Saturday, April 17, 2010

National Organization of Women

As a follow up to the prior post, it seems that in conservative Christian circles I’ve often heard the concept of feminism linked to the promotion of abortion (and not just the de-criminalization of medical abortions). I’m not entirely clear about the source of this perception. Personally, I cannot imagine anyone actually wanting women to have abortions—let alone feminists who purport to have the best interests of women in mind. However, my own belief is that the perception is rooted at least to some degree in the fact that the National Organization of Woman has been an ardent supporter of the pro-choice position for many years. I know full well that “pro-choice” does not mean “pro-abortion,” but I think that some conservatives conflate the two, particularly when a person or a group (like NOW) seems to focus exclusively (or almost exclusively) on the issue of abortion rights.

These days it seems that NOW only makes the news with respect to abortion issues. A few weeks ago, I was watching Bill Moyers Journal and the current NOW president, Terry O’Neill, was invited to discuss the recent passage of health care reform. Though many progressives were rejoicing and exchanging high-fives that week, Ms. O’Neill was apparently not at all pleased. The interview began with her passionate critique of a lack of inclusion of abortion coverage in the bill that President Obama signed. She was so angry in the interview, she reminded me of Rush Limbaugh ironically enough.

This recent interview does not appear to be aberrational. When you go to NOW’s website, the group has a list of six leading issues important to its mission. The first issue listed is “Abortion and Reproductive Rights.”

I certainly don’t favor the re-criminalization of medical abortions. But I would take great offense to ever being labeled someone who is “pro-abortion.” That would be a cruel mischaracterization of my actual views. It is a topic for another post, but in my limited, indirect experience with the topic, I have come to the conclusion that abortion is never a happy choice. I have known women who struggle for years with a past decision to have an abortion. I would not wish that experience on any woman.

But the reality of the situation is that Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for nearly forty years despite decades of hollow GOP campaign promises to overturn it. At this point, it is pretty entrenched law. Even if it were somehow overturned, I highly doubt there would be a widespread move in state legislatures to re-criminalize abortions. Maybe I’m naive, but that is my sense of where our society currently stands on that issue.

And I recognize that even if the legal status of medical abortions is not seriously threatened at this time, for a variety of reasons there are many logistical obstacles to getting abortion care. Fewer and fewer doctors are willing to perform medical abortions for a variety of reasons including nonviolent but harassing protestors, very credible death threats, and varied economic pressures. Consequently, in some parts of the country abortion rights are effectively compromised for lack of access—particularly for women in rural communities and in states with few or no providers.

Nonetheless, in this day and age in the United States, I just don’t understand how the highest profile women’s rights group still touts abortion rights as its top priority. Abortion is only even a possibility for women while they are in their child-bearing years, so the issue has the potential to directly affect only one relatively small segment of the female population. And not all of the women in that segment are even ever going to consider having an abortion. In my mind, there are a lot of other more pressing issues facing women--issues that are important to a much larger cross-section of the female population of our country.

Though NOW continues to be viewed by many as the preeminent voice of feminism in our country, I’m not sure how reflective the group really is of most women today or even the modern women’s movement. Indeed, as far as I am aware, I have personally only known one individual who was an actual member of NOW. That person was a lovely human being, but frankly he had some odd views. He was an aging hippy with a Ph.D., and an erratic work history. He had several failed marriages, and used to reminisce about the good ole days of the 1960s when people smoked marijuana and shared “free love” without being “up-tight.” Hmmm.

To be honest, I haven’t ever followed NOW closely. One of my biggest memories of the group was that Patricia Ireland was its president for about a decade during my young adulthood in the 1990s. The one thing I remember about Ms. Ireland was that she caused controversy when she took over the NOW leadership because of her admission that in addition to a husband, she also had a female partner (who was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party). In the base case, being a polygamous bisexual is a tough sell in many parts of our country. But if your partner is also a card-carrying Socialist, you might as well pack up your bags. Interestingly enough, however, that didn’t happen; Ms. Ireland was at the helm of NOW for a number of years. For this and other reasons, I think the organization seemed out of touch with many of my generation. As young people beginning careers and families, none of my friends rushed to join NOW. It just wasn’t on our radar.

In conclusion, I don’t think access to abortion is the most important issue facing women these days. In fact, it would not even make my short-list. Perhaps because of NOW’s overemphasis on abortion rights to the exclusion of other issues, I think that conservative Christians are not the only ones who seem to think that at least modern feminism is primarily concerned with access to abortions. In my opinion, that has not served the cause of women’s equality. I also don’t think that helps others embrace the term “feminism.” It drives many of us from it.

2 Corinthians 8:13 (Today’s New International Version)

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.

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