When we talk about pregnancy termination, some might say that the language of “choice” is not helpful; abortion is not a choice but a necessity. Women do not choose to have abortions, the argument goes, they end their pregnancies when they have no other options. To say it’s a “choice” makes it sound as though a woman is deciding between a pair of shoes and a handbag.
On face value, this sounds like a sensible argument—both sound “messaging” and an intelligent tactic. The term “choice” evokes consumerism and the marketplace, after all, which have nothing to do with abortion. We know that women opt for abortion, not because they positively want the procedure, but because they don’t want to be pregnant. We also know that more people are sympathetic to abortion when they understand the real-life circumstances that bring a woman to the clinic. So, should we jettison the language of “choice”?
Some feminist writers have argued that we should. One of the louder voices making a reasoned case against the language of choice is Marlene Gerber Fried, a respected activist and philosophy professor who has argued for many years that framing abortion in terms of a woman’s right to choose is problematic. She claims:
“Because ‘choice’ appeals to those who have options, but is relatively meaningless to those who do not, it is politically divisive.... The fact that race and class inevitably circumscribe one’s choice is ignored.”
This view of choice informs many in the Reproductive Justice movement. But it is one we should resist. The concept of “reproductive choice” is as relevant as ever.
Traditionally, in our movement the term “prochoice” has been shorthand for respecting an individual woman’s “right to decide” for herself. And the inescapable question at the center of any discussion about abortion, when everything else is stripped away, comes down to this: can a woman be trusted to make her own decisions about her own pregnancy?
This does not mean we ignore the very real issues of access to resources, services or the inequalities caused by socioeconomic conditions and the need for structural change. It does not mean that we ignore the impact of race or class.
That there are limits on how individual choice is exercised seems beyond debate. People do not live in a vacuum; no man—or woman—is an island. It’s obvious to most of us that every personal decision (not just those concerning reproduction) takes place within our life- context; the exercise of choice is limited to what is possible. What is possible for me may not be possible for you. Sometimes we make choices that we do not want to make—but the decision falls to us nevertheless. Consider William Styron’s novel, Sophie’s Choice, in which a mother is forced to choose which of her children is killed.
The point is this: life is full of decisions, and it is who makes them that matters.
Making a choice is, in itself, a demonstration of a freedom of sorts—the freedom to influence and take responsibility for what happens next. Our lives are made richer if we can direct them according to our personal values and convictions—even if our lives are not made richer by the options available to us. A “rock” and a “hard place” can be equally uncomfortable even when you have chosen which to sit on.
Law professor Emily Jackson spells it out like this in her book Regulating Reproduction: Law, Technology and Autonomy (2001):
“The decision to have an abortion ... is made because, for a variety of reasons, this particular woman does not want to carry a pregnancy to term. That she is not in control of these reasons should not lead us to ignore her deeply felt preference. Even if we recognize that social forces may shape and constrain our choices, our sense of being the author of our own actions, especially when they pertain to something as personal as reproduction, is profoundly valuable to us.”
Making decisions is part of what it means to be human. We may have no control over what we “are,” in the sense that our nationality and background may be set, but we do have some choice about what we “do.” Socially constructed value systems do not predetermine all the decisions we make. People in similar situations make different choices. The abject poverty that drives one woman to have an abortion may drive another to place her children into social care. A diagnosis of Down syndrome may compel one woman to end her pregnancy, while another may decide to embrace the child as “special.” The fact that a woman is poor, or alone, or stigmatized clearly will influence her decision—but it does not take away her capacity to decide, to make a choice.
On a fundamental level, if she has no capacity to make a choice in the matter it takes away her humanity, since our capacity to make decisions is part of what makes us human. If our lives are simply dictated by circumstances, then we are no more than base animals—driven by instinct and environment. There is no space for self-determination and no space for conscience because if we cannot choose what to do, then we cannot choose what is right and what is wrong. As Jackson says, “We cannot believe all our preferences are not ours without our sense of self effectively collapsing.”
This is why the concept of “choice” is so important. When we argue for a woman’s right to choose abortion, the argument is not just for the availability of a clinical option but also for the right to use her capacity to decide whether she will use it or not.
We may not be able to provide women with the social and economic resources to live their preferred lives. But we should not add to women’s burdens by refusing to acknowledge the importance of what they do have—what some people call “agency” and others call “decision-making capacity.”
To be prochoice is to say this: women, whatever their background and circumstances, are capable of making decisions. They do so every day. The decision to keep or end a pregnancy is one of these. Even though women’s choices are shaped by the constraints of their circumstances, they are tailored by their beliefs and their consciences. We cannot put aside our claim for women’s right to make reproductive choices any more than we can put aside our claim that women must be able to exercise the choice they have made.
Whatever we call it—it must, in essence, be a choice.