The past few weeks have seen a resurgence in discussions about whether or not we need to rebrand feminism - this time, thanks to Elle magazine and some competition in the USA. No-one loves a rebranding discussion. I imagine memoirs of the feminist movement in decades to come:
It is generally accepted that the downfall of patriarchy began with one key turning point in 2013: a corporate advertising campaign. The men saw that gender equality was unthreatening and compatible with body hair removal. And so began the end of misogyny.
Feminism, however, isn't the only movement that's currently toying with a rebrand. The pro-life organisation Life has launched a social media campaign, #notblinkered.
“Do you have a stereotype of someone who's 'prolife'? White? Middle aged? Middle class? Right wing? Religious? Anti-women's rights? Blinkered?”
Life have correctly identified that this is exactly the stereotype that people have of those who are anti-abortion. It's one that isn't exactly challenged by the sort of people who picket clinics and the sort of politicians who support them. The campaign's aim is to “challenge the stereotypes associated with prolifers” and prove that they're 'not blinkered' about the issues surrounding abortion, while acknowledging “the damage abortion has done to women, children, families and society as a whole”. So far, it features interviews with a feminist, an atheist and a socialist.
Despite writing about abortion rights on numerous occasions in the past and strongly identifying as pro-choice, I've grown weary of the way the debates on the subject nearly always pan out. I believe that both 'sides' can be incredibly blinkered and that the abortion debate consistently lacks nuance and consideration of surrounding issues. I don't find it helpful that anyone claiming the label 'pro-life' is liable to be branded a 'woman hater' by pro-choice activists. I don't find it helpful that pro-life activists harass women outside clinics and feel it's acceptable to give out misleading information about pregnancy and abortion. And I feel the label 'pro-life' has ceased to be helpful at all because people use it to mean so many different things.
Very often, at the merest mention of someone being 'pro-life', people will jump to the conclusion that they believe abortion should be illegal, or at least that they believe in various pieces of restrictive legislation that will slowly make abortion illegal except in exceptional circumstances. I know this is not always the case.
What's interesting is that none of the 'stories' featured on the #notblinkered blog discuss legislation. What these pro-lifers believe about whether or not abortion should be legal, what their opinions are about an upper time limit, what they believe about medical abortions or social abortions or extreme circumstances isn't apparent. And I get that this isn't the point of the campaign. The point of the campaign is to get us to consider the whole picture, the grey areas. What of the women who feel pressured into having an abortion by their partner or family? What is 'choice' when you're so constrained by your financial situation that you can't continue with a pregnancy?
But many pro-choice advocates have been left unimpressed by #notblinkered. They see this 'challenging of stereotypes' as a gimmick to try to make us believe pro-lifers are harmless. That their beliefs don't see thousands of women die each year from unsafe abortions and endanger many lives. And this is why the pro-life movement might lead a few more people to look favourably upon them by launching #notblinkered, but why it could also do much, much more by suggesting - and becoming known for working on - ethical and effective solutions that are pro-minimisation of abortion:
1. Challenging the government on measures that have plunged more people into poverty and desperate situations – especially women.
2. Supporting comprehensive sex education that makes sure young people are well-educated about the mechanics of sex and conception but also about healthy and unhealthy relationships, and avoiding risky sexual behaviour. It's well known that the anti-abortion organisation SPUC are extremely opposed to sex education and view it as "damaging". Life doesn't hold an enormously positive view of current sex and relationships education (who does?), but I do feel there needs to be more of a consensus on what good SRE actually looks like. I'm not so sure that both camps could ever achieve this, but why not explore it?
3. Providing ethical, unbiased, and accurate counselling (we know Life have been challenged about this following a 2011 investigation – I truly hope that they have reviewed their training, materials and procedures since). There is no excuse for promoting untruths about pregnancy and abortion, whatever your stance on the issue.
4. Providing support to women in crisis situations who may need financial help or somewhere to live. I am aware that Life already does this. Pro-choice campaigners see this as being of key importance too - there is common ground. The real crisis here is the state of women's services due to cuts.
5. Challenging the negative and derogatory stereotypes that persist whenever conversations about abortion in Britain today take place - 'using abortion as contraception'; 'social abortions' (as if these are carried out for exclusively 'trivial' and 'frivolous' reasons); 'abortion as a lifestyle choice'. A common accusation thrown at the pro-life movement is that it cares more about policing women's sexual activity than it does about the lives of babies and children. It has to move away from judgemental attitudes.
6. If there is really no compulsion to 'turn back the clock' on women's rights, finding common ground with the pro-choice movement and working together on pro-minimisation initiatives rather than seeking reactionary changes in legislation without having looked into other measures first, and without considering the whole picture.
I'm not making these suggestions simply because I think the pro-life movement needs to make itself more palatable to its detractors. I'm making them because I believe that if you truly value life you must address the factors that contribute towards women having abortions, and see what can be changed. Many of these issues are important to pro-choicers too, and it is in this overlap that we should be able to understand each other a bit more and see what might emerge.