Several of the commentators on this blog have already raised the issue of how to get beyond the classic framing of “pro-choice” vs “pro-life,” even as others use these characterizations in their contributions as if they were neutral descriptions of the movements mobilized to fight over the legal status of abortion in the US. Joffe alone points out explicitly how misleading these labels are to characterize the movements, and uses the more accurate terms “abortion rights” and “anti-abortion” for the two sides.
But neutral and accurate are not the principles on which one would strategically decide what a movement should be called. “Occupy Wall Street” is a name that conjures up the images of what the movement is against and “the 99%” presents a claim to represent a constituency. So what should a movement dedicated to reproductive justice call itself? The term “reproductive justice” is aspirational, since at this point at least, most abortion rights advocates have not really engaged with the broader agenda of fighting for women’s rights to have and raise the children they want as well as not have the children they don’t want. It is also a not very emotionally loaded phrase and rather a mouthful to chant.
I believe we need to take the discursive fight to the shameless hucksters like Bachiochi, whose post on this blog is entitled “let’s get honest” while the content is anything but. Although she accuses abortion rights activists of intellectual dishonesty for not “conceding the humanity of the unborn child,” I do not see how a zygote or embryo (early stage fetus) is a “child” any more than a cake recipe and a cup of sugar is a cake. And the claim that Roe leads “inexorably” to “abortion for any reason at any time throughout all nine months” would be laughable, given the massive level of state restrictions on abortion that Roe currently allows that are described in so many of the other posts and in sensible accounts of the movement such as Drew Halfmann’s Doctors and Demonstrators. Combined with her repeating the canard about the physical and psychological risks of abortion, and apparent insensitivity to the physical and psychological risks of forcing women to carry pregnancies to term against their will or in demeaning or dangerous conditions, such as being shackled to a bed, I think it is time to call out the anti-abortion movement for being a serious threat to public health.
In particular, I suggest that the abortion-rights movement claim with justice to be on the side of “respecting women’s lives” in the face of the “pro-celibacy” movement. The public opinion data are clear about two important points: First, most people waver on protecting the rights of women who they think had sex when they should have been “more careful” (waiting until they somehow had the good fortune to find an adequate income, a non-abusive partner or perfect contraception). Since this level of perfect control over pregnancy is only possible by not having sex when anything could go wrong, it’s time to make clear that the implication is “no sex.” Second, most people don’t think that women’s lives should be forfeit to save a pregnancy when things do go wrong. Even if they think the pregnancy represents a human life, they don’t want pregnant women’s lives given less value than that.
So the framing of abortion rights in terms of “respecting women’s lives” is not just seeing women’s physical lives as being at stake when they are desperate to end a pregnancy, as a return to the old (but strong and useful) frame of the coat hanger would suggest. Like the “in her shoes” campaign, respect for women demands a positive claim that women themselves know better than judges and politicians what is within their human capability to do as a mother: they know if they can give away a child or not, raise another child or not, forfeit their job or not, combine earning a living and caring for a child as a single parent or not.
There aren’t “right” answers to these questions; that is all that respect for women requires we acknowledge. And not having sex at all—for decades or even forever—if the answer even possibly could be no, is not an option that most women would consider for themselves, whether they are married or not. Though the “pro-celibacy movement” thinks this is realistic, the movement to respect women’s lives should make clear that it is not: we want contraception that is as available and as reliable as possible, we want a safe and legal abortion if the circumstances of our lives demand it, and we want conditions in which we can choose to have and raise a child with security from hunger, domestic abuse, and random violence in our neighborhoods. Trust women: we are strong but we know what our limits are, and unlike the moral scolds in our legislatures, we are not anti-sex.
Women’s rights are human rights, and women’s lives are human lives. Advocating respect for both is a position that is easy to chant.