The leaves are falling, the daylight waning, and the air has that bracing snap to it; 'tis the season of deceptive political advertising. Weeks before congressional elections, this usually this takes the form of negative television ads placed by the supporters of one candidate or another. But, on the Web, at least one issue-oriented group is offering a clever and upbeat form of the classic deceptive ad: Feminists for Life, a group that seeks to outlaw all abortions, no exceptions.
Now, perhaps, as the Feminists for Life literature says, it is possible to oppose all forms of legal abortion -- even those that would save the life of the pregnant woman -- and still be a feminist. But if one were to take such a stance and consider oneself a feminist, one would certainly believe that women should have access to contraception, right? Apparently not if one is a member of Feminists for Life, an organization that href="http://www.feministsforlife.org/FAQ/index.htm#contraception">refuses to take a stand on whether or not contraception should be legal. (Note that few, if any, Protestant denominations take issue with the use of any kind of contraception, although some religious-right anti-abortion organizations regard the morning-after pill as an abortifacient.) When Feminists for Life has chosen to address the issue of contraception, it has invariably been to point out the health hazards posed in particular forms of birth control.
So, despite its self-description as a "non-sectarian" organization, Feminists for Life may as well be an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which, together with the Knights of Columbus (a fraternal Catholic lay organization), co-sponsored the Feminists for Life's 2003/2004 advertising campaign. (Deirdre McQuaid, hired earlier this year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the church's new "pro-life spokesperson," according to a Catholic Web site, came to the post from her staff position at Feminists for Life.)
You've got to hand it to the organization; its ads are always appealing, the best-known of them featuring an attractive young woman of indeterminate race, and the tagline: "Women Deserve Better Than Abortion." Hard to argue with that. As Air America's Rachel Maddow once told Tucker Carlson, it's not like women are running out to get "recreational abortions." I first noticed these ads perhaps two years ago, in the form of posters on the Washington, D.C., MetroBuses. (Someone took a Sharpie to one, yielding this result: "Women Deserve Better
Than Abortion THIS AD.")
The latest incarnation of the Feminists for Life advertising strategy -- which features a message that has been adopted by South Dakota supporters of the state's imminent referendum on an all-out abortion ban -- can be found right here, at The American Prospect Online: a cycling three-panel click-through window with the beckoning title, "Pro-Woman Answers" (panel one, which features the same photograph as in the "Women Deserve Better" campaign) "to Pro-Choice Questions" (panel 2, featuring a studious-looking young woman with glasses and a pierced nose). The third panel features a photo of a very glammed-up Patricia Heaton, celebrity spokesperson (late of the sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond"), with the headline, "FREE! Sign Up!"
Right from the get-go, Feminists for Life is hoping to lure in young women -- obviously from such liberal venues as the Prospect -- through the artful use of the all-but-branded term of the reproductive rights movement: pro-choice. Nowhere in its come-on ad on the Prospect's site will you find the name of the group -- the "for Life" piece being a dead giveaway of its intent -- nor will you find the terms "pro-life" or "right to life," signatures of the anti-feminist, anti-choice movements.
Okay, so you're a bright young woman looking for "pro-woman answers to pro-choice questions," so you click through for the (FREE!) sign-up, and you find yourself on a page at the Feminists for Life Web site featuring a letter from Serrin Foster, the organization's president, that presents Feminists for Life as a group occupying the middle ground in the abortion debate (as if there could be middle ground in this debate):
Since 1973, it's been the same thing. One side of the hotly contested abortion wars yells, "What about the woman?" The other side yells back, "What about the baby?" People have been pushed into their respective corners. It's hard to talk when there is all that distance between us. But Feminists for Life has been bridging the gap, answering the most critical questions in the most contentious places -- from Capitol Hill to college campuses -- with woman-centered solutions.
Nowhere in Foster's missive does she tell her reader that her group opposes all abortions, even for the life of the mother, though she does hint at that platform a bit: "Perhaps you've wondered how to answer tough questions like, 'What about rape?' Perhaps you didn't want to choose sides or tell someone else what to do or think. Perhaps you just wanted a good answer for yourself." Now that you've signed up for your "pro-woman answers to pro-choice questions," you receive, via e-mail, a weekly answer to a "pro-choice" question.
Back in the day, during the John Roberts Supreme Court nomination hearing, I put my name on the Feminists for Life e-mail list when it was revealed that Jane Sullivan Roberts, wife of the since-confirmed chief justice, had served on the organization's board, and had done pro-bono legal work for the group. Consequently, without clicking through on anything, I have been receiving Foster's "pro-woman" wisdom via my ISP.
So, what about rape? That was the latest "pro-choice question" to which Foster provided an answer. In fact, she rhetorically asked herself how she would respond if her daughter was raped, and offered this answer:
I would love her and my grandchild unconditionally, and I would do everything in my power to prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law. Out of our desire to save someone from suffering, it is normal to wish we could erase a painful memory such as rape. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that as much as we want to, we can't. Abortion doesn't erase a memory. Think about it. Could anything ever erase your memory of September 11, 2001?
Is there not a single, oppressive, right-wing issue that 9-11 does not serve? Think this is untoward? Foster next trots out the stories of women who were conceived through rape; one woman asks if she "deserve[d] a death sentence." (A pro-choice question: If you were never born, would you miss not having existed? Maybe a Jesuit can take that one on.)
In positions it takes on other issues, Feminists for Life is indeed "pro-woman," whether in regard to its stance on the Violence Against Women Act or support for mothers on welfare. But it's hard not to wonder if those positions aren't just a beard, along with the term, "feminist," for the hard-core, misogynist agenda of the Vatican. The organization's no-exceptions anti-abortion position follows Catholic doctrine to the letter, a doctrine that has always demanded of women that they bear whatever burden men place upon them, and that they not soil the altar with the very bodiliness they represent by virtue of the means by which children are born. As notes Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an organization of Catholics who support reproductive rights for women, "[Feminists for Life] fail to recognize the central premise of feminism, which is that women get to choose -- not them. All of us should be working to make choices better for women, but not eliminating choices." (Our call for comment from Feminists for Life, as of press time, had gone unanswered.)
In Foster's closing words on the "pro-choice" rape question, one finds the essence of what the church expects a woman -- no, a girlchild -- to bear :
...a student...told me that she was raped by her third cousin as a mere thirteen-year-old and had became pregnant. Her parents had helped her have the privacy she wanted during her pregnancy, and then she placed her son with two loving parents.
I asked her, why did she make the decision to have the child -- when she was just a girl who had lived through what was arguably the worst of circumstances?
She said she would never pass on the violence that was perpetrated against her to her own unborn child. Now that is the strength of a woman! [Emphasis in original]
Sounds a bit to me like an anti-child answer to a no-choice question -- no choice, at least, really, for the pregnant child. No wonder Feminists for Life must resort to deception to pad its rolls of e-mail recipients. The bishops must be proud.
Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, AddieStan.com, and the book, Debating Sexual Correctness.
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