BY RACHEL MacNAIR, PhD
The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers, was founded in the mid-1600s in England during the religious tumult that brought about a flowering of dissenting views. When a famous early convert, William Penn, received an American colony and named it Pennsylvania, Quakers flocked there for a "Holy Experiment" that lasted several decades before collapsing under the weight of non-Quaker immigration. Still, Quakers were the fifth largest denomination in colonial America, and much of the U.S. Bill of Rights was strongly influenced by the Pennsylvania experiment.
Much less numerous today, Quakers are nevertheless strongly represented in the peace movement and similar social movements. In the 19th century, we were especially well-known for being active in the movements to abolish slavery and for women's equality. From the start, we have opposed war as pacifists and helped establish conscientious objector status in the laws of some countries. Because we believe that there is "that of God" in everyone, it follows that all human beings are equal and that all violence is wrong.
Rejecting creeds as too rigid a view of truth, Quakers organize their assertions instead as a matter of Testimonies. The Testimonies provide general principles, and Friends are encouraged to think through what these mean for their own lives and communities. The main testimonies are Peace, Simplicity (not overdoing it on materialism), Integrity, and Equality.
These are all connected, of course. By virtue of avoiding greed and excessive materalism, simplicity helps with establishing peace. When lying is necessary to war, then honesty will help prevent war or any other kind of violence that relies on euphemisms and bad reasoning. Further, integrity is not only truth-telling, but seeing things as they really are, which is one of the quickest ways of sabotaging any form of violence. True peace is impossible alongside the kind of human inequalities that lead to structural violence -- racism, poverty, pollution, and so forth -- violence that comes from the way things are set up. In the same way, the idea that different kinds of violence are connected to each other is well-established among Friends. In the 19th century, slaveholders may have argued that peace required that their slaves remain docile, but Quakers developed instead the understanding that slavery was a form of violence and couldn't be maintained without violence. Poverty is a form of violence, and if poor people use violence to fight against their oppression, then the solution is to find nonviolent means to the same end. This is crucial to taking a pacifist stand, because if a stand against direct violence (where people intend to hurt a target) simply means that structural violence continues, then pacifism becomes a vicious tool for maintaining the status quo. Instead, pacifism is a radical call for change: a call not only to get rid of structural violence, but to change our ideas of how to use active nonviolent methods to do so.
Therefore, one commonly finds among Friends opposition to war, the death penalty, poverty and racism, and many other forms of violence. Such opposition is strong and commonly acted upon: announcements after worship will generally include details of how Friends can be involved in local activism. The idea that different manifestations of violence are all connected would be nothing new to most Quakers.
It is on the issue of abortion that Friends vociferously diverge. Members of one branch, the evangelical, tend to be more likely to be pro-life. The branch that continues to follow the practice of silence with occasional unprogrammed speaking in "meetings for worship" without pastors, rather than programmed services with pastors, tends to be the least likely to be pro-life. Indeed, members can sometimes be quite hostile to the pro-life point of view. This is the branch with the greatest emphasis on peace activism, so the discrepancy is quite startling. Why would this be? Shouldn't the Peace Testimony automatically apply to deliberate feticide? Abortion is violence against unborn children, against their mothers, and against their fathers, grandparents, and siblings. It goes against the insight that using violence usually causes more problems than it solves, as shown, for example, by increases in child abuse and the feminization of poverty. It makes abortion staff members work in conditions of intense spiritual and psychological harm.
Doesn't abortion justification contradict a Testimony on Equality by singling out the killing of unborn children as an exception to the rejection of violence? In many cases it also treats pregnant women as unequal and deprives them of support and accommodation to which they are entitled.
How well does abortion language fit a Testimony on Integrity? It requires dehumanizing or ignoring the unborn child, applying euphemisms to the act of violence, and misrepresenting or obscuring sexist pressures on pregnant women.
In large part, these points are not considered more often because of current stereotypes of polarized left-wing and right-wing politics. Anti-abortion assertions in the media often come from politicians whose ability to think clearly on issues of war and other forms of violence leaves something to be desired. These politicians often express even anti-abortion views in the context of a philosophy that is about sexuality rather than violence. The position for abortion "choice," on the other hand, is often explained among those in the peace movement as being on their agenda because it is a matter of women's rights.
I have found the most effective way to discuss the topic among Friends who consider abortion a "right" is to bring up the inconsistencies of those who oppose abortion and yet don't use the same pro-life principles to oppose war and the death penalty. It is usually very easy to get some vigorous agreement on that point. Then I'll turn it around and ask if it is not also true that those of us in the peace movement have a harder time talking to those with a tender concern for unborn children about what is wrong with war or the death penalty if we also are not applying the same principles across the board? Doesn't the sabotage of inconsistency go both ways? Aren't we hurting peace movement goals in the exact same way?
There's another matter of consistency that's indirectly related to abortion practice, which is that we need to listen to one another on any topic. Instances have occurred of pro-life Quakers being squelched. No matter what the topic, this squelching is un-Quakerly. However, most of the most startling instances of this were in the 1980s; more recent cases have been milder and were merely expressions of a desire to squelch rather than actual instances of squelching. Psychology shows that the human mind (unless it is of a Machiavellian disposition) has a drive for consistency both between beliefs and between those beliefs and actions, so such squelching is not likely to be maintained in the face of persistent consistent-life Friends. Attempts to squelch will often elicit sympathy from Friends who haven't thought much about the abortion issue itself.
At present, there is a small group with an active webpage and occasional outreach activities called the Friends Witness for a Prolife Peace Testimony. There's no Quaker hierarchy that would make decisions about positions to take, so major organizations have different positions on abortion. The American Friends Services Committee used to have a "pro-choice" position and signed on to various legal briefs; its current position is questionable inasmuch as it has staff members that have said that there is none, yet documents show otherwise. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national American lobbying group, takes no position because they know there's no consensus among the Religious Society of Friends in the United States, and they only work on issues on which there is a consensus. They call abortion and euthanasia "boundary of life" issues. Different Yearly Meetings, groups of smaller meetings that get together annually, have different positions, but most have none at all. There is no highly visible Quaker group that makes a major effort to advocate the "pro-choice" philosophy.
Change on this issue will be slow, because Quakers work by consensus and because discussion of abortion tends to be avoided. Nevertheless, while it took us several decades to come to a consensus against slavery in the United States, we achieved that before 1800, many decades before the abolitionist movement began in earnest. Coming to consensus means no one is voted down, and, in theory, it means that people are listened to and considered. Growing a consensus is like growing a garden; it takes patience and care and is not speedy.
Yet it's also clear that the approaches of pro-life feminism and the consistent life ethic are the ones that will make sense to most Friends who currently don't understand the value of the pro-life point of view or how crucial it is to oppose feticide. So much of the groundwork has already been laid; consistency in opposing all violence across the board is a natural next step.
For a much more extensive discussion of various angles on Quakers and the consistent life ethic, see www.prolifequakers.org, the web page of Friends Witness for a Prolife Peace Testimony.
Rachel MacNair was president of Feminists for Life of America from 1984 to 1994 and is currently vice-president of Consistent Life, as well as the director of its research arm. She is the author of the books The Psychology of Peace: An Introduction, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, and Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Euthanasia, the Death Penalty, and War, all by Praeger. With the Feminism and Nonviolence Studies Association, she published Achieving Peace in the Abortion War and co-edited Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today. A Quaker since age 14, she majored in Peace and Conflict Studies at Earlham College, a Quaker college. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology.