An Interview with Feminists for Life President, Serrin Foster
Most pro-lifers today have heard the phrase “Women deserve better than abortion,” thanks to Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life of America (FFL). Foster, who was responsible for the “Women deserve better” campaign (cosponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus), has helped change the conversation about helping pregnant women and protecting the unborn. Even Evangelium Vitae, which called for “a new feminism” and discusses “the genius of woman” (Section 99) seems to have taken a note from FFL.
The organization, however, is a nonsectarian, nonpartisan, grassroots group focused on holistic solutions to the challenges women face. Shaped by the core feminist values of justice, nondiscrimination and nonviolence, FFL follows in the tradition of early American feminists such as Susan B. Anthony, who rejected abortion.
Foster, whose landmark speech, “The Feminist Case Against Abortion” was recognized as one of the “great speeches in history” by Women’s Rights, spoke with Aleteia‘s Zoe Romanowsky about the pro-woman approach to the abortion issue, and where we are now, 43 years after Roe v. Wade, in terms of meeting the needs of women.
Zoe Romanowsky: Most pro-life groups would say they are pro-woman, so how does FFL’s approach differ from others? What’s unique about it?
Serrin Foster: I came into the movement at a time when I didn’t hear a pro-life, pro-woman message. The right-to-life people would shout, “What about the baby?” And abortion rights people would yell, “What about the woman?” I found it a circular, unproductive conversation.
FFL is largely responsible for changing that. “Pro-woman” is not owned by abortion rights advocates, and it has become more integrated in the pro-life message. In fact, “Pro-life and Pro-woman Go Hand in Hand” is the theme of this year’s March for Life in Washington DC.
When FFL reorganized in 1994 and opened in Washington DC, we asked ourselves, what can we uniquely do as feminists? And the first thing was to explain that we are carrying on the legacy of the early American feminists who were pro-woman and opposed to abortion. They believed all people have worth, and fought for the rights of slaves to be free, for women’s right to vote and for women and children to be protected from abortion. Abortion was common, but the early American feminists opposed abortion not just because it was wrong—it was—but because it hurt women and killed unborn children. Feminism has a rich pro-life history. Last year, we published almost every pro-life quote we have found by feminists. We want everyone to know that you can say that you’re a feminist and pro-life.
There are plenty of people who would say feminism got us into this mess — and that supporting abortion is part and parcel of being a modern feminist. What do you say to that?
Yes, in part it did, but we need to go back to look at how this happened. I talk about this in my speech, “The Feminist Case Against Abortion.”
There were two founders of NARAL, Larry Ladar and Bernard Nathanson. Ladar was motivated by overpopulation concerns and Nathanson, who later became pro-life, had seen a woman die from abortion and wanted to help so they both went around trying to convince leaders that abortion needed to be legal and accepted.
At first, they weren’t welcome; people thought they were crazy. Then Ladar noticed the emerging women’s movement. Nathanson said later said that Ladar had an idea. He convinced Betty Friedan and other leaders, using fabricated numbers, that abortion was necessary for women to be equal in the workplace. Most abortions were illegally procured but performed by a medical person or midwife. Nathanson admitted to FFL’s past president, Rosemary Bottcher, that they made it all up.
And then we have Sarah Weddington [who represented “Jane Roe” in the landmark Roe v. Wade case], who betrayed women with her argument before the Supreme Court that legal abortion would solve the problems women face. Instead of rallying for support for women, she undermined the group she was professing to advocate for.
Both men and women are responsible for this experiment on women. Some were well-meaning, and some probably weren’t comfortable with it at the time but went along with it, not having the benefit of what we have now — things like 3D ultrasounds and more scientific facts. Abortion is less and less accepted now, because we have more information. And we have women who are increasingly “silent no more” about regretting their abortions.
Since its founding, FFL has been advocating for pregnant and parenting women’s needs on campus, in the workplace and in society in general. Where are we now in terms of meeting these needs? Have we made many strides?
We lead FFL pregnancy resource forums on college campuses, and we’ve made great strides there. One notable example is Georgetown University, which took down a dry cleaning center and put up a childcare center in its place, as well as created a safe place for parenting women to live, a playground for kids, and more. It’s very comprehensive. They have a safety net team so there’s one central place on campus for women to go for assistance and resources.
Another notable place is MiraVia, which was built adjacent to Belmont Abbey College, on a parcel of land provided by the monks there. The beautiful maternity home can house 17 moms, children with disabilities, moms with disabilities and moms with more than one child. The women can attend one of 30 schools, but there are scholarships to attend Belmont Abbey, and mentoring provided by religious sisters who live there and support them. It’s a very joyful place, with the best bells and whistles. It’s a Catholic version of FFL’s Wish List.
