Making Motherhood a Choice

October 8th, 2007

Pro-life feminists advocate for moms

By Joy Kucinkas

Feminists have always played a major part in the abortion debate. From fighting for abortion rights to publicizing the birth control pill, feminists have campaigned for a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own body. But while feminists remain at the forefront of the pro-choice movement, feminism has come to encompass a more diverse perspective on reproductive rights.

Pro-choice ideals are still associated with feminism, not to mention most of liberal America. Nationally recognized pro-life feminist groups are few and far between, leaving the stereotype that all feminists are pro-choice in the minds of most Americans. But pro-life feminists have brought up a valid question: what does a young woman do when she does not want to choose between having her child and attending college?

Feminist ideas about abortion have evolved over time. About 160 years ago, women rarely had the opportunity to go to college—married life began before most turned 20, and having 10 children by age 30 was not unusual. In 1848, First Wave feminists drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded equal legal status for women. More than 70 years later, women finally won the right to vote.

Little happened after this until the Second Wave in the 1960s, which was sparked in part by Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique.” Activism, both political and social, heightened awareness about the inequalities women still suffered.

Abortion, for any reason, was illegal before 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled it is a Constitutional right for women to be allowed an abortion.

First Wavers generally were pro-life, mostly due to the fact that poor medical care made abortion more of a health risk to the woman than carrying out a pregnancy. During the Second Wave, the association between pro-choice and feminism was seen as unarguable by the majority of feminists. Along with other activists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, feminists wanted zero infractions on their rights as human beings.

But today, with the New Wave of feminism, the link is less strict, and feminists can choose for themselves what position they take on abortion.

“I think women have learned, if anything, a rigid ideology never works. Feminism is about choices,” Erica Olson says. Olson has spent the better part of her 33 years fighting for women’s rights, including writing a bill in New Jersey to guarantee emergency contraception to all rape victims.

But some feminist groups, like NOW, disagree.

“Feminism, for me, is recognizing that women have autonomy over their own body and in their own lives,” says Marcia Pappas, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women.

NOW works across the country trying to further women’s rights politically and socially. Like many activist groups, NOW fully embraces the pro-choice mentality.

“Women who call themselves pro-life are really anti-choice,” says Pappas. “Those who call themselves feminists cross the line when they try to have governments make the choice for women.”

“The first time I was taking birth control pills, I got pregnant and had an abortion,” says Catherine Alvord, 22, a junior at the University of Southern Maine. The daughter of a Lutheran Pastor, Alvord could not see a better solution. At the time, she was just a senior in high school.

“The second time around I had an abortion scheduled. I woke up the night before I was supposed to go in, in a dead sweat, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this again’,” she says. “I had bad dreams about the first one, but was just like, shake it off.”

Alvord did not go to the clinic the next morning. After she made her decision, her boyfriend ended their relationship. Pastor Alvord ceased to speak to his daughter, though he allowed her to remain under the roof paid for by First Lutheran Church. Yet Alvord stands by her choice.

“Ultimately I would never choose to have another abortion,” she says. “I would have six kids before I would have another abortion, because I think that you can sit there and say abortion is wrong or abortion is good, but until you go through having a child, then you do not know what it’s like.”

Feminists for Life agree with Alvord. Their slogan, “women deserve better,” is an indicator that the group is more than the typical pro-life picketers. Patricia Heaton, of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and honorary chair for Feminists for Life, insists on the organization’s Web site that, “women who are experiencing an unplanned pregnancy also deserve unplanned joy.” The organization is pro-life but states that they are not anti-abortion. Rather than expecting women who choose pregnancy over an abortion to succeed in society on their own, they look for ways to support women like Catherine Alvord.

“We get up and get ready and I drive him to school in Portland at First Lutheran. I live in South Portland so I drive all the way there. Then I drive to USM and go to class from 8:45 to 2:30. I leave and go to the gym and then pick him up. Go home, make dinner, put him to bed and clean or do homework. That’s my life.”

Even over the phone, Alvord sounds tired at 8:30 p.m. She says that by 7:30, when she puts Dylan to bed, all she wants to do is go fall into her own. The state, work study and “massive loans” pay for most of day care, gas reimbursement and some money to help pay for bills and food. Alvord’s parents (with whom she has re-established a happy relationship) pay for small luxuries like her cell phone and car insurance while she is in school. Yet the struggle in Alvord’s life is a reminder of how society has programmed young women to make the choice between higher education and motherhood, not to mention how society has made single motherhood a full-time job of its own. A great majority of full-time careers are impossible to maintain for new mothers or single mothers. Does society really care if young, single mothers attain their own dreams?

“I want to be a nurse, but I’m getting this degree now, because I can’t keep up with the course load with Dylan,” Alvord says. “With this degree I can work in a lab setting and then go into nursing later. I decided that I wanted to be out on my own and be independent rather than get my nursing degree right off.”

Alvord’s parents offered to help Catherine raise Dylan under their roof, but she moved out instead. Alvord says she is extremely fortunate to be in a state with some of the highest welfare rates in the country and to be surrounded by a supportive, loving community.

The security network that Alvord has set up for herself is not applicable to all student parents, though. For those who choose a university hundreds of miles from home, supportive communities are usually not present. Feminists for Life is addressing this problem by forming outreach programs at major universities.

“FFL’s College Outreach Program challenges students to question abortion and asks college and university administrators to provide resources for pregnant and parenting students,” President Serrin M. Foster explains on the organization’s website.

FFL speaks at schools and encourages students to confront administrators about the lack of options women have as far as having an abortion or having a baby. Everything from day care centers to financial planning to changing tables on campus can be suggested to college administration, depending on the needs or desires of the student body. Some programs that are present at universities already do not adequately serve the needs of pregnant students and mothers, according to Alvord.

“USM has a day care but it isn’t very good,” Alvord says. “It’s part of one of the educational programs. I was going to be put on the waiting list that’s like over a year long, but after visiting the place, I stopped considering it.”

Alvord says the day care she uses is not free or especially convenient. Having a quality care center for Dylan at the school while she attended classes would be infinitely easier.
At Ithaca College, Bonnie Prunty, director of Residential Life, says that, unlike some other colleges, there is no special housing for women who are pregnant or have a child, even if the mother is legally bound to the father.

“Ithaca College does not provide married student or family housing for students,” Prunty says. In fact, she says that a student with a child has never even requested on-campus housing in the 19 years she has worked at IC.

One in four abortions are performed on college women. Private institutions rarely see pregnant women, and even rarer is a young student who has a child. This norm has been accepted without consideration; it has not even occurred to many of us that options beyond abortion or life without higher education are possible.

Joy Kucinkas is a sophomore journalism and psychology major who doesn’t like taking sides, ever. Email her at jkucink1[at]ithaca.edu.

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