Why feminists must be pro-choice

I’ve written a bit about cluster concepts, and how they can be incredibly useful to us when it comes to defining some words or ideas. Roughly, a cluster concept is when you have a word, an idea, a concept, that marks out a group of things. There is a cluster of characteristics associated with the word / idea / concept. To be a member of the group of things marked out by the word / idea / concept, you have to have enough of the characteristics, but not necessarily all of them.

So, imagine a list of characteristics. Say, characteristics, a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j and k. And imagine one thing that has characteristics a, b, c, d and e, and that’s enough to be able to say that the thing (whatever it is) belongs to the group. Imagine another thing that has characteristics g, h, i, k and k, and that’s enough to be able to say that the other thing (whatever it is) belongs to the group. There’s no one characteristic that the things share, yet they are properly both members of the group, because they have enough of the characteristics to be recognised as members. That’s a cluster concept.

It’s a very powerful conceptual tool. Wittgenstein argued that it helped us to make sense of the idea of games (after all, just how much do rugby league and hide and seek have in common), and Natalie Stoljar has used it to help us make sense of the concept of “woman.”

For a long time, I thought that we could use cluster concepts as a tool for understanding the idea of being a feminist. After all feminists are incredibly diverse.* We are tall, short, fat, thin, black, brown, white, temporarily able bodied, disabled, married, partnered, single, polyamorist, lesbian, intersex, trans, cisgendered, hetero, bi, mothers, childfree, fertile, infertile, whitecollar, bluecollar, pro-porn, anti-porn, pro-sex work, anti-prostitution, conservative, liberal, socialist, from all parts of the political spectrum. Yet all recognisably feminist, even if many of us, including me, still have so much to learn about being feminist and doing feminism.

If feminist / feminism is a cluster concept, then by rights, there should be no one characteristic that feminists must necessarily have. But… I think that there is one characteristic that feminists must have, or they can’t be considered feminist. Simply, feminists must be pro-choice.

You will notice that I said, “pro-choice.” I don’t think that a feminist must be pro-abortion, for herself. But she must be pro-choice. That is, she must allow women to choose, for themselves. It is entirely consistent for a feminist woman to say that she would not choose abortion for herself, because she thinks it is wrong, but at the same time to say that she supports other women making this choice for themselves. But a feminist can’t remove choices from other women.

I get to this position through thinking about what the basic premise of feminism is. Very simply, it is that women are autonomous adults, capable of making decisions for themselves, of being rational and competent, of conceiving of a vision of the good life, and making choices in order to achieve that vision of the good life.

Or to put it in Stef’s fine words – being a feminist means that you are free to fuck up. Your life, your decisions, your responsibility. Just because you are an autonomous adult.

Abortion is a big moral issue. And make no mistake about it – it is a moral issue. It is an issue where people are asked to think about who and what counts, about where life begins, about the significance of lives that are already being lived and lives that may or may not be lived, about who bears the costs of prohibition. It is an issue that is jam packed with moments of judgement.

If you deny a woman the right to make those decisions for herself, then you are denying her autonomy. You are saying that she is not capable of making moral judgements herself, that she is not, after all, an autonomous adult. She is a child, and you must make moral judgements for her. That is not feminist, at all.

This is why the position taken by Feminists for Life is fundmentally incoherent. They want women to be treated as autonomous adults, except they are not prepared to allow women to be autonomous adults who are capable of making their own moral decisions. That’s not feminist, at all.

And it is why it is absurd to suggest that Sarah Palin is a feminist. Simply, she is not, because she will not allow women to make this moral choice for themselves.

I do not think that being pro-choice alone is enough to mark someone as feminist. But being anti-choice / “pro-life” is enough to indicate that a person doesn’t really believe that women are autonomous adults. Next time you see someone claiming to be feminist, and saying that she is pro-life, I suggest you raise a very sceptical eyebrow, and decline to recognise her as feminist, at all.


*Some women have disavowed feminism, for good reason, and identify as womanist. I’m reluctant to just talk about “feminists and womanists”, because being incorrigibly privileged (I’ve got the lot, bar male privilege, and I’m on the borderline of losing the privilege that comes with looking young), I know that I am all too apt to assimilate other people’s experience to my own. Simply adding “and womanist” to “feminist” seems to say that womanists are just another variety of feminists, and from the reading I have begun to do, I can only see that as an enormous insult to WoC. I’ll be keeping on with reading and thinking, and in the meantime, I am trying to start with a simple acknowledgement.


16 responses to “Why feminists must be pro-choice

  1. if you think being a feminist has to include the right to kill your own child you have no idea what a true woman is.

  2. And there you have probably the biggest single frustration of blogging. You write a complex, carefully considered, minutely-thought-through, well-informed, meticulously-argued piece for your well-signposted-as-feminist personal blog, and the very first comment is a spray from someone who clearly understands none of what you’ve written and cares less. I don’t know about you, Deborah, but this kind of thing makes me yearn for (more) non-virtual conversation with persons of one’s choice.