Pepperdine has done some unique things too. When a woman gets a positive pregnancy test there, she’s handed a paper with exactly what to do next so that she has direction and resources and a team of administrators to support her.
Students for Life has embraced key components of our program — we keep thinking of new things, and they do too. FFL sees our programs going to many schools because administrators whom we’ve worked with in health services and other departments move to new colleges and take the program with them.
Where do we need to go next, in your opinion? Where do pro-lifers need to focus their efforts?
College campuses have to be saturated. We need to educate the educators. If you can reach the teachers, you can change the culture, and then it has a ripple effect through the workplace.
We sent out thousands of our magazine, The American Feminist, titled “First Wave Feminists: Remarkable Pro-Life Women ® and Other Suffragists You Should Know,” which was filled with feminist history, and the pro-life feminist quotes to women’s history professors. And the result was … deafening silence. Hopefully they’ll start to teach the long-hidden history, but they will never be able to say they didn’t know.
We want students to take our pro-woman solutions into the workplace to support families in reasonable ways. There is only so much an employer can do, depending on the structure and size of a company or business. But they can think about it and do something meaningful that works for their company’s culture. Telecommuting options, protected child care benefits, family friendly lunchrooms, flex time, a place women can pump breast milk or breastfeed — everyone can think of something.
The next step for us at FFL is to focus on the overlap of the at-risk groups. About 61 percent of women who have abortions already have children. They’re making a “Sophie’s choice” — the child they know over the one they don’t — because the majority of them say they don’t feel financially able to have another child. Most are at or near the federal poverty line. The others are college students who have debt and many expectations on them. And then there are those living on the edge, the working poor, and many who suffer domestic violence, sexual assault, bad relationships or are being coerced into it by threats to withhold support.
So we’ve launched a user-and-mobile friendly website called Raising Kids on a Shoestring. It tells pregnant women, expectant fathers and parents (including adoptive parents of children with special needs) how to access free, frugal and creative solutions from pregnancy through childhood.
From the movement more generally, the message has to be bigger. We need the funding to get pro-woman messages and solutions out there. Women deserve better. Yes, this means yes to life, but also to the resources and the support life and to make life better. I’d like to see both political parties argue about how they can do more and better for pregnant and parenting women. We’re getting there.
FFL is a non-sectarian group with members that span the spectrum in terms of political affiliation, religion, faith, etc. But what do you think is the most important thing for religious people to understand about the abortion issue?
There are different approaches that will reach different people. There are people who don’t know God, who have left the Church and don’t feel they are at home there, and even those in the Church will find a group like ours (FFL) and say they feel at home.
The Catholic Church has been the leader in protecting women and children from abortion — it’s the backbone of the movement. But it’s important we have different messengers who can reach different kinds of people.
At FFL our message is about making people think they should expect more and better of themselves and others around them. Don’t underestimate women.
We still have a long way to go to capture the culture’s attention, but even there, things are changing. The Raising Kids on a Shoestring website that I mentioned challenges the notion that we only care about kids until they’re born. We need to communicate this better.
Melinda Selmys wrote a piece last week for Aleteia about simple, inexpensive ways parishes and churches can be more pro-life, pro-woman and pro-family, such as providing a chair breast-feeding women could use. What would you add to the list she proposed?
I’d like to see every parish have a poster from our Raising Kids on a Shoestring site visible somewhere. (And to take them to doctors’ offices, grocery stores, campuses and family resource centers.) The poster is an image of beautiful black woman who’s pregnant, who looks neither rich nor poor, seems like she could be your friend and makes you feel that if she can do it, you can do it. It has the website address on it so women can get connected to resources to help them.
I also like the program called “Prepares” being launched by the diocese of Spokane, Washington, an initiative that provides parish-based services to pregnant women, fathers and families with children younger than age five.
It’s easy for pro-life people to feel discouraged, but what signs of hope do you see when you’re out there traveling and speaking?
The crowd sizes are getting bigger. I see the number of student pro-life groups growing, and the March for Life is growing. I used to see abortion rights stickers everywhere in Washington DC, and now I see pro-life stickers everywhere. I see many signs that things are changing. I see the students growing up and taking this into their professional fields, starting groups and influencing policies. It’s rewarding and encouraging.
We mourn the children we’ve lost and the women who’ve died and suffered abortions, and those who’ve accepted that this was “their body and their choice.” The Supreme Court made it “their problem.” Yes, there’s a lot to be sad about, and a lot of healing and outreach to be done, but there’s also a lot of hope too. We are working to get to a place where we’re not sacrificing our children for our careers and education. Because women deserve better, and their children deserve their lives.
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content creator for Aleteia. She was a board member of Feminists for Life from 2002-2004.