.”
Early feminists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton encouraged the first anti-abortion legislation Pannell explained. Pannell argued that feminism back-stepped when “true equality” became conditional on the right to an abortion. “Genuine human rights do not come at the expense of any other lives — men, women, especially not children,” she said.
She drew parallels between the treatment of African-Americans and the treatment of women throughout America’s history, as “biological, physical and underdeveloped.” Abortion rights advance these misperceptions, rather than reversing them, she said.
Pannell advocated change at the root of discrimination-the “patriarchal social structure.” Changes in the workplace like maternity benefits and affordable child care are two changes necessary for women to gain equality within the social structure.
Pannell warned against accepting abortion in the place of social change. “Abortion advocates have betrayed a generation of wage-earning women the opportunity to bear wanted children,” she said.
Questions from the audience questioned assumptions in her argument, and requested a response to pro-choice, rather than pro-abortion, arguments.
Maria Agosto ’95 raised the issue of women who genuinely “don’t want to be mothers.”
Pannell suggested that alternatives to abortion are available, primarily adoption, counseling, and emotional and financial support.
In answer to a question about cases involving rape, Pannell said, “The solution to a violent act against women is not another violent act [abortion].” This prompted a question of her assumption that life begins at conception.
Several students were disappointed that Pannell did not engage pro-choice arguments. When asked to, she addressed Feminists for Life’s cooperation with pro-choice groups towards a common goal-to reduce the number of abortions. When cooperating, the groups focus on this practical goal rather than ideological motivations.
After the lecture, students expressed interest in reinitiating Williams for Life, which would “advocate for women on this campus who choose to carry their pregnancy to term,” as well as provide counseling for women making decisions concerning pregnancy and dealing with the decisions that pregnancy brings, Rocha said. Williams for Life might also address capital punishment and euthanasia.
Rob MacDougall ’01 hoped that men would also get involved. “It would be great to get the male population involved, so [abortion] doesn’t get stuck under the title of solely women’s issues,” MacDougall said.
Pannell’s visit evoked varied responses from the audience. Spurring reaction and questions was a central intention of the lecture.
“I think a lot of students, including myself at one point, think that you must fall into these categories, be pro-abortion [if feminist],” said John Platt ’99. “I really wanted to know how you can take a pro-life stance and still be a part of a feminist movement.”
Brian Kelly ’02 felt, “glad she was accepting of pro-choice people. Certainly a pro-life feminist is not a stereotype.”