No topic has remained a more central concern to feminism over the decades than abortion.
But despite feminists typically being represented as pro-choice, the movement itself began with such seminal figures as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decrying abortion and instead emphasizing the importance of birth control. Even with the push against abortion in the 1980s, they were still allowed under certain circumstances according to state laws.
“I believe the goal of early feminists was to see women treated fairly, and with dignity,” said John Timothy Finn, publisher of Prolife.com, an informational and gateway Web site.
The landmark decision in the Roe v. Wade case of 1973, however, determined that the Texas law banning abortion unless to save the mother’s life was unconstitutional. The decision allowed abortions within the first trimester, while giving power to the state to prevent abortions in the second and third trimester.
“The movement also changes over time and a lot of the focus on a specific issue, or issues, depends on the political climate at the time,” said co-coordinator for the Oakland-East Bay National Organization for Women Dana Saks. “For example, given the current political climate there is a lot of emphasis on abortion and choice because there is a push by the conservatives in power to make abortion illegal.”
“Before abortion was legal, the feminist debate was focused on legalizing abortion,” Saks said. “Once abortion was legalized the movement focused more on women being able to access abortion. Today, the debate is changing to focus on access to comprehensive women’s health care instead of just abortion.”
The Roe, Doe v. Bolton case of 1973 ruled that a doctor had the right to perform an abortion up until birth, if they found it “necessary for her physical or mental health.”
It wasn’t until the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992 that the right to abortion was defined as “grounded in the general sense of liberty,” as opposed to the Roe ruling which held it as a right to privacy.
Underscoring the volatility of the abortion debate, Norma McCorvey of the Roe v. Wade case later began supporting the pro-life movement and said her lawyers used her for their own means.
“It’s a bit weird — there’s definitely a more conservative swing taking place in our political sphere,” Saks said. “Even though polls show that the majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most cases, most politicians are backing away from their support of abortion, at least during election years.”
President Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003, but was blocked by judges in San Francisco, New York and Nebraska.
Finn said the emotional tone of the debate is fitting.
“Our society has been torn over this issue for decades,” Finn said. “The debate is emotional because it’s a life and death issue.”
For as much as the debate has consistently waged on over the years, Finn said he’s seen recent changes, particularly among women.
“I’ve also seen a new movement of courageous women speaking out against abortion, women who’ve had abortions, women who deeply regret their abortions, women who want to warn other women that choosing abortion is a very, very painful mistake,” Finn said.
State Director of NARAL Pro-Choice California Amy Everitt said, “the changes in the debate have not traditionally been on the feminist side.”
“The anti-choice movement has successfully focused the debate around the embryo/fetus/baby, and not on the health and dignity of women,” she said.
Everitt believes that feminism necessarily implies a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
“Feminism means that women have the same opportunities and choices as men have about how to lead one’s life including when to have a family and when not to,” Everitt said. “Without the right to choose, women suffer unique indignities that drastically change the future that they envision for themselves.”
While Saks considers “the right to decide if, when, and under what circumstances to become a parent a central concern of the feminist movement,” she said that abortion is a part of a larger issue of women receiving adequate sex education, including information about “abstinence, various methods of birth control, and emergency contraception.”
Throughout the abortion debate, many have felt that feminism’s focus on the legality of abortion, rather than access to abortion, healthcare and sex education, has left out a large segment of the population.
“I think feminism in the United States has been hijacked by white liberal feminists,” said Margo Okazawa-Rey, a professor in the women’s studies program.
Okazawa-Rey cited the issue of reproductive rights and said, “The question is what kind of feminism takes into account the way women are oppressed.”
“From my work, many women are claiming feminism as an important project,” Okazawa-Rey said. “It is important to keep talking about it and claiming it. Many women are committed to work toward the liberation of women, men and children.”
While abortion may remain a central issue in the feminist debate, generational differences have made total inclusion a difficult task.
President of California NOW Megan Seely recently emphasized the importance of “intergenerational feminism” in a letter posted on the organization’s Web site.
“The feminist movement finds itself in a unique position today — facing a challenge of sharing the movement among multiple generations,” Seely said. “A merging of ideas, experiences and perceptions come together in a manner that is both a strength and a difficulty. We must incorporate and honor our differences in order to build upon our similarities.”
“The politic of inclusiveness has long been a goal in diversifying the feminist movement,” Seely said. “But yet we continue to face a divide among lines of race, sexuality, gender, physical ability and age. We must effectively bridge these divides if we are to see a strong and successful movement.”
Everitt sees this shift of focus as a positive growth.
“The movement is going through a change right now to better reflect the realities of women today: women of color, young women, women of various socio-economic classes,” Everitt said. “This is a healthy evaluation and growth period.”
Many feminists suggest that the movement may have lost the interest of the younger generation.
“I think there is that perception, particularly among older feminists, because the face of feminism has changed over time and continues to change,” Saks said. “Young women are constantly working toward equality and change in their own ways and a lot of times don’t specifically identify themselves as feminists.”
Saks said she’s frequently encountered young women who are hesitant to identify themselves as feminists.
“I hear a lot of ‘I’m not a feminist, but…,’ usually followed by ‘I believe in reproductive rights or I support athletic equality, etc.,’” said Saks. “The movement is changing in a lot of ways because of the way society has changed and the way young women live today.”
Freshwoman Nicole Hudley said that she strongly identifies as a feminist.
“I want the advancement of women not just in relationships, but in all other areas such as women’s health,” Hudley said.
Even those actively participating in the movement see room for improvement.
“The problems I’ve seen within the feminist movement mirror the problems that I’ve seen within the left — the biggest problem being the inability to work together,” Saks said. “There can be a lot of infighting and political jockeying or power grabbing that causes the movement [to] lose sight of the bigger picture and then be reactive instead of pro-active.”
“Overall, I believe feminism is about equality and freedom,” Saks said. “Feminism is about working for economic justice, universal health care, education, marriage equality, etc; working to end discrimination in general.”
Contributed to by Vanessa B. Marlin and Kristina Hargraves.