On Pragmatic Feminism

Posted on 4.20.2012 by Lily

Confession: I’m a longtime lurker, first-time participant in this world. My feminist identity can be largely attributed to the feminist blogosphere, in all its diversity and glorious controversy; several years ago I even wrote my senior thesis on the topic. But the Provider Project represents my first official foray behind the scenes. So, hello and welcome! Let’s get to know each other a bit.

For the past few years (pretty much since I turned in that thesis) I’ve been working in abortion clinics. I’m trained primarily as a counselor, though I’ve also at various times been a medical assistant, receptionist, and all-around clinic lackey. Abortion work is intense, exhilarating, heart-wrenching, exhausting, and profoundly gratifying. It is what I want to do with my life.

And part of my job, as I see it, is talking about my job. It’s being public about what I do. It’s enlightening people about the reality of abortion and clinics and sexual and reproductive health, because being open is how we fight stigma and shame.

It’s no secret that one in every three women will have at least one abortion in her lifetime, or that over 99% of American women having heterosexual intercourse use contraception at some point. For this hardly insignificant population, abortion and birth control are not theoretical questions of morality and rights to be debated on the floor of Congress. They are real life problems and needs. If only we collectively demanded that our leaders work in favor of our realities!

And that’s what I really want to talk about: reality.

I basically consider myself a pragmatist. Sometimes at heart I’m a starry-eyed idealist, but pragmatism usually informs my inclinations about how to solve problems. I believe firmly in the public health notion of harm reduction. That is, while I do align myself with feminist ideology regarding abortion rights - of course women have more rights than embryos; of course it is imperative to be able to decide when, how, if, how many times to parent - I think it’s more important to focus on the fact that abortion happens.

Whether legally or criminally, safely or dangerously, openly or covertly, women always have had and always will have abortions. You are either pro-legal abortion or pro-illegal abortion, because it happens either way at roughly the same rates. And so, purely from a public health standpoint, it makes infinitely more sense to provide the service in a safe, legal way than to force it underground. (For the record, I feel the same way about sex work and drug policy.)

I’ve been thinking lately about this idea of pragmatism versus idealism after Chantal’s recent post. In the spirit of establishing this blog as a place for lively debate between progressive-minded feminists who believe in reproductive justice, and to illustrate that we can work for similar goals while also holding diverse beliefs, I’d like to offer a counterpoint to the anti-capitalist stance she discussed.

In her post, Chantal argued that mainstream feminists such as Rev. Rebecca Turner of Faith Aloud, who recently wrote about why contraceptive access is good for the economy, pay mere “lip service” to women’s rights. Focusing on the economic benefits of contraception, according to Chantal, sells women (and men) out by ignoring the deeper structural issues of a capitalist economy, which she believes is “a system that has failed almost all (99%?) of us.” She yearns instead for a system wherein we “[destroy] the wage system altogether and [replace] it with something else entirely, a system that allows us to pursue our talents through meaningful work without worrying about how much money's in the bank at the end of the day.”

I’m not about to claim that there aren’t staggering problems with our current system. Nor do I support unregulated capitalism; I believe in a strong socialist safety net and a vastly improved welfare state. However, I’m at a loss to understand what we sacrifice by highlighting the capitalist benefits of contraceptive access.

If birth control weren’t a net economic good, I would still support it, because duh. But since it is good for the economy - and so unabashedly, blatantly, transparently good, for all the reasons Turner cited and more - it doesn’t hurt anyone to say so. As I said, I’m a pragmatist. I want improvements like better access to contraception, and I’m interested in the best ways to get those changes, now.

We have to participate in the system we have. If we opt out, and decide it’s not worth it to argue capitalist reasons for contraception if we’re still left at the end of the day with a capitalist system, we actually do sacrifice something very real: women and girls whose realities could be improved by accessing the birth control they so desperately need.

I’m not interested in pining for an anti-capitalist fantasy. Even if we did end up someday with this type of system, we still have immediate problems in our current reality that need to be addressed. (Not to mention, even in a utopian society, birth control access would STILL be an economic good. It would be an economic good in a fascist totalitarian state! The point stands no matter the system.)

Right now, women are hurt because birth control access in this country is a travesty. Rebecca Turner’s argument may well help to convince some people in power to support more progressive contraceptive policies. And then the very real lives of women and girls will be improved. That’s not lip service. And I don’t think anything gets sacrificed in the process.