    Regarding feminist/womanist, I haven’t kept up; what should I read?

  3. I totally agree with PC’s assessment of the first comment. You have put forth an extremely thoughtful and well-written argument, but I do disagree with your conclusion.

    Let me start by saying I am both feminist and pro-choice. I do think that some people who are pro-life, maybe even most, are not feminist and at least some of the reasoning that makes these people pro-life is anti-feminist (or outright sexist) in nature. However, I do not think the pro-life position is necessarily logically incompatible with being feminist.

    You say “a feminist cannot remove choices from other women”, but people can and do remove choices from other people all the time. I think we would all agree that murder should be illegal and so we remove the “choice” of committing murder. I do not consider abortion murder, and because it involves a woman’s own body, I strongly feel a woman should always be able to make her own choice regarding abortion. But those who do honestly believe abortion is murder think this is a choice that should be prohibited, not because women are any less capable of making a moral judgement than men, but to protect the “innocent victim”. Abortion is a “feminist issue” because only women can get pregnant, but most pro-lifers would consider a male doctor who performed an abortion guilty of a crime.

    The majority of pro-life positions are religion-based and the majority of those religions are traditionally patriarchal and anti-feminist. Many people try to reconcile being Christian or Muslim* with being feminist. I think this is difficult if not impossible for a multitude of reasons other than the religion’s position on abortion. Consequently, I may never find a single person in real life that is truly both feminist and pro-life. I just think this is not because the two positions are logically incompatible, but because the way of thinking that results in one position rarely, if ever, results in the other as well.

    * I don’t actually know the Muslim position on abortion, or if there even is a “standard”, but I do consider this a patriarchal and traditionally anti-feminist religion. Also, it is possible to be feminist and Christian, but the flavors of Christianity that tend to be adamantly pro-life are the same ones that, in my opinion, are anti-feminist.

  4. However, I do not think the pro-life position is necessarily logically incompatible with being feminist.

    I would think it’s possible to agree with the bulk of the post (women must be free to make their own judgement, exercise their moral agency etc) and at the same time believe that some choices, by their nature, can never be legitimate.

  5. Thank you for taking on the bullshit that continues to accumulate from what once were recognizable sites of feminist discourse, but which, in the leadup to our most recent Presidential election, became havens for gender essentialists (not at all the same thing as “feminists”) and variously covert racists who were, and remain, perfectly happy to sabotage each and every potential gain for the progressive policies they once prioritized, so long as it serves their need to delegitimize the existing, duly elected Presidential administration (in which sense, they’re not too far removed from the batshit insane birthers).

    Nothing you can ever write, no matter how well-reasoned and diplomatically stated, will change their minds. In fact, any effort you do make in this regard is likely to result in your being viciously mocked, demeaned, slandered, and even threatened. (No one is more unstable than one who, while she ought to know better – due to her own feminist activist history – has committed herself to such staggering cognitive dissonance as what would allow anyone to call Sarah Palin a “feminist”; no truth can ever emerge from that fundamental(-ist) lie, but the need to justify it as such requires ever more fantastic leaps of the gender essentialist and covertly racist imagination.)

    But you should still be commended for your efforts, which help the rest of us know that we are not alone in having anything of a reasoning capacity left over from the battles over identity politics (which demean both identity and politics) we saw in that election, and will be seeing for quite some time still to come. (For at least as long, I suspect, as there continues to be a Scary Black Man in the decidedly White House.)

    So, thank you. Both for being right, and for being thorough and credible in your reasoning. I wish you peace and strength.

  6. Victoria, thank you so much.

  7. I have some difficulty with your interpretation of cluster concepts. Wittgenstein was discussing what he calls family resemblance – that certain activities which are apparently dissimilar have characteristics in common. Games, which preoccupied much of his thinking, are a good example. Family resemblance is non-essential, precisely because disparate activities have common elements, without losing their essential qualities.

    Cluster theories are different. The idea of cluster theories was first proposed by Berys Gault to define the notion of Art (“Art” as a Cluster Theory, in Carroll, Theories of Art Today 2000). Gault says that his cluster theory is non-essentialist, but Davies (The Cluster Theory of Art, British Journal of Aesthetics 44 [2004]) argues convincingly that it is essentialist, in that it provides some essential characteristics of a work of art. While Wittgenstein describes common characteristics of differing activities (both chess and rugby are games) Gault describes various characteristics of the one activity – characteristics of Art.

    I think your cluster theory description of feminism has the same problem: although appearing non-essentialist it is in fact essentialist. Although there may be many different kinds of feminist, they are all essentially feminist.

    Essentialist or not, you then determine that there is one mandatory requirement for a definition of a person as a feminist – that she or he should be pro-choice. Whilst I agree with this requirement in that I find it difficult to imagine how one can be truly feminist while being anti-choice, I cannot see it fitting with a cluster concept of feminism. If being pro-choice is mandatory to being a feminist, then it is necessary rather than conditional, while all the other characteristics of feminism are merely conditional. So one might say that a feminist is a pro-choice person and that any other characteristics are mere details. I think this description would be untrue and would also do a disservice to the richness of feminism, but is an inevitable reduction of your description. There is obviously more to feminism than being pro-choice, although it seems that a pro-choice position is necessary to be a feminist. Then again, one can be pro-choice while being anti-feminist, as are many libertarians.

