Framing the Fight

By Myra Marx Ferree

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.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

3 responses to “Framing the Fight

  1. Thanks for expanding the discussion to consider the aspects of frames, narratives, and ideology in relationship to whether or not a social movement expands or undermines basic human rights. I am returning from the annual face-to-face board meeting of the Defending Dissent Foundation for which I serve as a Vice President. We defend First Amendment rights for all, but how and when do we build coalitions, alliances, and projects with other civil libertarians? Especially when they do not support human rights for all? Especially on issues of gender justice? When do we build strategic coalitions and when do we expand the principles of unity to participate in a tactical coalition, alliance, or project? This is an unfinished and ongoing debate in our SMO; and should probably be an ongoing debate in all SMO’s that stand on core principles rather than political or legislative expediancy.


  2. Thanks for your fiery essay, Professor. As a one-time pro-choice feminist activist in college, I always relish the opportunity to engage abortion advocates on these issues. I only wish we made more time for such dialogue. I think there is much we agree upon, especially regarding the plight of disadvantaged women and children in our society—if only we could occasionally set aside our obvious, impassioned differences to work for the betterment of all.

    Still, I fear you misrepresented much of my contribution to this online dialogue. First, I accused no person of “intellectual dishonesty,” but simply praised the many abortion advocates (e.g., Naomi Wolf, Camille Paglia, Francis Kissling) who have conceded the science on the issue: a new human being, though nascent, dependent and vulnerable, comes into existence when its father’s sperm meets its mother’s egg. Sure, some in the medical field have begun to speak of pregnancy beginning at implantation, but that refers to a historically difficult to determine start date relative to the physical state of the woman, not the prior existence of the zygote who has yet to implant in its mother’s uterus. Your cake analogy seems quite fitting in reference to the sperm and egg before their meeting; quite inapt for a newly formed individual human organism, possessing its own unique DNA and all the organizational information it needs to direct itself toward maturation. It seems to me that once the science is conceded, and we all acknowledge the existence of a new human being at fertilization, it would follow that that human being, created from the genetic contributions of its mother and father, would be their…child. If you prefer “offspring” or “young one,” as the Latin translation properly renders “foetus,” I suppose that works too. “Child” is just how we colloquially—and legally—refer to one who has not attained the age of majority. Which reminds me: parents generally owe their children legal duties commensurate with their vulnerability. Basic tort and family law. I suppose that’s why unborn “child” seems particularly difficult to swallow.

    As for the “laughable” claim that Roe (with Doe) has led to abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy, yes, state legislatures have passed many regulations on abortion, including waiting periods, informed consent requirements, parental notification laws, clinic health and safety regulations—all of which are simply good medicine, required of every other serious medical procedure or surgery conducted on American patients. None of these regulations eats away at the broad “health” exception carved out in Roe and Doe. The federal ban on late-term abortion upheld in Gonzales v Carhart was a ban on one particular method of abortion, one thought too gruesome to perform in a civilized society.

    As for the “canard” about the physical and psychological risks of abortion, I find it sad and disappointing, even offensive, that one who would call herself a feminist would refuse to admit the actual real life experiences of a significant number of women who have had abortions. Obviously, there are women who have abortions, even multiple abortions, who experience neither emotional distress nor the physical consequences I’d mentioned. But the mainstream feminist movement would do well to notice those many women who have. Pro-choice feminist Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk has made an attempt to do just this in her 2010 Columbia Law Review article. For that, I am grateful.

    As for my “insensitivity” to the physical and psychological risks to women experiencing difficult or risky pregnancies, I beg to differ. Though perhaps I did not adequately express in my essay my respect for the serious difficulty some pregnant women experience, I have done so elsewhere, and would commend you to the work of those in the pro-life community who spend their entire lives caring for these women. These are my heroes, doing far more good than my scholarship on the matter. Still, I spilled a good bit of ink on the Judith Jarvis Thomson-inspired notion of “forced pregnancy” in a law review article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. I commend that to your attention as well. And no one–that I know of anyway–thinks women’s lives ought to be given less value than the unborn lives they (when pregnant) carry within them. Both have dignity intrinsic to their being human, and we ought to find ways to value them both. But as any pacifist will argue, there is nothing so demeaning and dehumanizing as taking the life of another human being, even more so, when that human being is one’s very own child. “Reproductive rights” deeply fail women in this regard. As the Feminist for Life slogan goes, “Women deserve better than abortion.” I only wish we feminists could work for that better–together.

    As for the “pro-celibacy” movement, I’ve never heard of it. I have heard of the effort to call men and women to a renewed sense of integrity and dignity with regard to their sexual lives. I, for one, think women ought to be at the forefront of such a movement, since we are the ones who deal disproportionately with the consequences of all-too-casual sexual encounters and failed contraception. It’s astonishing to me with so much heartbreak and so much unintended pregnancy—still, 50 years after the Pill—that mainstream feminists wouldn’t take a hard look at the way in which the sexual ethic on college campuses and post-college social scenes tends toward male prerogatives for low commitment sex. Studies continue to show that, although there are outliers, women tend to prefer sex within committed relationships, and that women are far more emotionally spent by low and no commitment encounters than are men. Pro-choice feminist Georgetown law professor, Robin West, has shown courageous honesty around this issue, as in many others. The implication is not “no sex”; it’s just smart, self-respecting sex that takes seriously the powerful emotional connection sex inspires as well as its procreative potential (in light of contraceptive failure).


  3. Since it is true that regardless of the circumstance of one’s conception, every human person has been created in The Image and Likeness of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a son or daughter, then the line in the sand has been drawn between those who recognize the Sanctity of every human life from the moment a son or daughter is brought into being, and are thus for Life, and those who do not recognize the Sanctity of every human life and thus not being pro Life, are pro abortion.


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