The simple, feminist statement, “I am pro-choice,” is pretty straightforward. It means I trust and support a woman’s right to make decisions about her sexuality and body. I believe that abortion is a part of reproductive health care that women should access without interference and shame from the patriarchal church, state and family.
I’ve most recently affirmed this deeply held pro-choice belief two weeks ago, standing outside the clinic on Wisteria Drive in Germantown, where Dr. Leroy Carhart provides late-term abortions. (See photos from previous post). From rush hour to dusk, I held large, colorful signs from the classic, round “Keep Abortion Legal” sign from NOW to a bright blue and white sign that boldly proclaimed, “This Clinic Stays Open.” Most drivers honked their appreciation, gave a thumbs-up, peace sign or fist pumped as they passed me and other reproductive rights activists standing on the sidewalk.
We on the pro-choice side came from New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland to join the weeklong clinic defense organized by Summer Celebration of Choice. Down the road and on the other side of the office park, I witnessed the religious crowd of anti-choicers praying, singing hymns and performing an exorcism (yes, you read that right). In contrast to our pro-choice gathering, most of the anti-choice crowd was white, male and middle-aged or older. It was also hard to ignore the large number of young children in the crowd and the teens who had scrawled anti-choice propaganda and phrases in happy, bright chalk on the sidewalk.
However exciting the Summer Celebration of Choice was, I have become increasingly critical of the usefulness and meaning of the word “choice” as a framework for the reproductive rights movement and abortion. While I believe that abortion is one choice out of a few options, what if you live in a county that has no abortion provider and the nearest one is hours away? What if your state has strict, anti-abortion laws or obstacles like waiting periods? Is abortion really a choice, then, if it’s not available or difficult to access thanks to the onslaught of anti-abortion laws introduced and passed in state legislatures in the past year? What does “choice” mean, when for most women abortion is under attack? Not much, I think. We’re simply fighting to defend our right to privacy reaffirmed in Roe v. Wade and not gaining new, meaningful ground in the fight for our bodily autonomy.
I came across a great 2008 publication by Hampshire College titled, “10 Reasons to Rethink Reproductive Choice,” that criticizes the discourse of “choice” and advocates for a framework of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is a holistic political vision that links the well-being of women to their communities and what they need to exercise reproductive freedom. Of the publication’s 10 main points, here’s what really got me re-thinking the word “choice”:
1. Choice homogenizes reproductive experiences, which vary and are shaped by race and class. For example, a white, middle-class woman has much greater control and access to abortion and contraceptives than a poor woman of any race. During American slavery, black women’s sexuality and child bearing was systematically manipulated and controlled by their slave masters. This history in particular, has direct consequences today on black women’s reproductive experiences and in the way we view black female bodies, motherhood and sexuality. (For more on this, I suggest reading Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts).
2. Choice disconnects abortion from the rest of women’s lives. This argument ties into other criticisms of choice – that it is individualistic and a market concept in our capitalist, consumer-driven society. I agree. The word we choose to frame women’s reproductive right to abortion – “choice” – indicates that it is an individual decision, a good to be bought and sold that we as female consumers need to be able to access (buy) for our health and well-being. And what doesn’t sound more American, more capitalist than concepts like individuality, choice and freedom? What “choice” doesn’t convey is the complexity and shades of gray within our lives – the nature of the relationship we’re in or our financial and living situation. Good luck if you can’t afford an abortion or don’t have health insurance – you don’t have much of a choice. And it’s not systems of oppression (poverty, racism, classism) that deny you social and economic power – it’s you!
So I’d prefer to think about abortion rights not as a homogenous, individualistic, market-driven “choice.” Instead, I like thinking about the complicated, messy realities of what abortion access and rights mean to real women and their lived experiences. I don’t believe that we can fully fight for true reproductive justice unless we consider how our lives and consequently our choices are sometimes constrained and shaped by our locations in life as determined by race, class, sexuality, nationality or religion. Until then, we’ll never truly have “choice” in our reproductive decisions.