• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Feminists for the Unborn: Speak Up

As Parliament has finally allowed itself to discuss who, or what, qualifies as a human being—however briefly, and to no effect—some feminists have understandably been worried that the rights of certain women—childbearing women—might be compromised.

Other feminists, such as myself, are glad that finally the rights of certain women—unborn women—might return to the public conscience and official protection of Canadians.

It has been a long, difficult, and worthy battle to emancipate women from stupid attitudes, demeaning practices, and horrible laws. It is now 2012 and Canada is not as it was. Sexism is still evident, and always will be, but it enjoys neither social acceptance nor institutional support. It is time to welcome tiny women into our circle of protection along with their mothers.

One can appreciate that for social change to take place, issues need radical simplification so that the necessary force can be concentrated on single pressure points. The bracketing-out of the rights of unborn women in favour of the rights of childbearing women was one of the understandable, if also regrettable, consequences of the Realpolitik of feminist struggle. Feminists who used to champion the rights of unborn women were silenced by the rest of the movement and told to get in line: the rights of (adult) women were the cause of the moment, and every other consideration had to be co-opted or deferred.

Now, however, we are in a different era. Now we can see that granting a woman full rights over her body, a central and valid concern recognized by all sensible people and by the institutions of the country, should never have extended to granting her full rights over another woman’s body, the female child she carried in pregnancy. In the truly holy war for women’s rights, granting the childbearing woman the authority to kill her unborn-child/woman was a bridge too far.

We feminists therefore should be grateful we now occupy a social space in which we can admit our mistakes, just as we have been hectoring sexists to admit theirs. We should be able to recognize a good argument as a good argument, whether or not it is made by a woman. Female feminists should be secure enough in their own social safety now to put aside their preoccupation with themselves and consider the needs of others, including the most vulnerable human beings there are: women in utero.

We must begin by acknowledging what every pregnant woman knows: that what is living within her is another person, another human being. One of the great themes of our feminist movement is embodiment. So we must take seriously that mother and child are joined, in physiology and in dignity. The rights of one cannot be considered to the neglect of the other any more than the body of one can be discussed in disregard of the other’s.

Unborn children are, indeed, the great “others” of Canadian society today. They are literally, because legally, completely unprotected because they are unrecognized as persons. We feminists—of all people!—should be quick to recognize that sinister language of someone being “not a person” and we ought to be leaping to the defense of those who are marginalized and victimized as such.

So let Parliament do what they should have done years and years ago. And let us feminists also remedy what we once said, and stopped saying: That we are in favour of the rights of all women, and particularly the most vulnerable.