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The illusion of “choice”

By Rickie Solinger


Recently Planned Parenthood announced that it will no longer use the term “choice” to describe what the organization aims to preserve. It’s about time. The weak, consumerist claim of individual choice has never been sufficient to guarantee women what they need — the right to reproduce or not — and to be mothers with dignity and safety.

I was 26 when the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, and like others of my generation assumed that this had settled the matter. I didn’t doubt that Roe v. Wade had established a new order that would change women’s lives forever. The backlash against the civil rights movement was in plain sight then, for example, in the fight against affirmative action, the closing down of Great Society programs, and the growing political attacks on poor mothers who received welfare benefits. Yet many women’s rights activists and others didn’t foresee the long decades of backlash against women’s new sexual and reproductive freedoms that lay ahead. Few understood at the time what would be involved to achieve reproductive freedom for women across race and class lines.

In the 1970s, the Supreme Court’s legalization of contraception for unmarried persons, along with its legalization of abortion, did seem to define “reproductive politics” as a matter of individual choices about pregnancy. It wasn’t long, however, before “choice” didn’t seem to capture what was at issue. For example, reports emerged about how some physicians routinely sterilized poor women — often women of color — without their knowledge and their “informed consent.” Manufacturers of birth control pills and IUD’s were pressured to provide full information about a range of bad side effects. Welfare laws arbitrarily excluded poor women accused of having too many children.

Debates about public funding of reproductive health services, beginning almost immediately after Roe, also revealed the insufficiency of “choice,” as have disputes about the role of religion in civic life; about what constitutes the family and its “values;” about the environment, toxicity, and population growth; and about the potential and dangers of science and technology. In short, “reproductive politics” doesn’t submit to simple mapping and extends far beyond “choice.”

This was predictable, considering how laws, policies, and court decisions have over time allowed various authorities to treat the reproductive capacities of different groups of women differently, valuing and ennobling the reproductive lives of some women while degrading others. Nineteenth-century laws governing the fertility of enslaved Africans, for example, facilitated the origins and maintenance of the slavery system. Laws and policies regulating female fertility have provided mechanisms for achieving immigration, eugenic, welfare, and adoption goals as well as supporting or hindering women’s aspirations for first-class citizenship. In the mid-twentieth century, some (white) women were constituted as good choice-makers while others (poor, women of color) were routinely regarded as bad choice-makers who produced expensive, undesirable children.

Many Americans have accepted the Supreme Court rulings fully legalizing contraception and largely legalizing abortion. Other Americans have, of course, worked against these decisions for four decades. Legislators across the country debate, enact, or reject laws regarding the status and rights of the fetus. They define whether a pregnant woman who has used a controlled substance requires criminal prosecution or medical treatment and whether the state should limit, deny, or provide assistance to poor women who become mothers.

Debates continue over whether “emergency contraception” amounts to abortion; whether the state has the right to mandate a “vaginal probe” before granting a woman her right to abortion; whether the new health insurance exchanges should include or exclude specific reproductive services; whether all babies born in the United States are US citizens; whether gay, lesbian, queer, and transgendered persons, as well as disabled people, have the same rights to parenthood, variously achieved, as heterosexual persons; and whether the relationship between rules governing “gestational carriers” (surrogate mothers) and their clients are public business or private matters. Indeed, all kinds of questions about who gets to be a legitimate mother in the United States, who does not and who decides, transcend “choice,” continue to resist resolution, and shape national politics.

Rather than constituting private matters involving individual choices, reproductive politics involves large social, economic, and political structures. In 2010 the fate of the entire federal health care reform project — passing legislation to ensure care for up to 51 million uninsured Americans — hinged on excluding abortion coverage. In 2011, state legislatures considered hundreds of bills restricting or ending long-established reproductive services and passed a number of them. Meanwhile in the United States, one out of every two women of childbearing age has experienced at least one unintended pregnancy, and low-income women are four times more likely to have this experience than middle-class women. Sexually transmitted infections, some of which can lead to infertility, have been called a “hidden epidemic” affecting all of our communities, while funding for reproductive health services is uniquely threatened.

It remains to be seen if Planned Parenthood and other organizations can convince Americans to replace the idea of individual “choice” with a new concept such as “reproductive justice,” a term that points toward what every woman needs when she decide whether or not to get pregnant, to stay pregnant, and to be a mother.

Rickie Solinger is a historian and curator. She has written and edited a number of books about reproductive politics, including Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade and Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the U.S. Solinger has organized exhibitions that have traveled to 140 college and university galleries over the past eighteen years. She lives in the Hudson Valley and New York City.

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Image Credits: (1) Pro-choice demonstrators. Photo by internets_dairy’s. Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Planned Parenthood volunteers. Photo by ProgressOhio. Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

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