For years I have proudly identified as a pro-choice feminist. As Roe v. Wade is effectively being overturned state-by-state, I’ve begun to educate myself more on the history of abortion while I’ve become more outspoken in defense of women’s rights. Ironically, it has been this journey that has made me begin to question whether pro-choice is the right identity for me.
Do labels matter?
Some may say that labels don’t matter—that we’re all just people after all—but language is our most powerful tool for choosing how we will shape the world around us. We can use labels to make a powerful and true statement, like “Trans women are women,” or use them to manipulate, like “Women who get abortions are murderers.” And the right knows this, which is why the term “pro-life” is one of the most powerful (and misleading) weapons in their arsenal.
Language shapes our entire abortion debate. Some conversations around abortion never progress beyond what terminology they should use. How we feel about terminating a pregnancy changes drastically whether we want to call it an embryo, a fetus, a baby, or an unborn or “pre-born” child. Pro-choice advocates tend to stick to the developmentally accurate terms such as embryo and fetus, but the other side can see this as removed and cold. If they can get us to refer to them as babies or children, it would be much harder to see abortion as anything but cold-hearted baby murder.
Let’s call it what it is
Furthermore, even though abortion is what we are talking about, neither side tends to commonly use the word abortion when identifying what they’re talking about. The right very proudly sticks to their self-proclaimed “pro-life” stance, which I personally see as flatly inaccurate for reasons I’ve explained many times before.
The pro-choice side has a myriad of names both for itself and for its opponents. I’m glad to see that slowly we are refraining from calling them “pro-life” when they are not. I’ve seen people call them pro-forced birth, anti-choice, and now more commonly anti-abortion, which I prefer for its clarity. And when we refer to ourselves, we tend to cloak the word “abortion” in “women’s reproductive rights,” “women’s health,” “women’s bodily autonomy,” and of course, “a woman’s right to choose,” among other things. The focus on women here is also exclusionary to trans men and gender nonconforming people.
To the pro-choice side, I have to ask: if you are in favor of abortion being legal and accessible, why do you shy away from using the word abortion? One could argue that it’s better to use terms like “women’s rights” because abortion is synonymous with women’s human rights. But do you mean all women having basic human rights or do you just mean, in this context, a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy? Will you be bold enough to proclaim, clearly and specifically, what you are in favor of?
I am pro-abortion
After I read Katha Pollitt’s (mostly) great book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, I considered that instead of calling myself pro-choice, perhaps I ought to simply call myself pro-abortion. When people identify as pro-choice, it often comes with a caveat: “I would never get an abortion myself, but I don’t think it is right to tell other people that they can’t.” More commonly, they say, “Well, I am pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean I’m literally pro-abortion.” As if pro-abortion means I am fully anti-natalist, which is ridiculous.
I don’t like it when people say these caveats. It at least means that the person saying it might vote pro-choice, but the idea that “abortion is for other people” carries many heavy implications. Fertile people need to stop assuming that they are, in one way or another, above abortion. It implies that the people who get abortions just do it because they want to. It carries the assumption that you have total control over what happens to you, but “other people” don’t have that control over their own lives.
Right now, in this hypothetical scenario in which you only get pregnant when you want to, you imagine that you would never need an abortion. But if something awful happens to you, like rape, or an ectopic pregnancy, you might not feel that way anymore. Or even if something not as awful but not wanted happens to you, like becoming pregnant when you are at a stage of your life when you intended to focus on your career or travel, you could change your mind and need an abortion in order to carry on with the life you’ve worked for.
No woman is too good to need an abortion, too responsible, too in control of every little thing. When we all have the option of abortion to fall back on, we don’t need to live life with the lurking paranoia that one little mistake could alter our lives forever. We can live freely and breathe.
So no, I’m not crazy about the label “pro-choice” when it is used to dodge discussion of abortion. I want something that is more clear about being in favor of abortion being legal, accessible, and affordable.
I thought I was all set calling myself pro-abortion until I read another book. And another book. (See, this is the thing about reading. It gives you a wider view of the world through more people’s eyes so that you can make more informed choices about who you are going to be. Try it sometime!)
