Erika Bachiochi is a lawyer and the author of an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, “Embodied Equality: Debunking Equality Arguments for Abortion Rights,” and editor of Women, Sex and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching (Pauline Books and Media, 2010).
Often described as a pro-life feminist, Bachiochi has devoted herself to championing the needs and rights of women, including battling what she sees as a grave misconception: that abortion benefits women. Her pro-woman, pro-life stance has generated controversy, and she was recently asked to write a column for CNN on the topic. Register correspondent Marge Fenelon interviewed Bachiochi about the development of her pro-life views.
You were once an abortion advocate, and now you’re against it. What changed your mind?
I was deeply influenced by the book by Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk. I’d been assigned to read it when I went to Washington, D.C., during the first semester of my junior year in college. And that was the first step to rethinking my views about abortion and much else. It was the first time I’d heard the pro-woman, pro-life position articulated, even if that was not the main purpose of Prof. Glendon’s book.
While I was in D.C., I was also doing an internship working on welfare reform. It was during the Clinton years, when Congress was overhauling welfare. I got up close and personal, at least in the data and studies, with the problems of poor women, and I became disgusted by the idea put forth by abortion advocates: that the road out of poverty would require the elimination of poor children through abortion.
I became more and more convinced that the mainstream women’s groups that I’d been supportive of until that point were rather elite organizations. Sure, they think that they’re helping the poor, but there’s much evidence that poor, unwed mothers have babies because they want them — for any number of reasons. The solution of throwing abortion and more contraception at them is not really answering the needs of their hearts or the needs of their communities. This, in addition to the fact that they were eliminating society’s “undesirables” and, at some level, convincing women that abortion was their duty. This wasn’t right; it isn’t right. That was the second step.
The third step was when my professor in D.C. brought in experts to talk about each political hot-button issue. Helen Alvaré, then at the USCCB [bishops’ conference], was brought in to represent the pro-life position. Her positive demeanor and joy were very impressive to me — the contrast with the pro-choice woman was striking and still is striking, in my mind.
At that time in my life, I was searching for something more — I’d come out of the drugs-and-alcohol phase of my teen years and had been strongly drawn into feminism in college and was really searching for how to live well. I was very attracted to Helen, though I didn’t want to be because of her strong pro-life views. That experience opened the door a bit wider.
Through those experiences that semester, abortion was suddenly suspect in a way it never had been before. Abortion no longer seemed in keeping with my feminist views. Within about a year after that, after returning to college in Vermont, I started upon my conversion back to the Church. Questioning abortion in a serious way was definitely a necessary starting point.
You’re known as a pro-life feminist. Aren’t those conflicting terms?
I’m not tied to the term “feminist,” as I know it is off-putting to many, but I can’t say I’ve found a term that works better. And there is something to be said for “re-appropriating” the term, since, surely, those who use it now are undermining women’s dignity and, in my view, women’s equality.
I think it’s strange that we would ever think that it’s a pro-woman stance for a mother to be against her own child. That seems to me to be a curious position.
The feminist position started as a pro-life position — the early American feminists were, of course, pro-life. And then abortion hijacked feminism. This was due to a move toward autonomy as the be-all and end-all of women’s freedom. And that, to me, is deeply problematic.
Autonomy and independence are values that certainly should be aspired to. But there’s a great percentage of our lives when we are dependent and vulnerable — when we’re unborn, toddlers, in times of sickness, when we’re downtrodden, when we’re aged or infirm. The idea that autonomy is the No. 1 goal of feminists — “This is my body, my choice, my life, to do with what I want” — doesn’t reflect the full swath of human experience.
Men’s bodies are far more autonomous by nature: Men and women both have sex, yet women are the ones who get pregnant. Women have to do something violent to reach the level of autonomy that men have: They have to kill their own children. We’ve got that all backwards.
Dependence and vulnerability — of the child first and then of the mother, who cares for the child — must be respected, not despised. Both mother and child must be honored and respected in their human dignity — even when, especially when, they are dependent and vulnerable.
What prompted you to write the op-ed article for CNN?
The opinions editor contacted me in the afternoon on Tuesday, Jan. 21. She said that she had received an op-ed from an abortion provider and that CNN wanted to invite an opposing perspective in time for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I was delighted at the opportunity. The opinions editor was gracious and respectful and quite complimentary of the piece itself.
