The morning of the Women’s March, I walked over the quiet, foggy Potomac with eight family members and friends, male and female, 13 to 60 years old, holding a variety of religious and political beliefs—Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, Jewish, Episcopalian, Christian, Catholic, pro-choice, pro-life—but all who consider themselves to be feminists. After much thought (and two decades of Catholic education), I came to the conclusion that, while I am still Catholic, I believe that women should have complete autonomy over their bodies and reproductive choices.
It should go without saying that abortion is not and will never be an easy, happy decision that is lightly made. No one, pro-choice or pro-life, likes abortions, and everyone wants to decrease them. The difference comes from the methods by which that end is achieved. For those who identify as pro-life, that generally includes making abortion illegal. For those who identify as pro-choice, that generally includes making access to sexual health education and contraceptives widely available, while keeping abortion legal in the cases it is needed and desired. But in that “generally” lies the problem.
The necessity to condense our beliefs into one word or phrase like “pro-life” or “pro-choice” or even “feminist” has resulted in miscommunication and division. When we condense our complex beliefs into simple labels, we risk miscommunicating the diverse opinions we are trying to express.
For example, the pro-life group whose sponsorship was removed from the Women’s March, the New Wave Feminists, has a website that states, “we don't work to make abortion illegal. We work to make it unthinkable and unnecessary. And we do that by getting to the root of the need for it…So let's work towards a culture that supports a woman so well that she never has to have one.” That’s a mission that the feminists with whom I attended the Women’s March—those who consider themselves to be pro-choice and pro-life—can support. I’m just as much of a fan of a catchy protest poster as the next person, but when the New Wave Feminists call themselves pro-life or hand out signs saying “I am a pro-life feminist,” their mission gets lost in labels and rhetoric.
There is no simple solution to this problem—humans have always needed labels in order navigate the world without being overwhelmed by information. But when we don’t look deeper than headlines like “These Pro-Lifers are Headed to the Women’s March on Washington” (the original Atlantic article that caused the controversy), public outrage places pressure on the Women’s March to make a decision based on broad labels, and the public itself misses an opportunity to have a nuanced discussion about a topic that demands thought and reflection.
This doesn’t mean that the Women’s March shouldn’t have fostered a discussion around feminism, religion, or abortion—it’s an important and prescient topic of discussion in the American and international political climate. But both the organizers of the March and the general public owed it to each other to look deeper into the issue to find the meaning behind the labels before making rapid conclusions. In the same way the Women’s March made an effort to foster dialogue between people of all religions, it missed an opportunity (not entirely of its own fault) to foster dialogue between people who profess to have different beliefs on reproductive rights, but who may have discovered they had more in common than they initially believed.