Thanks to all the Harpies who contributed to the discussion that led to this post.
The theme for the 2012 Blog for Choice action day is "what will you do to help elect pro-choice candidates in 2012?" Which frankly is something I don't have a whole lot of energy to blog around.
Bad feminist activist me.
I've voted Democrat in every election since I could vote, so it's not like I can make the radical decision to start voting "pro-choice." And I'm not a big political organizer, so door-to-door canvassing is pretty much out. And to be be perfectly honest, most of the politicians out there aren't speaking my language anyway. I talked with my mother on the telephone last Sunday and she asked when my partner and I were going to make plans to move to Canada. It was a joke, but only quasi in jest, since my mother and I -- though not identical in our political thinking -- share a politics that's to the radical left of the Obama administration, and certainly shares little in common with any of the Republican candidates.
So how do you go about taking action to "help elect pro-choice candidates" when, essentially, you don't feel there are any pro-choice candidates?
And this isn't even a question of "feminists" vs. "everyone else" 'cause it's clear that self-identified feminists are anything but 100% unified on the question of abortion, on the question of reproductive rights and justice, on the question of what "pro-choice" politicians should emphasize. When I asked Harpy readers to describe their ideal pro-choice politician, here are some of the responses I received:
- Drahill: "The first thing I’m going to look at is whether they support policies that make it easier to be a mother... to be pro-choice, a candidate needs to support comprehensive maternity leave reform, favor WIC, favor food aid for mothers, favor comprehensive healthcare reform, favor reforming housing laws to make it easier to own a home and stay in your home, favor educational reform to make it easier for women and children to go to school, be invested in promoting preventive and mental health services… you get the idea "
- BearDownCBears: "My fellow Americans, as of this morning I have exercised extraordinary executive privilege by dissolving the United States Congress and establishing martial law. All private insurance will be nationalized and reorganized and doctors’ medical debt will be socialized to make up for the lower compensation they will receive. Publicly funded parental leave will be instated and an abortion clinic will be available within every 100 miles."
- baraqiel: "Pro-choice has to come with pro-the ability to make choices to be meaningful ... for example, pro-comprehensive sex ed (required in public schools, private schools, homeschooling…). Pro-education about contraception and access to contraception. Pro-enthusiastic consent."
- Jenn_smithson: "I want a candidate who understands that the right to control my own body is the foundation of all other rights ... Any candidate who is prochoice needs to not only understand this but needs to articulate it as well. My rights are not a bargaining chip, full stop, and I’m sick of them being treated as though they are.
- BeckySharper: "It’s essential that we keep the church, the state, and everyone else OUT the business of policing women’s uteri."
While I won't replicate the whole conversation here, since it went to 50+ comments, the salient difference that emerged in our own little corner of the feminist blogosphere was the divide between those who focus on abortion rights qua abortion rights and those who see the issue of abortion access as part of a much larger, densely interwoven, set of issues surrounding reproduction, family formation, and human rights. This exchange captures, in a nutshell, the larger disagreement:
mischiefmanager argues that:
Historically, the term “choice” was used by women’s advocacy groups to avoid the loaded word “abortion.” If you want to expand it to mean other things, that’s your own personal interpretation. Check the websites of pro-choice groups and you’ll see that although safety net questions are sometimes discussed, the focus of their work is on keeping abortion legal and accessible. That’s hard enough these days without bringing anything else into the equation.to which Drahill responded:
Pro-Choice, now, is a political slogan. That does not mean that’s what pro-choice SHOULD mean. It sounds better and softer than “pro-abortion rights.” Let’s face it. Just as pro-life sounds nicer than “anti-abortion rights.” But that’s what they are, and I don’t see how you can argue otherwise. I’d really suggest you take up reading some blogs (seriously, Womanist Musings) that address pro-choice as reproductive justice. Because that is all about helping women in whatever choice they make. In reproductive justice, if a woman who wants to parent has an abortion because she fears not being able to find a place to live, the movement is regarded as having failed her. Because the movement did not fight for her choice and what she needed to exercise it. That’s why just defining pro-choice as abortion rights is easier – because once you look at reproductive justice and what it means, it’s so HUGE it can feel hopeless. But I think we still have an obligation to those women who want to parent. It’s thinking about all the women you DON’T see at the clinic and their families.
So on the one hand, we have folks who argue that "pro-choice" equals eliminating legal barriers to reproductive care and abortion specifically. So: focus on keeping abortion legal, obstructing fetal personhood amendments, keeping Planned Parenthood and other women's health clinics open, and critiquing the misinformation campaign of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. All of this is important, obviously. Yet in my mind it stops short of what a robust "pro-choice" agenda should look like, because it does nothing to address pre-existing inequalities. Keeping abortion services legal, safe, and available across the nation is awesome and important -- but that alone doesn't ensure that those without resources or with constrained autonomy (prisoners, minors, women in the military, trans* folks, women of color, immigrants, those with limited financial resources, disabled women, queer women ... the list could go on and on) will be able to access those clinics.
We always have choices, but our ability to make meaningful choices is limited by our material circumstances, by knowledge, and by fear. Some choices are over-determined by the systems (sociocultural and material contexts) in which we live and deliberate. As Talk Birth so eloquently argues, in a recent post on birthing and informed consent:
While it may sound as if I am saying women are powerlessly buffeted about by circumstance and environment, I’m not. Theoretically, we always have the power to choose for ourselves, but by ignoring, denying, or minimizing the multiplicity of contexts in which women make “informed choices” about their births and their lives, we oversimplify the issue and turn it into a hollow catchphrase rather than a meaningful concept.
Women’s lives and their choices are deeply embedded in a complex, multifaceted, practically infinite web of social, political, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, historical, and environmental relationships.
And, I maintain that a choice is not a choice if it is made in a context of fear.
(via Molly @ first the egg)
I'm with Drahill and others on the discussion thread, then, when I argue that to be "pro-choice" in our world can and should mean actively fostering an environment where women will be trusted to make decisions, and have the material ability to meaningfully act on the choices they make. Our material resources -- as individuals, as a society, as a globe -- are not infinite. Many people on the comment thread pointed this out, and I agree. Yet our ability to prioritize, to re-shuffle the cards and place human health, well-being, and individual agency at the top of our list of what government at its best can ensure for its citizens ... that is endless and constant. To return to the rhetoric of "choice," we -- as a society -- have chosen to prioritize certain types of activities (wars of aggression, banking, environmental plunder) over others (sustaining human and environmental well-being). I believe as a society we aren't hostage to those previous choices -- though some of the consequences will continue to ripple for generations to come. We can make new choices, and craft new priorities.
That's what I will continue to push for in 2012: The ideas of those people -- inside and outside of the political machine -- who want us to build a future in which all human beings will be able to make meaningful choices about their lives, their families, and their futures.