You must have known that you would receive negative feedback from the article, but you wrote it anyway. Why?
I can’t say that I was all that pleased with the title CNN gave my article, but I suppose that’s what attracts readers. Since college, I haven’t considered myself one of those “I’m a feminist, hear me roar” types. Still, it is the suffering of women that really pulls at me, having suffered as a child of divorce, witnessing the pain, too, of my single mother, and having suffered at my own self-destructive behavior as a teenager. That’s why I wrote — why I write.
I’m motivated to respond to feminist questions with the experiences and truths that I’ve discovered, in the hopes of helping women see that there is another way, a way that speaks to women’s dignity and women’s experiences far more profoundly than what secular feminism is offering.
I did receive some “hate” mail as a result of the article. It’s a real pity that there seems to be an inability of some people in our country to dialogue about the most important things. We’re no longer capable of doing much of that, and that’s very sad to me.
In your column, you said that women want to be respected for the work they do as mothers. How?
When we devalue the unborn child, we devalue the work that the mother does. What she does during that time of nurture is something no man can do. It’s incredibly beautiful that women are designed to bear new human beings. It’s just mind-blowing. That’s not all that women should be valued for, but it’s as though we’ve forgotten about that; we’ve devalued that. The key is valuing that on a cultural level — the woman in her motherhood — while also valuing women for all the other contributions that they make on so many other levels.
What’s wrong with sexual asymmetry?
Nothing. Sexual asymmetry is a fact of life. The key question is how to respond to sexual asymmetry — the fact that women get pregnant and men don’t. The different responses to sexual asymmetry are what divide secular feminists from the “new feminists.” Secular feminists see abortion and contraception as key elements to curing sexual asymmetry. As I said, making women to look more like men.
The pro-woman response is for all women, men and society to honor the fact of sexual asymmetry — that women bear the next generation — and move forward from there. That’s what the new feminism is all about — encouraging men to join women in putting the human person first. We need to see that in our economics, laws, politics and so on.
What’s your response to the pro-abortion slogan “Don’t support abortion? Don’t have one.” ?
We are standing up for, coming to the defense of, a voiceless, vulnerable human being — that’s what we do as a matter of course when we defend and protect the vulnerable and innocent through civil law. We would never say: “Don’t support child abuse. Don’t smack your child.”
One of the strongest arguments that I found against my position asks, “How we are to come up with all of these pro-family policies? How are we to see the culture change enough so that women don’t have to have abortions?” But did Lincoln sit and figure out how he was going to restore the economy of the South from turmoil that would occur due to the Emancipation Proclamation? No. He did what was the right thing to do first — protect and promote the rights of individual human beings.
Once we really recognize the dignity of the vulnerable unborn child — and thus the dignity of the mother, who cares for that child — pro-family policies become necessary and humane. The best legislation coming from the state level protects innocent unborn children while at the same time promoting policies that support the ability for their mothers (and fathers) to exercise their affirmative duty to care for those children once they are born. Certainly, there is much debate about what those policies would look like, but first we have to care enough about protecting the innocents and supporting their mothers to even get to that debate.
To my mind, the best policies are those that affirm and encourage marriage, those that incentivize men to take their responsibility far more seriously than they do today. Some research has shown that in states where there is less abortion funding, men are more likely to stick around. And, of course, more and more women need to recognize that men are transformed into the responsible men that marriage and child-rearing requires when they need to work quite a bit to earn the intimate company of a woman.
Finally, per-child tax deductions and credits are critical, but tax policy must not favor institutional daycare arrangements; families always must be able to determine the best care for their children. Very often, that will be the care the mother (or sometimes father) provides in their very own home.
Recently, House Republicans scrapped a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. What’s your reaction?
It’s incredible that we, one of the most “advanced” countries in the world, even need a law that bans abortion after 20 weeks. This is surely due to the fact that most Americans have no idea how radical our abortion law currently is, how radical Roe v. Wade is. Most would never believe abortion was currently allowed after 20 weeks. The fact that we can’t pass an abortion ban after 20 weeks testifies to the state we’re in, with a real devaluation of human life. Thankfully, many states are stepping up to their responsibility to protect life.
Register correspondent Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.