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:
The abortion debate doesn’t ‘poison’ discourse … it is the people who insist on calling women ‘murderers’ who do.
— Erin Matson (@erintothemax) May 2, 2014
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 Rewire 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 Rewire 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 Rewire 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?