Questioning “FEMEN”

22 April 2012, 11:09 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 


Andrew SOROKOWSKIAs reported elsewhere in RISU, on Tuesday, April 10 – in the midst of the Eastern Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter – five members of the women’s group FEMEN suspended a seven-meter-long banner reading “Stop” from the belfry of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.  The messagesignified their opposition to draft law No. 10170, which would overturn Ukraine’s rather permissive law on abortion and substitute a more restrictive one. The letter “t” in the English word “Stop” was written in the form of an Eastern Christian cross.

The members of FEMEN are known for their imaginativeagit-prop stunts, most notably the exposition of their anterior anatomy, which has attracted the attention of the international (and still male-dominated) media. Their ideological focus is feminism. In view of that, their most celebrated tactic may seem paradoxical: if feminists object to men treating them as objects of sexual desire, particularly in visual mode, why would they participate in their own objectification by catering to the lustful eye? But this is an effective tactic of baiting men and exposing their attitudes to public ridicule.

Among the issues that FEMEN has addressed has been the international trafficking of women. They have also opposed sex tourism and -- in contrast to many Western liberals -- have advocated the criminalization of prostitution, targeting the consumers as well as the vendors.In all this they have acted laudably and consistently to protect the helpless and the victimized.

In view of that, the object of FEMEN’s latest stunt seems anomalous. Abortion is the destruction of an embryo (in the first three months of pregnancy) or of a fetus (in the remainingtwo trimesters). The division of pregnancy into trimesters is, of course, arbitrary. The biologically significant events in the life of a human being, besides death, are conception and birth. Of the latter two, conception is the more important, as birth is merely a change of location, not essence. Furthermore, it is indisputable that both an embryo and a fetus are stages in the development of a human being. Whether or not one considers the unborn to be “persons” or “unborn children” entitled to legal protection, the conclusion is inescapable that abortion is the taking of human life – at its most helpless and vulnerable.

To be sure, themedical, legal, and ethical issues surrounding abortion are complex. In the extreme case – where the survival of the unborn child threatens the life of the mother – many secular and religious authorities would consider abortion justified. That, in fact, is the one exception in the draft law’s ban on abortion. But in the majority of cases, the pregnancy is the result of consensual intercourse, giving rise to a moral responsibility on the part of both parents to bring it to term and raise the child. The absence or irresponsibility of the father is a poor excuse for killing a fetus, given the availability of DNA identification and the fact that pursuing an unsupportive parent is little different from locating a reluctant taxpayer. Even in the case of rape, where the mother is obviously not responsible for her pregnancy, many would question the ethical admissibility of punishing the unborn child by death for the crime of the father.

Ukraine’s currentSoviet-era statute, while banning abortion after the first three months of pregnancy, allows exceptions not only in case of danger to the mother’s life or health, and not only in case of rape, but also on certain socio-economic grounds through the twenty-eighth week. The social and economic hardships of Ukrainian women are well known. Yet even this seems hardly a sufficient reason for terminating an innocent human life. There are, after all, available alternative methods of alleviating maternal poverty, such as the kinds of family support programs offered in countries like France. Indeed, principled opposition to abortion must be coupled with a commitment to radical socio-economic reform.Perhaps FEMEN should redirect its energies to advocating such reform.

Opponents of strict anti-abortion legislation argue that it cannot be enforced. That is debatable. Many of Ukraine’s laws, in fact, appear to be unenforceable. Nevertheless, the law is an indicator of a society’s values. What kind of society permits the mass killing of the unborn because of its own failings? Still others point out that the number of abortions in Ukraine is falling. Yet the estimated two million lives a year (or even the lower figures of registered abortions) still seem worth some protective legislation.

Regardless of one’s position, one must admit that the issue is complex. Yet FEMEN sees abortion in simplistic, categorical terms. In a press release accompanying its action and published in the Kyiv newspaper “Segodnya” on April 10, FEMEN declared that it had“sounded the alarm” about “a bandits’conspiracy of the Church and the State with the aim of taking official control over the sacred feminine gift of bearing children.” This conspiracy, the release continued, had produced a draft law that would deprive women of “the right to terminate pregnancy.” The Supreme Council, alleged FEMEN, would decide the fate of women, “legislatively forcing them to breed and multiply.”

FEMEN’s allegations can be questioned. First, it is not only the Orthodox Church that is opposed to abortion on demand (as suggested by the symbolism of the three-barred cross on FEMEN’s belfry banner). Evangelical Protestants oppose it, and the Catholic Church, seeing abortion as the taking of innocent human life, opposes it in all cases. In fact, it was the appeal to Parliament last February 9 by Ukraine’s Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic leaders that prompted BYUT deputy AndriiShkil to propose the anti-abortion law the following March 12. While neither Judaism nor Islam has a single position on whether, or under what circumstances, abortion might be permissible, they certainly do not favor it.

Second, the state is not taking control over child-bearing. The state is taking control over abortion, which is its opposite. It has a right to do so because one of the primary functions of any state is to protect life. Third, it is obvious that parliament is not“forcing” anyone to breed and multiply. 

But the most puzzling aspect of FEMEN’s press release is its quasi-religious reference to the “sacred feminine gift of bearing children”-- followed, in the same breath, by their assertion of the “right to terminate pregnancy.”  If women’s gift of bearing children is “sacred,” do they have a “right” to kill those same children before they are born? 

Two other questions arise. Why, in a country suffering a precipitous decline of its population, would a pro-Ukrainian group support a contributing cause of that decline?  And why would an organization devoted to the interests of women, whoseunique and distinguishing role is the nurturing of human life, advocate its negation?

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