I am pro-choice
The first book I just listed was Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. It tells the story of the millions of women who did not have the choice either to abort or keep their babies, and who were forced to put them up for adoption and spend their entire lives wondering where and who their children were. In my conclusion, I wrote,
Even if these women wouldn’t have opted for abortions, there is something they have in common with those of us in the pro-choice movement: they know that women need choices. Terms like “pro-choice,” “women’s autonomy,” and “reproductive rights” shouldn’t just refer to a woman’s right to choose to end her pregnancy. It should mean her choice to get pregnant in the first place and every step of the way after.Book Review: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
While I am pro-abortion, it turns out that the term is too narrow for what I am pro- of. I am also pro-enthusiastic consent, pro-choosing to keep your baby or put it up for adoption, and of course, pro-resources and a healthy environment in which to raise a family, which in my view can require a whole host of government-funded resources and services for those who may need them.
Reproductive oppression for marginalized women
The second book I listed was Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. In the book, Roberts details that for centuries, Black women have had many more reproductive barriers put in front of them beyond a lack of access to abortion.
Early “gynecologists” performed cruel experiments on non-anesthetized enslaved women. Eugenicists advocated for Black and Native women’s sterilization. Population control advocates injected Black women with long-acting contraceptives without their consent. To this day, Black women are encouraged and even incentivized not to have more “welfare babies.” Black women have long had far fewer reproductive freedoms than white women, and abortion is just one item on a long list of things that it is past time for them to freely choose.
Here was one of my key takeaways from the book:
Equity means that Black women have the freedom to have children while they have traditionally not been allowed to, white women have the freedom not to when traditionally they have been forced to, and vice versa. It is not about everyone having children or everyone not having children but every single person making their own reproductive choices. Having a child is a deeply personal and life-changing choice. We must give everyone that choice as well as the resources to actually make it a reality. That could mean providing the money to obtain an abortion, providing childcare while a pregnant person meets with a doctor for treatment for a drug addiction, or countless other ways of providing support.Book Review: Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts
This convinced me to fully embrace the term pro-choice. And I didn’t mean “choice” as a way to avoid having to say the still-stigmatized word abortion—I really meant choice. All fertile people, no matter how many intersecting marginalized identities they may hold, by virtue of being human, deserve the right to have the full and unconditional autonomy to bring children into the world, not bring children into the world, and raise their children in a healthy and safe environment.
I had read and thrown around the term “reproductive justice” a few times by this point, but what I hadn’t yet realized was that it is the official term for the all-encompassing definition of “pro-choice” that I had landed on. As a matter of fact, I came across this essay by Dorothy Roberts as I was reading her book. If you haven’t read Killing the Black Body, the essay gives a good overview of the book’s major themes.
True reproductive freedom requires a living wage, universal health care, and the abolition of prisons. Black women see the police slaughter of unarmed people in their communities as a reproductive justice issue. They recognize that women are frequent victims of racist police violence and that cutting short the lives of black youth violates the right of mothers to raise their children in healthy, humane environments. The reproductive justice movement and Black Lives Matter are likely allies because, at their core, both insist that American society must begin to value black humanity.Dorothy Roberts, Reproductive Justice, Not Just Rights
Interestingly, reproductive justice activists like Roberts denounce the concept of women’s choice because it is not broad enough and it carries an implication that it is a woman’s fault for being underprivileged and under-resourced.
The language of choice has proved useless for claiming public resources that most women need in order to maintain control over their bodies and their lives. Indeed, giving women “choices” has eroded the argument for state support, because women without sufficient resources are simply held responsible for making “bad” choices.Dorothy Roberts, Reproductive Justice, Not Just Rights
This, ironically, sounds a lot like the idea that only other women could need an abortion, but not you. You couldn’t deign to be so unlucky or immoral.
Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, recently published a guest essay in the New York Times about this very problem with the use of the word choice. In the article, titled To Be Pro-Choice, You Must Have the Privilege of Having Choices, Simpson writes,
This summer, the Supreme Court could deliver a lethal blow to Roe v. Wade.