    Your description also raises the question of whether a man can be a feminist. I think of myself as a feminist but then I will never have to bear the responsibility you describe, since I will never risk becoming pregnant. At best, I can sympathise with women who bear that responsibility.

    In any case, it is not about me. But I think that a cluster theory is inadequate to define feminism. What might be adequate is an essentialist theory that encompasses being pro-choice and any other characteristics that are core values of a feminist position. But then I do not like essentialist theories. But then again, I am not a philosopher.

  8. Well, yes. There is the bit in the post where I say:

    For a long time, I thought that we could use cluster concepts as a tool for understanding the idea of being a feminist. After all feminists are incredibly diverse. … If feminist / feminism is a cluster concept, then by rights, there should be no one characteristic that feminists must necessarily have. But I think that there is one characteristic that feminists must have, or they can’t be considered feminist. Simply, feminists must be pro-choice.

    So although I don’t spell it out, the implication is that because there is one characteristic I think feminists must have, then it can’t be a cluster concept.

    However, there is one thing that I should have been clearer about. My idea is that feminists must be committed to ensuring that women are treated as autonomous adults who are capable of making their own moral choices. Being pro-choice flows out of that. Conversely, if you reject the pro-choice position, then you are saying that women can’t be trusted to make this particular moral decision. Ergo, you are not treating them as autonomous adults who are capable of making their own moral choices.

    Also, being pro-choice is not enough to make you a feminist, on its own. But being pro-life / anti-choice is enough to make you not recognisably feminist, because you deny autonomy.


  9. Yes. I think you made your second point about autonomy quite clear and I think I misunderstood your first, that you you were withdrawing from the cluster concept.

    That said, what are the essential characteristics of feminism? I suspect the “pro-life” feminists are not feminists at all: they are “pro-life” first and feminist second, if at all. But how would we recognise them as feminists or reveal them as anti-feminists? Are other feminist positions (such as pay equality) necessary determinants of feminism?

  10. I think you made your second point about autonomy quite clear

    Ooops! Sorry. Grandmothers, eggs and all that…

    As for the essential characteristics of feminism… a post for another day, maybe. ‘Though possibly I would try to reduce it all to recognising women as autonomous adults. Or maybe not – I haven’t thought about it for long enough to be able to write about it yet.

  11. No apologies necessary – I was commenting, however clumsily, on my own misunderstanding, not your emphasis.

    I await that other day with interest. I continue to be dismayed by the refusal of some men to accept women as autonomous adults, or even of some women to accept themselves as such.

  12. What a wonderful discussion! I agree with your essential characteristic of feminism.

    Following on from Paul, I too remain constantly dismayed by some women’s refusal to take responsibility for themselves and ‘grow up’, and also by the way parts of our culture infantilise women, which leads to women getting a payoff for not ‘growing up’, which feeds back into the infantilism…

    Like Dr Cat I’d like to learn more about ‘womanism’.

  13. I hate the way that some couples dont take responsibility for their fertility.. the whole we will have as many as god gives us routine rubs very thin with me, its not being very adult about it either, I am pro choice, I personally could not have an abortion but would never stop another woman having one. womens fertility is still a huge political football that mainly men try to control….

  14. You make a very compelling point, one that, as is rare in this sort of discourse, causes me to reexamine my own positions. I count myself among those you mention who still have a lot to learn about being feminist. And I very much want to agree with you on this issue, being a pro-choice feminist myself.

    But I don’t know if I do, or at least, whether your reasoning is complete enough to ease my doubts (not that that’s your job by any stretch of the imagination). If autonomy’s the answer, why do you argue that anti-prostitution or anti-porn people can be feminist? Wouldn’t their views, if taken to their logical legal and social ends, result in people being unable to make choices (albeit less important ones) about their own bodies? Isn’t that deeming people incapable of making their own moral decisions? Why this one issue and not others?

    Ultimately, though, I do not believe feminism should be a club that one should have to meet certain requirements to be in. I believe that feminists do a disservice to each other by trying to narrowly define what a feminist is and is not. Simply, that is the same patriarchal game of who’s-“in” that women are culturally indoctrinated to play, only applied to a supposedly feminist space. While it’s fine to say Sarah Palin isn’t really a feminist because she displays absolutely none of the traits of a feminist, I think people who earnestly and truly want to fight against social, cultural and political oppression of women should never be treated with the scorn you have suggested. No matter what their view on an issue that is only one facet of the movement.

    Simply, if we’re going to let *some* groups of people with vastly opposite beliefs in, we should let them *all* in. We should always question those whose beliefs we find questionably feminist, but we should never turn away someone who, at core, is dedicated to women’s rights and women’s values.

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