Pro-life feminism is no oxymoron

I am no bachelor, and if I know anything from day-to-day or indeed minute-by-minute experience, it is that you cannot infer a man's politics from those of his wife.

Another proof of this truth came home for me the other morning in a discussion about the politics of Jane Sullivan Roberts, the spouse of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Over breakfast, I mentioned that Ms. Roberts had been active in a group called Feminists for Life.

"I don't think you can be a feminist and try to force women to have babies they don't want," my wife, Marion, said.

That claim succinctly expresses why abortion rights are central to feminism: Freedom entails control over one's own body. The idea that the state ought to control female reproductive functions would be an odious violation of the basic autonomy feminism was created to uphold.

And yet, the matter is considerably more complicated than that.

Feminism has a broad agenda and a rich history. It has dedicated itself to equal pay for women, to making it possible for women to ascend to positions of real power, and to opening all areas of human endeavor - from athletics to the sciences to law - to the aspirations of women. It has dedicated itself to raising third-world women out of poverty and to putting female MBAs into corporate boardrooms. It has dedicated itself to stopping the rape, harassment, mutilation, and degradation of women.

Feminism is anything but monolithic. There are anarchist feminists, communist feminists, and democratic feminists. There are eco-feminists worshiping the goddess of nature, Christian feminists, Islamic feminists, and atheistic feminists. There are feminists who define pornography as rape and feminists who endorse it as a liberatory practice.

And although most feminists favor abortion rights, that cannot be the only criterion. To reduce feminism to a single position on a single issue would be a sadly impoverished outcome of an immensely rich history. Even some of the most radical feminists - Emma Goldman, for instance - have had misgivings about abortion.

Any feminist who makes support of abortion rights the criterion of feminism has falsified the movement's history and goals and needlessly narrowed its base of support.

Ms. Roberts has for many years been a high-powered attorney, a status that is made possible in part by the victories of American feminism. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity or intensity of her commitment to many of the central tenets of feminism.

But like many people, she comes from a religious perspective (in her case, Catholicism) that condemns abortion, and perhaps like many others she also has (perhaps related) moral misgivings.

If it were perfectly clear that abortion is only a matter of a woman's control of her own body, then a defense of abortion would be a sheer defense of liberty and autonomy. It would be clear that you could not endorse the liberation of women without endorsing abortion rights.

But that's not clear. To what extent and up to what point a fetus is part of a woman's body are difficult questions that trouble even as clear an advocate of abortion rights as my wife Marion.

If feminism had been consistently libertarian - if it opposed on principle all legislation that limited people's autonomy - then there might be a plausible argument that a pro-choice position is entailed by any version of feminism.

But though there have been libertarian feminists, the main line of feminist theory has been extremely enthusiastic about achieving liberation through the force of law, from Title IX to sexual harassment statutes to amendments to the Constitution. Mainstream feminists can't in principle be opposed to legislation or constitutional amendments to defend the rights of children; the only question is whether limits on abortion are in fact about children at all.

That is, support of abortion rights can be a necessary condition for being a feminist only on the supposition that a fetus is merely a part of a woman's body. But that can't be decisively shown.

Until it is, Ms. Roberts's position is perfectly sensible and consistent. There are many aspects of a feminist agenda that she can enthusiastically endorse and that may have been and may be essential to her personal and professional life. This may lead to some lively conversations about the Roberts home.

The relation of Ms.Roberts's successful career as an attorney or her pro-life activities to her husband's future as a Supreme Court justice is a matter for speculation. But it is worth pointing out that, whatever his views on this or that, he is a man who married a feminist.

Crispin Sartwell writes daily at and teaches political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. ©2005 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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