As devastating as that outcome would be, it’s important to keep in mind that Roe never fully protected Black women — or poor women or so many others in this country. That’s because Roe ensured the right to abortion without ensuring that people could actually get an abortion. People seeking abortions in America must consider: Do I have the money? How far is the nearest clinic, and can I get there? Can I take off work? Will I be safe walking into the clinic? For more privileged people, these questions are rarely a deterrent. But for many women of color and poor people, they are major obstacles. That’s how white supremacy works.Monica Simpson, To Be Pro-Choice, You Must Have the Privilege of Having Choices
SisterSong’s guide to reproductive justice puts it more succinctly:
We believe that Reproductive Justice is…
About access, not choice. Mainstream movements have focused on keeping abortion legal as an individual choice. That is necessary, but not enough. Even when abortion is legal, many women of color cannot afford it, or cannot travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic. There is no choice where there is no access.SisterSong.net, Reproductive Justice
As I write this, I am about halfway through SisterSong cofounder Loretta Ross and historian Rickie Solinger’s book Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. It carries many of the same themes as Killing the Black Body, but I find it to be more digestible and more broad. Ross and Solinger put some of what I’ve shared so far into context, especially as it related to the rise of neoliberal economics in the 1970s.
“Choice” was palatable in part because it directly associated sexual women with an approved female activity, consumerism: a woman seeking to control her fertility could enter into a marketplace of options and select the one she liked best. This association suggested that every woman possesses the wherewithal—the money and legal terrain to enter into that marketplace of options and to pay for whatever option she selected: contraception, abortion, or motherhood. Clearly, many women lack the cash to pay for these choices, including motherhood, and thus face what might be called choiceless choices. One thinks, for example, of the “choice” facing a pregnant person who wants to have a child but who lacks adequate housing and a secure job.
Another problem with “choice” is that this market concept strongly refers to the preferences of the individual and suggests that each woman makes her own reproductive choices freely, unimpeded by considerations of family and community. In addition to economic matters, a person deciding whether to get pregnant, to stay pregnant, or to be a mother might be pressed by family values, religious beliefs, work or educational responsibilities, and access to appropriate medical care, day care, and many other necessary resources. Having or not having access to proper resources, including family and community supports, fundamentally shapes the meaning of choice. It also underscores the truth that reproduction is a biological event and also a social (family and community-based) event, and that the concept of individual choice cannot capture the context in which persons do or do not become parents.Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, pp. 101-102
Pro-choice implies the existence of choices
I want to take all of this reproductive justice scholarship into account in terms of my identity as pro-abortion, pro-choice or pro-something else.
Ross and Solinger as well as Roberts and Simpson plainly and clearly say that pro-choice rhetoric assumes that the women in question even have the privilege to make the choices. It assumes that the choice women want to have is the choice to terminate a pregnancy. It also considers the lives of women in terms of individuals making private choices and not as parts of greater communities that thrive or fail together. Finally, it assumes that if that choice to have an abortion is legal, that the women have access to actually get the abortion in the first place. So the term pro-choice falls far short.
How, then, should I identify?
So if neither “pro-abortion” or “pro-choice” are enough, then what ought I call myself? The most accurate and encompassing thing, I believe, would be to say that I am pro-reproductive justice. It includes everything that I believe in when it comes to the human rights of fertile people. But at the same time, I don’t know if identifying solely as pro-reproductive justice in this dialogue is very conducive to productive communication.
If someone asks me, “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” they probably don’t want to hear the entire 2,500-word post I’ve typed so far as an answer. It’s an either/or question. They want to know if I believe that women should have the right to get abortions or not. In that moment, I would simply say I’m pro-choice. It answers the question and people generally will know what I mean. Depending on the context, I might say I’m pro-abortion.
If the topic on the table is abortion alone and we aren’t discussing all of reproductive justice (even though the fact that all we talk about is abortion and not comprehensive justice is part of the problem), I also like the idea of saying I’m pro-access or pro-abortion access. That is what SisterSong pointed out, after all; it’s about access, not choice. “There is no choice where there is no access.”
I leave this post open-ended, and I hope that it can spark some discussion or make you consider what label you use for yourself. I am pro-abortion, pro-choice, and pro-reproductive justice. I might even dare to call myself pro-life if we can ever divorce the term from the toxic grasp of the anti-abortion movement and consider the lives of more than just fetuses. I believe that defining and carefully using terms like this will help us immensely in protecting women’s rights, freedom, and lives.