Can pro-choice and pro-life women find common ground? It’s complicated.

By Melissa Deckman

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog

This initially appeared on January 20, 2017 at the Monkey Cage Blog.

In the mission statement for Saturday’s [January 21, 2017] Women’s March on Washington that will protest Donald Trump’s inauguration, the organizers’ position is that “women’s rights are human rights … recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

But despite that broad statement, controversy erupted when New Wave Feminists, a pro-life group, applied to become an official partner for the march. Organizers initially granted the request, but rescinded the sponsorship invitation once word spread in liberal feminist circles. Activists on the left have long held that women’s reproductive rights are central to any fight for women’s rights.

Will that exclusion harm organizers’ efforts to build a large coalition, sacrificing the goal for the sake of ideological purity? That’s how some critics see it. If pro-life women also care deeply about eradicating sex discrimination, providing paid family and sick leave, fighting for racial justice and raising the minimum wage — all goals supported by liberal women’s organizations — is the exclusion smart politics?

What does each group want?

The answer to that question may depend on whether there is common ground between pro-life and pro-choice women on these issues. Data from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution’s 2015 American Values Survey help to illuminate this.

We can start by deciding how to categorize respondents as “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” We’ll call the 59 percent of women who believe that abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” cases pro-choice. And we can categorize as pro-life the 41 percent who believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Public opinion on abortion is of course more nuanced than this, but these labels allow us to compare the attitudes of women who tend to favor less or more restrictive abortion policies.

How they agree: leave policies and increasing the minimum wage

There is, in fact, agreement among pro-life and pro-choice women on several social and economic policies. For instance, overwhelming majorities of both pro-choice women (95 percent) and pro-life women (84 percent) support policies that would require the government to provide paid sick leave for full-time employees to care for themselves or a relative. Similar support exists for paid family leave to be taken upon the birth or adoption of a child.


How about the minimum wage? Raising it has long been championed by women’s groups, because women, especially women of color, work at the bottom of the wage scale more often than men. There we find agreement: a majority of both pro-life and pro-choice women support increases. There’s a larger divide than on the leave policies, however.

Where they disagree: whether there’s discrimination

But there is more division on whether there’s sex discrimination and how the government should respond to marginalized groups. For instance, 60 percent of pro-choice women say that a lot of discrimination against women in the United States remains, compared with 46 percent of pro-life women.

And when the question is whether the federal government looks after the needs and interests of various social groups, more differences emerge. Majorities of pro-life women say that the federal government is looking out for women, gays and lesbians, blacks, Latinos and low-income Americans across the board. Among pro-choice women, a majority say the same only about women. Most believe the government is not doing a good job protecting the interests of other groups.


The data suggest that on the one hand, on certain economic issues, there is broad agreement among women regardless of their stance on abortion. On these issues, coalitions across the reproductive rights divide might make sense.

Republicans don’t champion these policies, however

The challenge, however, is that none of these policies has champions among the Republicans in control of Congress. Yes, Ivanka Trump has touted a family leave policy that would give mothers six weeks of maternity leave. But liberal feminist critics line up with National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill, who calls it “insulting” as it applies only to mothers and not fathers.

Moreover, identity politics appears to be a wedge between the two groups. The Women’s March organizers place great emphasis on identity in its mission statement, which declares that women’s rights are human rights:

regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability. We practice empathy with the intent to learn about the intersecting identities of each other.

By contrast, conservative activists more generally view identity politics as a reductionist and unnecessarily divisive lens through which to view society. And, not surprisingly, pro-life women are far more likely to identify as conservatives than pro-choice women.

While pro-life women may find patches of common ground with others who are likely to participate in Saturday’s march, there are larger areas of difference. It seems far more likely that such groups of women will find themselves in competing political tribes with different political priorities.

Melissa Deckman is a professor of public affairs at Washington College and the author of “Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right.”  Follow her on Twitter @melissadeckman.

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