In a couple of my previous posts on Mary Daly, I mentioned that her secularized notion of “idolatry” – which she saw in first-wave feminists’ singleminded focus on suffrage – can be applied to modern-day feminism as well. Today, on the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I’d like to dwell on how “choice” has served as an idol – as a foundational concept that can’t bear the weight it’s been given.
“Choice” was an attractive term to the defenders of abortion rights in the 1970s because it provided a way to counter a growing “pro-life” movement without having to say that they were “pro-abortion.” Even today, defending “abortion” is a politically dodgy proposition. My Democratic ?? !! @*&$# congresscritter, Charlie Wilson, D-Bluedognia, proudly claims at every opportunity that he’s pro-life. He and his cronies are sure not going to come out in favor of abortion.
By now, though, we need a more flexible strategy, as lots of folks – especially radical women of color – have argued before me. What about access to abortion, birth control, sex education, prenatal care, and fertility treatments? How about reproductive rights and justice? What about bodily autonomy and self-determination?
Yes, it’s important that women have choices. It’s even more crucial that we have the material, social, and cultural wherewithal to exercise them.
Denying the means to exercise choice shows that we, as a society, just don’t trust women – especially those women who don’t already enjoy a panoply of privileges. Conversely, “trusting women” doesn’t matter a whit as long as their choices are highly constrained.
And while we’re at it, let’s remember than no one – female or male, fertile or not – has real bodily autonomy without access to health care. Reproductive autonomy isn’t just a women’s rights issue. It’s a matter of human rights.
Addendum, 1/24/10, 3 p.m.: Based on the comments to this post, it looks as though I haven’t fully clarified why I think feminists would be wise to walk back from our overreliance on “choice.” From the get-go in the 1970s, “choice” referred to narrowly to the formal legality of abortion. It was a product of liberal feminism, which framed abortion in terms of negative liberty – or freedom from interference. However, that wasn’t nearly enough to secure reproductive rights for women, broadly conceived, including a right to birth control, sex ed, etc. This would have required the issued to be reframed in terms of positive liberty, which includes the resources and means to act and exercise one’s liberties. (I’ve written about these disparate concepts of liberty here.) “Choice” also failed to highlight even the violations of negative liberty perpetrated on women who were poor or non-white, such as coerced sterilizations and pressure to use abortion or long-term birth control.
In theory, of course, “choice” could embrace both notions of liberty and and could include issues beyond abortion. Despite some feminists’ efforts to expand the term, however, it continues to carry historical baggage. The popular understanding of “choice” is that it’s shorthand for legal abortion. Its meaning has constricted and frozen. I hear this from my students in women’s studies classes, as well as from critics within feminism. That’s why I’d prefer we stop privileging “choice” in favor of “reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice.” These concepts highlight the importance of positive liberties and challenge us to think about the whole spectrum of gendered health issues.
Thanks to figleaf and kb for pointing out that I didn’t connect all the dots – a hazard of writing when I probably ought to have been sleeping instead. :-)