Palin and the New Feminism

Serrin Foster on the issues raised by her group’s most famous member.

Mentions of Feminists for Life (FFL) appeared often in the news after Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was annouced as John McCain’s running mate. Palin is one of the pro-life organization’s members. Serrin Foster has led Feminists for Life of America since 1994. As the creator of the Women Deserve Better® campaign, she has focused on developing resources and practical support for under-served pregnant and parenting students. She spoke to CWR recently about FFL and some of the issues Palin’s candidacy raised.

Is Feminists for Life an example of the “new feminism” that Pope John Paul II wrote about in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life?

Serrin Foster: Feminists for Life’s principles are based on respect for human life from the moment of conception onward. Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women, and that too often women have settled for less. We specifically focus our efforts on enacting the unrealized vision of the early American feminists—who were very much pro-life—to systemically eliminate the reasons that drive women to abortion. We were founded a year before the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down as a nonsectarian and nonpartisan organization.

Governor Sarah Palin has been identifi ed as a member of Feminists for Life.

Foster: Sarah Palin has been vocal about her membership in FFL and said that “no woman should have to choose between her career, education and her child.” This is, of course, basic to FFL. I think it is important that she came out as a feminist and pro-life woman.

She has shown unconditional support for her daughter, who is facing an unplanned pregnancy. She and her husband say they are proud to become grandparents. That’s walking her talk.

Sarah Palin is also being heralded for not aborting her child with Down Syndrome. Has it come to that—it is now considered a heroic gesture “not to” abort a child with a disability?

Foster: Governor Palin said, “I believe in the strength and the power of women, and the potential of every human life.” She challenges people at the most basic level, not by lecturing, but by doing what is right in terms of the recent decisions she has made—including her decision to bring her son Trig into this world.

Sadly, there is almost an expectation in cases like these that women sacrifice themselves and their children through
abortion. I don’t think it is easy for a woman with a baby diagnosed with Down Syndrome to abort. Rather, those who choose abortion may be pressured by well-meaning family and friends. Perhaps they think they can’t handle the responsibility of a special needs child, or believe they are not going to get support from the people they count on the most, and need to know about adoption options. Or they think, wrongly, it is in the best interest of the child.

The irony is that many of the same people who shudder to think that a child with a special need would enter this world also support the Americans with Disabilities Act. I worked previously for terminally ill children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and for family members of those suffering with a no fault brain disease at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Our world, our lives are enriched by people who have physical or mental challenges. It is not the other way around. And a beautiful little boy named Trig Palin is already making people question abortion and face the choice.

What about the divisions within the feminist movement? How does Feminist for Life respond to charges that it is really not feminist and is anti-women?

Foster: Those who say that we are not feminists, or that we are anti-women, are usually those who embrace abortion. FFL believes that abortion is a wrong against women and our children—not a “right.”…The early American feminists fought for the right of slaves to be free, for women to vote and for our right to life. We proudly continue their tradition of embracing the rights of all human beings without exception, without regard to one’s gender, religion, ethnicity or race, but also without regard to the size, location or disability—even in a mother’s womb. Abortion is a betrayal of feminism. We celebrate womanhood, support mothers, honor fathers and cherish every life.

You are not a religious organization, but do you draw your support from religiously motivated women and men?

Foster: As a nonsectarian organization, we have members and supporters, both women and men, from many religions and none—Quakers and Mennonites and other Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and others.

For the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2003 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Knights of Columbus sponsored ads with Feminists for Life’s Women Deserve Better® slogan that appeared in Washington, D.C. subway trains, buses, and commuter trains as well as national print media. The USCCB’s Pro-Life Secretariat also included an op-ed that I wrote entitled “Women Deserve Better than Abortion” in their Respect Life packets, which were sent to 90,000 people around the United States, including clergy and Respect Life offices. We worked together to educate members of Congress about the reasons why women have abortions and that women deserve better than abortion.

I think this was an important investment on the part of the Catholic Church. FFL is interested in long-term strategies to affect the key agents of change and bring about true womancentered solutions.

Five years after the Women Deserve Better campaign was launched, we see the Democratic National Committee, while still affirming Roe, has expanded their platform to include support for woman-centered solutions to reduce the number of abortions. Resources and support are, of course, at the heart of FFL’s mission. And the Republican National Committee has literally inserted Feminists for Life’s signature line, women deserve better than abortion, into their party platform. It is unprecedented to see the platforms of both major U.S. political parties incorporate key pieces of FFL’s unique message. As each party takes steps to acknowledge and meet the needs of women, Feminists for Life is prepared to work with our elected representatives on behalf of girls and women who deserve far better than abortion.

Feminists for Life is known for its College Outreach Program to help pregnant college women not to abort their babies. Where do you have the most success—Catholic or non-Catholic colleges and universities?

Foster: The College Outreach Program is FFL’s flagship program. We have worked with big state schools, Catholic universities, Ivy League Schools, Women’s Colleges and some other Christian schools.

We have had great success at Georgetown University. I moderated the fi rstever FFL Pregnancy Resource Forum there in 1997. Representatives from the administration, student body and a local pregnancy resource center participated in taking an inventory of the resources on and off campus for women in need. Along with student activists, together we outlined a blueprint for progress.

Within two years Georgetown had set aside endowed family housing near campus, established Hoya Kids Day Care, established a hotline for pregnant students, and cross-trained counselors to address pregnancy and parenting resources as well as sexual assault and domestic violence.

Since that first event, the Pregnancy Resource Forum has become an annual campus-changing event at Georgetown. Every year panelists gather with students to re-evaluate resources and build upon the improvements of past years. It is an ongoing project that has the support of the school’s Board of Trustees.

This past spring FFL recently released a groundbreaking study, Perception Is Reality, revealing the results of our first nationwide Pregnancy Resources Survey.TM Our survey asked pro-life student leaders the same kinds of questions FFL moderators and I ask while moderating Forums. We wanted to know if pro-life student leaders were aware of resources and support for pregnant and parenting students on their campuses such as family housing, child care, telecommuting options, and maternity coverage in the school’s health care plan.

Unfortunately, our survey confirmed my worst fears. Either the campuses lack essential resources or they are unaware of the available resources. There was little difference between the types of colleges. The pervasive belief or reality is that there are no resources, or they are way too expensive.

What future plans does Feminists for Life have?

Foster: This school year we are unveiling seven new videos of our Remarkable Pro-Life Women® speakers on YouTube and FFL’s website. The video for Respect Life Month will feature Melissa Ohden, who was aborted at 5 months—and survived. Other videos will feature student parents, a birthmother, a woman who had an abortion, and a woman who learned she was pregnant after being sexually assaulted. FFL Members and student leaders will be alerted as each are unveiled by e-mail. We envision student groups and pro-life adult groups showing these short speeches and having discussion groups, as well as inviting them to speak at larger venues.

FFL’s College Outreach Program remains our top priority. We will also help pro-life student leaders hold “Rally for Resources” on campus, invite our speakers, host Pregnancy Resource Forums and offer internships to select student activists. And we have a new campus ad, “Where have all the pregnant students gone?”

Right now we are working on the passage of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act in the U.S. Congress, which enjoys bipartisan support. This bill will help us replicate the success at Georgetown by providing matching grants to up to 200 institutions of higher education to establish and operate a pregnant and parenting student services office and hosting annual Pregnancy Resource Forums.


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About Father Matthew Gamber 0 Articles
Father Matthew Gamber, S.J. is based in Chicago.