Abortion rights and the failure of “choice,” revisited

To honor the long-awaited decision of Planned Parenthood to drop the word “pro-choice” in favor of more, er, neutral language (I don’t hear them tooting the “reproductive justice” horn, unfortch), I am sharing these thoughts on the subject, excerpted from my book The Radical Housewife and first posted on this blog in 2011.   Choose to enjoy it!

The late, great Shirley Chisholm wrote the following in her autobiography Unbought & Unbossed, addressing men on her staff who tried to convince her to avoid speaking out in support of abortion rights:

“Women are dying every day, did you know that? They’re being butchered and maimed. No matter what men think, abortion is a fact of life. Women will have them; they always have and always will. Are they going to have good ones or bad ones? Will the good ones be reserved for the rich, while poor women have to go to quacks? Why don’t we talk about real problems instead of phony ones?”*

Rep. Chisholm wrote these words in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, when dying from a botched abortion was a very real threat to women across the country, particularly poor women of color. Two generations later, not a lot has changed. Accessing an abortion is easy for well-heeled urban women, the vast majority of whom (as it was in 1970) are white.

In Shirley Chisholm’s day, the term “pro-choice” was used to remind people of the personal matter of the procedure. The “choice” to have the abortion should be the woman’s, centering the debate on the right to individual autonomy, a concept that Republicans claim to embrace. Senator John Kerry declared in a 2004 Presidential debate that having an abortion “is a woman’s choice. It’s between a woman, God, and her doctor.”

Oh, if it were only that easy, John! God and doctors are often in very short supply when they are needed the most. If you get accidentally knocked up in Wyoming or Mississippi, you better pray as hard as you can, because your states have no provider at all.

In fact, a 2008 report funded by the Guttmacher Institute announced that 87 percent of counties in the United States do not have an abortion provider.That’s a big enough number to put in all caps: EIGHTY-SEVEN PERCENT! That makes getting an abortion seem less like a “choice” and more like a forced road trip.

Or a financial ordeal. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1977 and reauthorized every year since, bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Rep. Chisholm worried that poor women would have to go to quacks; she didn’t realize that when they won the right to access abortions from a trained doctor, they’d have to surrender their rent checks. The Hyde Amendment, predictably, reinforces the idea that wealthy women have the “choice,” but poor women don’t. And lest we forget, the poorest women are the ones who lack access to contraceptive information and services anyway, dammit!

When I demonstrated with over one million other people on the U.S. Capitol Mall in 2004, I wrote the word “choice” on my sign, but the event was officially called the March for Women’s Lives.**

The name, though, made some mainstream feminists cranky. Shouldn’t it be called the March for Choice? Not so fast, declared a coalition of poverty activists and health care groups for women of color. The word “choice” obscures the “real problems” that Rep. Chisholm talked about: racism, poverty, and other forms of pervasive inequality.

I no longer identify as pro-choice. How can I, when Sarah Palin congratulates herself for the “choice” to carry her Down’s Syndrome child to term? Bringing a special needs baby into a tightly-knit, financially stable family that has access to health care and other forms of support is no big whoop, except for the baby in question—Trig Palin is one hell of a lucky kid. So is Tripp Johnston, the child carried to term by Trig’s seventeen-year-old sister. All four of them appeared on a celebrity tabloid in the early days of 2010, declaring “we’re glad we chose life!”

That’s that sneaky, slippery power of language again! Can you imagine a headline that read “we’re so glad we didn’t have abortions!” I can’t either.

Remember chapter one?*** I don’t deserve a medal for surviving life with the colicky, special needs baby I had in the year 2000. Accidents of fortune gave me everything I needed, and my child reaped the benefits.

I don’t care if Sarah and Bristol Palin keep on breeding–that’s their beeswax, not mine. But under Gov. Palin’s leadership, Alaska’s rates of domestic violence and sexual assault were twice the national average.**** When Palin ran for office in 2006, she announced (in so many words) that if her then 14-year-old daughter were raped, she wouldn’t allow the girl to have an abortion—a very likely scenario, considering Palin’s vocal support for parental notification laws. In yet another nimble linguistic twist, Palin averred that the issue was one of “parents’ rights.” Welcome to Palinverse, where a pre-born fetus had greater bodily autonomy than a post-born teen.

Feminists of any/every Wave, listen up: “choice” is over. It’s done. NO MORE.


*Oh my gaaaawd, I love Shirley Chisholm so much!!!!!!

**It was awesome.  I can’t wait until Erin Matson’s Feminist Jetpack Factory™ organizes another one. 

***You WILL remember it when you buy your copy from Medusa’s Muse Press this fall!  Woot!

****This statistic was disturbing when I wrote it, but it’s even worse now that Bristol claims her virginity was “stolen” while she was drunk (for a discussion on why Bristol may have resisted calling her experience rape, read this piece at the Daily Beast–as if we needed another reminder of the power of words).

6 thoughts on “Abortion rights and the failure of “choice,” revisited

  1. Tannis

    I’m so glad you wrote this – I almost sent you a tweet asking for your, revisited, thoughts on this. The post you wrote about this…whenever ago you wrote it, confused me. In fact, I think a left a comment to the effect of, “Huh? But what else do you call it?” Being pro-choice was so much a part of my self-identification I didn’t see an alternative. WHAT WOULD THAT LEAVE ME WITH? But, Maude bless the internet (and that post of yours), I’ve become less and less a fan of the phrasing. I understand it, I get why some people hold on to it. But placing “choice” in the larger construct of oppression really makes it hard for me to embrace it. A coerced choice is not a choice, and choice, as Alison Piepmeier argued in her post about this, is full of USian responsibility bullshit baggage that I can’t stand with.

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  3. Buddy Fletcher

    To help bring together the most recent research on the consequences of unsafe abortion, the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics published a special supplement to their September 2012 issue, edited by Susheela Singh, of the Guttmacher Institute, and members of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population panel on abortion research. The supplement examines morbidity and mortality; costs to health systems, women and families; and the social consequences of unsafe abortion. Click here to find out what is in this issue.


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