This week I am going to go slightly off topic from my focus on sex-selective abortion in India, and instead look at an article required for a different class related to abortion and family planning, which is about the pro-choice versus pro-life framework. In the article, “Beyond Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice,” Andrea Smith argues that the conceptualizations of pro-choice and pro-life create a paradigm that marginalizes women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities. As part of her argument she analyzes the pro-choice framework and I think she brings up several interesting issues that we tend to overlook.
First she differentiates between a choice and a right and points out the change in wording by abortion rights advocates. She notes that “abortion rights advocates initially used the term ‘rights’ rather than choice; rights are understood as those benefits owed to all those who are human regardless of access to special resources.” She argues that choice implies having the resources and that this creates a hierarchy of women who can choose. I think this is really interesting because it introduces class into the idea of choice and suggests that choice isn’t really an option for all women, even in the United States where resources appear to be available. It’s also interesting to note the shift in the language from rights to choice. We’ve been discussing to a large extent how the human rights based approach plays into many women’s health issues and how there is a growing trend to start to address issues from a rights perspective. However, this is the opposite case; initially it was a right-based approach, but it was changed. It is highly problematic to me that the pro-choice framework does not ascribe rights to women.
Another issue she raises is that the label of “pro-choice” can actually be quite harmful to the cause; it can introduce a layer of superficiality to the actions of politicians that overlooks deeper social issues. The example she gives is of Bill Clinton. Clinton is “heralded as pro-choice” because he does not “support legislative restrictions on abortion regardless of [his] stance on other issues that may equally impact the reproductive choices women make.” This is an issue that I had never really considered before, but one that is extremely powerful. We do tend to classify politicians and people as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” based on their legislative decisions that directly affect whether or not a woman can get an abortion. In doing so, the other decisions that politicians make that indirectly affect reproductive access are overshadowed. For example, Clinton also approved a federal welfare program that resulted in cuts in social services which limits a woman’s ability to choose (these cuts in social services limited maternal and child care potentially causing more “forced abortions”). In this way, reducing the issue to the dichotomy between choice and life overlooks all the conditions that lead to a woman’s pregnancy and her need to make this decision. I think this point that she raises is pervasive in our culture; in seeking to pin politicians and leaders down to neat categories on an issue, we are completely overlooking the underlying factors that ultimately control the situations women are placed in. Doing this is dangerous!
The final issue I want to bring up is the issue of, what is a choice really when the options are so awful? Smith states it much more eloquently when she argues that choice “rests on essentially individualist, consumerist notions of ‘free’ choice that do not take into consideration all the social, economic, and political conditions.” Here she looks at the issue of choice among contraceptives. Should a woman have access to all kinds of contraceptives? What if some of these options, such as Depo-Provera and Norplant, are dangerous? Both of these drugs were found to be unsafe, yet the pro-choice movement insists that women should have all available contraceptive options open to them. Should a woman be able to choose a method of contraception that is potentially harmful? I find this highly problematic, and I want to say no. But saying no is akin to limiting options, and according to Smith’s argument, is assuming that women don’t have the right or ability to decide for themselves. Moreover, it may be the case when resources are limited and only dangerous contraceptives are available. In this case, a choice isn’t really “free.” When the only two options are no contraceptives or sterilization, can a woman make an informed, wise choice? I say, no. Yet it is easy to get caught up in the language of choice, and the promise and ideal that it holds, without realizing that a choice between two unfavorable options isn’t really a choice after all.
Though my post this week is different from my normal posts, which focus specifically on sex-selective abortion and India, I cannot help but draw a few parallels. Like the pro-choice/pro-life framework, a similar framework exists for my topic: those for and against sex-selective abortion. And similar problems exist when we reduce this issue to a dichotomy of for and against. Like Smith mentioned, doing so can divorce an issue from the social, political, and economic conditions that frame the decisions women must make. This is especially true in sex-selective abortion where social (status of women), political (the government’s ban and outcry on sex-selective abortion), and economic (the cost of a dowry, the cost of having a female instead of a male) factors all play a huge role. Finally, I question whether women really have the “free” choice to abort a female fetus; it is increasingly clear that “poor women have not earned the right to choose.”