The Women’s March and that time the Pope tried to shut down a bunch of BAMF nuns.

I have so many thoughts swirling through my brain regarding the Women’s March!

One of the big themes (or critiques, maybe) was intersectionality of feminism. I want to recommend the recent Politics and Prose on women’s rights teach-in. There’s a major unpacking of all of these elements. Some points I want to pluck out:

  • Many movements are minority movements. The feminist movement is a majority movement. There are a lot of women – half the population – so by definition you’re dealing with a broad group of people who identify both as women and then many other things (race, ethnicity, profession, class, etc.)
  • Acknowledging the above is an important strength. A dominant strain of oppression is divide and conquer. It’s important to focus on the divisions in order to isolate the problem and resolve them. But it’s just as pivotal that the narrative not be defined by the natural distinctions between all groups participating because it’s a characteristic means by which to ensure in-fighting rather than focusing on the external hurdles the group is attempting to fight.

One of the divisions was the pro-life and pro-choice movement. How do we approach this wrinkle? Reproductive rights have been under massive, targeted assault. It’s entirely fair, in my view, for a women’s movement to hone in on this reality.

The origins of this movement were progressive. Historically, a dividing line between progressives and conservatives has been abortion. I think I want to modify this line. I am extremely pro-choice but I am also a big coalition builder, sometimes to a fault, which is why I’m publishing this. I want to throw some ideas out there but I also want some pushback if I’m not being hardline enough, as is often my tendency.

I want to set the table by focusing on the intersection of what we typically consider “women’s issues” and abortion.

I went to a Catholic high school, so my perspective is informed largely by a very liberal, social justice oriented, approach to issues. I’m not religious, but naturally the Sisters of Mercy viewed their mandates through the lens of the Catholic faith, and many pro-life groups are also informed by a wide assortment of religious or otherwise faith-based concerns. I’m going to admit at the outset that this colors my perception of pro-life movements and groups led by women. My experience has been positive. I know this isn’t true everywhere.

Nevertheless, in the majority of this experience, and with a lot of pro-life groups run by women, the tone, direction, and policy aims of the groups are vastly different from US policy makers. The pro-life agenda is expansive in that it focuses on women at risk, generally, as well as children. This agenda includes, but is not limited to: dealing with domestic abuse, providing food and shelter, education, healthcare (preventative and reactive), as well as a myriad of programs aimed at supporting children.

These are not issues that only affect women, but American political discourse trends towards packaging family economic issues as synonymous with women’s issues, presumably because a lot of that vulnerability syncs up with the single mother demographic. That’s a significant but separate conversation.

The tone is distinct. The emphasis is by and large on bettering the quality of life these women experience, thus minimizing the extent to which they are “at risk,” whether for violence or exploitation or for being put in a position where they would have an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. The trade-offs emphasize a net benefit of reduction in abortion via a quality-of-life or access-focused agenda.

This is in stark contrast to the pro-life policy agenda of lawmakers (note: not the pro-life movement at large), who focus far more on restricting access to all sorts of information and healthcare that would allow women to make informed reproductive decisions. If a policy, such as prenatal care, has a net benefit for the health and welfare of mothers and babies, it will nonetheless end up on the chopping block if one iota of it can be framed as preventing abortions (in this case, lawmakers argue that the knowledge provided in these check-ups could potentially lead parents to choose aborting babies at high risk for defects, etc.) The trade-offs are thus: any whiff of abortion requires limitation or prohibition. It’s an exercise in degraded political signaling, packaging any and all punitive and restrictive measures as a pro-life victory regardless of outcome.

I think many of these pro-life groups do line up with is the same progressive policy agenda of most women’s rights movements. It aligns considerably with the platform outlines of the Women’s March and the initiatives previously asserted by Hillary Clinton, save for the specific act of getting an abortion. Access to preventative and prenatal healthcare, paid parental leave, support for caretakers, elder abuse and support laws, children’s welfare, etc etc. These are all major overlaps in a huge policy Venn Diagram.

There’s some precedent for this:

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.


Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

The group was also accused of being too radically feminist (PDF):

Radical Feminism. The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

It might seem silly to some to focus on women’s groups and women’s leadership. I used to believe this myself, but as I’ve extended my professional life, I’ve found increasingly that diverse groups beget creative solutions. Moreover, they add feedback that never would have entered my mind. In December, an Ohio lawmaker stated that he “never thought about” why a woman might get an abortion. I don’t know, but strongly suspect, that every woman in the pro-life groups seeking entry to the Women’s March has considered that question, probably deeply. The next time any law regarding women’s reproductive rights is discussed, I at least want those people in the room.

The rough building blocks for building a coalition are there. I think the traditional paradigm of pro-lifers and pro-choicers in constant opposition needs to pause. I’m under no illusion that, at some point, or on some issues, they will clash directly and won’t be able to accommodate one another. This isn’t a call for a ra ra kumbaya. As I said above, there is a heightened assault on reproductive rights today and the legislative and executive – potentially judicial – branches are poised to undercut any and all gains. But I think by aligning with these pro-life groups on other essential policies we accomplish a few things:

  1. We create a major voting bloc in opposition to the Trump Administration, generally;
  2. We change the conversation from using abortion as a punitive signaling measure to a quality of life assessment resulting in a net loss of women at risk and unplanned/unwanted pregnancies.
  3. We increase the probability that the policies directly affecting that quality of life assessment are passed, e.g., parental leave, domestic abuse reporting, childcare availability, etc.
  4. One marker of this campaign was both explicit and coded misogyny, ranging from a video explicitly condoning sexual assault and degrading language, to the coded lampooning of Hillary Clinton’s supposed lack of SSSSSSStamina. I think this was a catalyst event allowing women to identify as women who experience unique and targeted disparagements. Pro-life women experience this too.

I don’t begrudge the leaders of the Women’s March for their judgment call on exclusion of pro-life groups. I think it was a combination of having the march grow beyond anticipation coupled with a lack of resources to respond to competing demands in any truly deliberate way. As the protest transitions – hopefully – to policy agendas and coalition building, I would definitely like to see them explore this alliance further, since I think it guts one of the last few bastions of the Culture War on which the right tends to thrive.

Let the right go back to basics instead. Let them focus on liberalized trade and deconstructing the Road to Serfdom Donald Trump has led them on. I, for one, would welcome such a return as a fan of the above myself. Until then, I’m quite happy to take a practical step with the Democratic Party and help them internalize more progressive policy, ideally (and this is my own bias) in a constructive format rather than over-learning the lesson of economic populism, but I digress.