Self described “advocate for women and girls” Melinda Tankard Reist recently launched a defamation claim against blogger Jennifer Wilson for saying Reist is a Baptist. Wilson’s article, on her blog No Place for Sheep, criticised Reist’s anti-abortion stance.
Wilson says that the crux of the defamation case is an attempt to silence a critical voice using the law.
Several commentators have responded to the controversy with a discussion about who has the right to claim the title “feminist” — which is interesting given that Reist doesn’t use the word to describe herself, although it is nevertheless implied.
The main problem with Reist being referred to as a feminist is that she is “pro-life” (meaning, of course, anti-abortion). This aligns her with such delightful souls as right-wing US politician Sarah Palin, who is a member of the group “Feminists for Life”.
Feminists for Life actively campaigns against abortion with the rhetoric “Women deserve better® than abortion” — a trademarked “message” that’s been taken up by several Republican candidates.
Reist’s religious beliefs are indeed relevant to the discussion, and the fact that Reist so determinedly keeps them under wraps invites speculation and further investigation.
Reist’s book Giving Sorrow Words documents 18 women’s tales of grief upon having an abortion. There is no reason to doubt the women’s reactions, but it’s another thing entirely to imply this shows abortions are bad and are psychologically damaging to women.
Mental and physical harm are the usual reasons cited by those seeking to combine the rhetoric of women’s rights with a “pro-life” defence, the ultimate aim of which is to restrict access to abortion.
Why is this such a problem? To answer that we need to take a step back from Reist’s morality line and consider the pro-choice and “pro-life” division in the context of capitalism, which reveals some serious contradictions.
Now that women are regularly members of the workforce, and take on most of the casual and poorly paid jobs, capitalism prefers them to keep working without interruptions, such as maternity leave or child-rearing responsibilities.
At the same time, sex sells. Young people are sold sex through advertising and other commercial propaganda, including a lot of pop music and youth culture. Selling sex is one of the things late capitalism does best.
Contraception and abortion are not bad things as far as the owners of the means of production are concerned: they allow people to have sex without it affecting their working life.
Therefore we find that in many situations, especially for young or otherwise marginalised women — such as the financially unstable or physically or mentally disabled people — there is considerable pressure to have an abortion if they fall pregnant. As is often the case, the classic liberal rhetoric of “choice” can conceal the fact that such individual choice rarely exists in reality.
However, at the same time, capitalism needs women to reproduce to create more workers.
It also needs them to take responsibility for those children and contribute much in the way of unpaid labour. As Tony Abbott so delightfully (and confusingly) explains in a comment about the carbon price: “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up, every year.”
That doesn’t really make sense, but it suggests he thinks women belong working in the home for no pay.
The abortion debate reveals a classic contradiction of capital.
The usual conservative line is to be anti-abortion, tightly allying with the Christian right.
One might think that aiming to reduce the number of abortions would translate into being pro-contraception — surely better and more contraception would equal less abortions. But contraception and real sex education are almost equally taboo in the eyes of the Christian right.
Their “solution” is simply advocating abstinence until such a time that a woman is “ready” (read: married and financially secure) to have a child.
Abstinence is hardly a failsafe guard against the pressures of society, culture, men, changing hormones and normal, healthy emotions.
The result is a systematic cycle that effectively guarantees the oppression of women, and especially young women.
It matters little if a woman is “protecting her innocence”, is sexually active and using contraception, has had or will have an abortion, or is a mother in or out of wedlock — she is still vulnerable to attack from capitalism and conservatives for not fitting into an impossible mould.
This is cause for significant confusion, angst and identity issues among women.
As a socialist and feminist youth organisation, Resistance stands for true liberation for women. We recognise that there is no easy solution. However, we certainly believe that restricting a woman’s access to abortion denies her right to control over her own body and life.
Instead we encourage all people to investigate the influence of capitalism and patriarchy, and patriarchal religious institutions, on women and their choices. A big part of the answer is to campaign for free, legal and easy access to secular, agenda-free sex education, family planning advice, contraception, abortion, physical and mental health care, natal care, childcare and support for all women.