Few journalists paid attention when two teenaged mothers from Grant County, Kentucky, won their legal fight to enter the National Honor Society.
Somer Chipman and Chasity Glass were barred from the 1998 induction ceremony for one simple reason both were pregnant. The American Civil Liberties Union said this was illegal discrimination.
Feminists for Life agreed and backed the ACLU case. Executive director Serrin Foster told the court: “If Ms. Chipman and Ms. Glass had had abortions, their sexual activity would not have become known to school officials. Actions such as those of the Grant County School District thus send a message that a decision to carry a pregnancy to term will be punished.”
This court affidavit was quietly handled by the group's legal counsel, Jane Sullivan Roberts.
Little ink was spilled.
That was then. This is now.
“We've had our share of media attention, but I've never seen anything like what is happening in the mainstream press right now,” said Foster, referring to the storm caused by this link between Feminists for Life and the wife of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, Jr. “Maybe the time is ripe. It's been three decades since Roe and it seems that some people are beginning to realize that abortion isn't solving all the problems it was supposed to solve.”
Then again, it is also possible that journalists cannot resist stories involving (a) abortion, (b) the Supreme Court, (c) feminism, (d) Catholicism or (e) “all of the above.” The twist in the Roberts case is that Feminists for Life is a nonsectarian group and is often viewed as the odd secular sister at faith-based rallies against abortion.
Over and over, Foster has explained that this 33-year-old organization is as committed to the welfare of women as it is to defending the unborn. This is a hard sell in America's balkanized public square, where everything is starkly divided into blue vs. red, “pro-choice” vs. “pro-life,” Democrats vs. Republicans, Anthony Kennedy Catholics vs. Antonin Scalia Catholics.
Foster and her colleagues winced when journalists pinned a “committed anti-abortion activist” label on Roberts, and by proxy her husband, because of her volunteer work with Feminists for Life. But Foster was surprised that some scribes kept listening.
The New York Times did quote the group's mission statement: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.” Foster went further, confirming that “reversing Roe v. Wade… is a goal,” but also telling the Times that this action is “not enough.”
This is precisely the two-pronged message what progressives who are opposed to abortion have been trying to communicate for decades, said theologian Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. Hopefully, the upcoming confirmation hearings for John Roberts can focus on both sides of this delicate equation.
“What this all illustrates is the fact there are many Christians evangelicals and Catholics alike who are strong defenders of human life, yet are in no way right-wingers on many other issues,” said Sider, who two decades ago wrote a manifesto entitled Completely Pro-Life: Building a Consistent Stance on Abortion, the Family, Nuclear Weapons, the Poor.
“I suspect,” he added, “that a majority of the American people want to find a way somehow to respect and protect unborn children while respecting and protecting the rights of women. Can we find the will to do both?”
Foster has felt that tension and, as a result, has started referring to herself as a “Demorepublicat.” Then there is the tension caused by those who assume that her fight against abortion is built on religious dogma alone, rather than a heritage of early feminist opposition to “child murder” and “foeticide.”
More than once, Foster has described her beliefs and heard journalists say, “That sounds Catholic to me.” Issues linked to the sanctity of life are too complex for this old framework, she said. It will be hard to fit groups such as “Wiccans for Life” and “Gays and Lesbians for Life” into the old stereotypes.
“We can pledge to support every mother and to welcome every child,” she said. “We don't have to be at war with our own bodies and our own children. We don't have to settle for that. We can change the status quo.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.