Here’s a possible paradox. Can you be pro-life and call yourself a feminist? How much about one’s religious (or lack thereof) background should be disclosed when offering opinions on social issues?
Does it matter? These are just some of the questions ejected into the public debate this week after a wide-ranging profile on self-described feminist and anti-abortion activist Melinda Tankard Reist was published earlier this month.= display_ad('x18', 'hidden-xs hidden-md mm_incontent', 'MM In Content'); ?>= display_ad('x20', 'visible-xs mm_mob_incontent', 'MM In Content (Mobile)'); ?>
The Sunday Life profile had this to say on the controversial campaigner:
“Melinda Tankard Reist is a woman of strong opinions. She is also a woman about whom people have strong feelings. If you’ve seen her proselytise on pornography on TV, read her opinions on the sexualisation of girls in the newspapers, or watched her go after do-badding companies on Twitter or through her activist group Collective Shout, chances are you have a few opinions about her of your own.
She’s a wowser. A no-nonsense political crusader beloved by both teenage girls and their mothers. A religious conservative in feminist clothing. A brazen careerist. A gifted networker and generous mentor.
Reist has threatened to sue (but has not yet sued) blogger Jennifer Wilson who writes under the name No Place For Sheep for penning a piece that questioned the believability of the profile if its author had never directly questioned Ms Reist about her alleged ‘fundamentalist Christian’ influences.
Ms Wilson wrote:
“Demands that her lawyer, Ric Lucas of Colquhoun Murphy, the firm that successfully sued Bob Ellis after his Abbott and Costello book, has insisted I must not publish, in another attempt to bully, intimidate and control me. Mr Lucas does not want me to reveal to anyone what those demands are.
The two statements I made that offended Tankard Reist, according to her lawyer’s letter, are 1) I stated she is a Baptist, which he claims in the letter she is not, and 2) that I expressed my opinion that MTR is duplicitious [sic] and deceptive about her religion.”
It’s a background Ms Reist claims not to hide – that she is a Christian. She claims to object, however, to the allegation she is sneaky about it. Certainly, there have been passing references and chatter about her Christian roots for quite some time. Anyone who served as an advisor to the conservative Senator Brian Harradine for more than a decade from 1993 must surely jigsaw somewhere into that fundamental landscape.
But the central claim is this: is she misunderstood or does she misrepresent herself? Ethicist and author Leslie Cannold argued that it’s about full disclosure. How much we, as an attentive public, should be briefed before somebody opens their mouths with an opinion:
“The credentials of individuals and organisations provide us with important clues about the expertise and motives of those seeking to influence us. They give us the chance to evaluate for ourselves whether an individual or organisation’s contribution is influenced by memberships, affiliations or sources of funding and, if we believe it is, to adjust the weight we give to those views.
We put several questions to Ms Reist so that she might be able to answer the criticism directly. On the pending defamation action she had this to say:
“I am reluctant to give Wilson’s false claims further publicity. Her depiction of the claim is not accurate. The basis of my claim is for being called ‘deceptive and duplicitous’. I had really only wanted an apology and retraction. My lawyers believe Wilson’s actions to be strongly defamatory.
We are discussing next steps.
I don’t think people posting on-line should think they can get away with trashing and villifying others and be exempt from media laws governing slander and defamation. The law needs to catch up.”
Crikey penned a blog pointing out the ‘logical fallacy’ that anyone’s ideas should be exactly the same as their religion. Ms Reist herself has said in the past that she is reluctant to discuss her stance on religion because people tend to use it to ‘colour’ the rest of her work.
We asked Ms Reist the following. Due to the possible defamation proceedings, her answers were limited and we have not edited them:
1. How do you, succinctly, describe your worldview?
“My world view is based on a human rights approach to issues, especially as they impact on women and girls. The central value of my worldview is the dignity and worth of each human person and I try to uphold social justice tenets of equality, non-violence, respect for life, and solidarity with the marginalised. I try to assess each issue on its merit, informed by this approach.”
2. Do you concede that people wishing to analyse the advocacy / views of public figures might be in need of a disclosure of any vested interests? Like the pecuniary interests register of our politicians, with which you’d be familiar?
No answer given.
3. Do you wish to make any disclosures publicly or answer to your critics in this regard that you have not committed to full disclosure?
See Question 4.
4. One of the claims directed at you is that you are a ‘fundamentalist Christian’ and that this must necessarily colour your views on porn, abortion, sexuality and so forth. How do you respond to this?
“I have no denominational affiliation or church membership. I have found its easier for my opponents to label me ‘fundamentalist’ than to actually engage with my ideas and arguments. And just because someone with faith has an idea doesn’t mean they or their ideas should be dismissed, derided, and mocked on that ground alone. I like what Senator Penny Wong, says about her faith, ‘I suppose I think people have very different ways in which they express their spirituality. I have mine. It’s deeply personal, and it has sustained me at difficult times of my life’. I also think those who claim to have faith should try to make a difference in the world.”
5. Are you motivated by religion in your public life?
“I am motivated in what I do by the global suffering and inequality of women and girls and my work has aimed to make a difference in their lives especially.”
6. How do you resolve the apparent divide between being pro-life and a feminist?
“For me, being a feminist and being pro-life are consistent. Pro-life feminists – and some feminists who don’t identify as ‘pro-life’ – see abortion as a form of violence against women in a society that won’t accommodate women and babies, especially babies born in less than perfect circumstances or babies with disabilities, for example.
A growing number of feminists are questioning abortion as safe, simple and risk free. Research is also indicating that women have significant negative mental health outcomes after abortions. The UK Royal College of Psychiatrists has published a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Psychiatry finding that women who undergo abortions are 81% more likely to experience subsequent mental health problems. (Substance abuse increased 340%, suicidal behaviour by 155%).
I want to see an expansion of real choices for the women who want alternatives but can’t find them. That’s why I founded and am patron of a supported accommodation service for women who are pregnant without support.”
7. What else would you like to add to the debate?
“I’d like my work to be treated on its merits not on the basis of someone else’s label of who I am – especially those with vested interests in vilifying and silencing me.”
So on one side, Ms Reist and her followers are fighting the good fight. To others, she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing with a dangerous hidden agenda. An undercurrent of necessary anti-feminism due to her views on abortion. Jill Singer wrote in the Herald Sun today:
“The problem with her anti-abortion stance, though, is it runs roughshod over the interests of most women. It’s as if they just don’t exist for her. What about the legions of women whose lives would be blighted without access to safe and legal abortion?
This is a debate about feminism, abortion, female sexuality. All of that. And what we ‘need to know’.
And that, for now, is where the matter rests.
What do you think? Can you be a pro-life feminist? Should a person’s religious affiliations be disclosed in public debate? When?