Tuesday 15 January 2013

'Pro-choice' - what’s in a name?

Lisa shares her thoughts on the use of the term 'pro-choice' to describe organisations which campaign for reproductive rights.

Planned Parenthood this week decided to stop using the term ‘pro-choice’ to describe its position on abortion. I’ve read some excellent pieces on this and agree with many of the points made in favour of this change. Maybe it’s only a sentimental attachment to the term, but personally I don’t think I can ever stop being ‘pro-choice’.

Many people are arguing that the idea of choice is a misnomer because for some people there is no choice. For me this is like arguing that being pro-equal pay is a misnomer because currently there is no equal pay. Planned Parenthood has also argued that abortion should be de-politicised, and framed as a personal health decision that an individual should be able to make. Of course it is an entirely personal decision, but until certain conditions are met, de-politicising abortion seems to me like wishful thinking. The closest example I can see to this is the way in which Canada has taken abortion out of the criminal law altogether. However, even in Canada the political attacks on abortion as a legal procedure keep on coming. And importantly, as Tracy Weitz writes, shifting abortion from the public into the personal sphere does nothing to address or eradicate stigma or help to tackle obstacles to access: 'to say abortion is an individual woman's business absolves us of our obligation to create a more just world.'

It feels a lot like this change of terminology is an admission of failure: it acknowledges, implicitly, that the movement never managed to convey to the world what pro-choice should really mean (which of course includes the fact that abortion is a personal, medical decision). Also that the movement never adequately acknowledged, or fought to address the lived realities of all those in the community who wanted a real choice over their reproductive lives and parenting, and have been denied one, whether because of their age, class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion or other factor.

The reproductive justice movement was formed partly in response to the fact that poor women of colour in the US are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to parenting. Condemned for being disproportionately represented in the abortion statistics – though simultaneously represented as passive victims of a racist abortion ‘industry’ with no moral agency of their own; or condemned for having children when they are perceived as not having the means to support them.In fact, reproductive justice is about more than parenting choices. Reproductive justice activism embraces the whole conversation about how people define themselves, how they choose to live, and how they choose to have or not have sexual relationships, recognising the cultural, economic and social limits imposed on those choices.

For me the reproductive justice movement represents a lot about what being pro-choice should be about and what it means to me. Being pro-choice is not just about saying abortion is morally acceptable or should be legally available. Like any word, or phrase that is designed to be a shortcut to a philosophy, ethos or political position, 'pro-choice' may well not be up to the task, but I’m not convinced that inadequacy equates to inappropriateness and that we should ditch it just yet.

Until we have achieved the utopia in which real choice exists, we have to accept that it is an aspirational term, a goal to be fought and campaigned for. For me it’s about saying that complete sexual and reproductive choice – the fundamental right of a person to bodily autonomy, to have sex or not, to decide who to have sex with and how to have it, to have sex without having children; and of course the right of people who can get pregnant to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children - is what we are aiming for. It necessitates recognising that some people’s choices are influenced by more than their desires in relation to parenting, but are constrained and directed by the culture in which they live, their economic circumstances, the social and political support or lack of support for certain pregnancy choices and much more.

Real choice can only exist in the context of:
  • A society which values and provides equality, respect and security to people of all sexes, sexualities and gender identities and all people regardless of race, class, disability or religion
  • Comprehensive and universal sexual health education and access to comprehensive sexual health services including safe and legal abortion and fertility services
  • The destigmatisation of all pregnancy options, not just abortion and adoption but all sorts of parenthood including teenage parenthood, single parenthood, older parenthood, disabled parenthood, same-sex parenthood, transgender parenthood
  • Rights to parental leave and flexible working conditions for parents
  • Real economic and social support for parents caring for children including a living wage policy, accessible affordable childcare, affordable housing, VAW services and more
  • Good free quality healthcare for all
In short: a society in which we can be optimistic that our children will thrive, wherever they are born and whoever they are born to...

Maybe the US context is so different that it would be laughable to aspire to any of the above conditions (free universal healthcare, adequate welfare etc), but in the UK we once achieved a few of these or were close to achieving them, and we’re fighting hard to achieve more and to stop the gains we have made slipping through our fingers.  If being pro-choice is an aspirational rather than a descriptive term I’m happy to aspire.

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