Thursday, July 7, 2011

Abortion rights and the failure of "choice"

What follows is an excerpt from the original draft of The Radical Housewife. Before I slice it away, I thought I'd share it, in hopes you'll post me your thoughts on the matter. Note the second-to-last paragraph, in which I remark upon the twisted logic of what "pro-life" means in the Palinverse. It was disturbing when I wrote it, but it's even worse now that Bristol claims her virginity was "stolen" while she was drunk (for a discussion on why Bristol may have resisted calling her experience rape, read this piece at the Daily Beast). As if we needed another reminder of the power of words....

The late, great Shirley Chisholm wrote the following in her autobiography Unbought & Unbossed, addressing men on her staff who tried to convince her to avoid speaking out in support of abortion rights:

“Women are dying every day, did you know that? They're being butchered and maimed. No matter what men think, abortion is a fact of life. Women will have them; they always have and always will. Are they going to have good ones or bad ones? Will the good ones be reserved for the rich, while poor women have to go to quacks? Why don't we talk about real problems instead of phony ones?”

Rep. Chisholm wrote these words in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, when dying from a botched abortion was a very real threat to women across the country, particularly poor women of color. Two generations later, not a lot has changed. Accessing an abortion is easy for well-heeled urban women, the vast majority of whom (as it was in 1970) are white.

In Shirley Chisholm’s day, the term “pro-choice” was used to remind people of the personal matter of the procedure. The “choice” to have the abortion should be the woman’s, centering the debate on the right to individual autonomy, a concept that Republicans claim to embrace. Senator John Kerry declared in a 2004 Presidential debate that having an abortion “is a woman’s choice. It’s between a woman, God, and her doctor.” Oh, if it were only that easy, John!

God and doctors are often in very short supply when they are needed the most. If you get accidentally knocked up in Wyoming or Mississippi, you better pray as hard as you can, because your states have no provider at all. In fact, a 2008 report funded by the Guttmacher Institute announced that 87 percent of counties in the United States do not have an abortion provider. That’s a big enough number to put in all caps: EIGHTY-SEVEN PERCENT! That makes getting an abortion seem less like a “choice” and more like a forced road trip.

Or a financial ordeal. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1977 and reauthorized every year since, bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Rep. Chisholm worried that poor women would have to go to quacks; she didn’t realize that when they won the right access abortions from a trained doctor, they’d have to surrender their rent checks. The Hyde Amendment, predictably, reinforces the idea that wealthy women have the “choice,” but poor women don’t. And lest we forget, the poorest women are the ones who lack access to contraceptive information and services anyway, dammit!

When I demonstrated with over one million other people on the U.S. Capitol Mall in 2004, the event was called the March for Women’s Lives, which made some mainstream feminists gripe. Wasn’t it usually called the March for Choice? Not so fast, declared a coalition of poverty activists and health care groups for women of color. The word “choice” obscures the “real problems” that Rep. Chisholm talked about: racism, poverty, and other forms of pervasive inequality.

I no longer identify as pro-choice. How can I, when Sarah Palin congratulates herself for the “choice” to carry her Down’s Syndrome child to term? Bringing a special needs baby into a tightly-knit, financially stable family that has access to health care and other forms of support is no big whoop, except for the baby in question—Trig Palin is one hell of a lucky kid. So is Tripp Johnston, the child carried to term by Trig’s seventeen-year-old sister. All four of them appeared on a celebrity tabloid in the early days of 2010, declaring “we’re so glad we chose life!” That’s that sneaky, slippery power of language again! Can you imagine a headline that read “we’re so glad we didn’t have abortions!” I can’t either.

Remember chapter one? I don’t deserve a medal for surviving life with the colicky, special needs baby I had in the year 2000. Accidents of fortune gave me everything I needed, and my child reaped the benefits. I don’t care if Sarah and Bristol Palin keep on breeding; that’s their beeswax, not mine. But under Gov. Palin’s leadership, Alaska’s rates of domestic violence and sexual assault were twice the national average. When Palin ran for office in 2006, she announced (in so many words) that if her then 14-year-old were raped, she wouldn’t allow the girl to have an abortion—a very likely scenario, considering Palin’s vocal support for parental notification laws. In yet another nimble linguistic twist, Palin averred that the issue was one of “parents’ rights.” Welcome to Palinverse, where a pre-born fetus had greater bodily autonomy than a post-born teen.

Feminists of any/every Wave, listen up: “choice” is over. It’s done. NO MORE.


  1. well said, Shannon. I wonder how we define this debate moving forward? I hate how divisive it has become, but we can't sit by and let the "choice" be taken away. It really isn't a choice anymore, is it. I'm all for life and babies, but when we can choose as adults to make it happen.

    on a side note, am I the only one who has difficulty reading the white type on black background?

  2., you are not! I am in negotiations with an internet professional to make this blog both readable & profitable. It may take a while, so hang in there. I'm a writer, not a computer programmer.

  3. I'm trying to understand not identifying as "pro-choice." I can't wrap my brain around it though. If not pro-choice, then what instead? I don't feel that Palin, having exercised her choice to continue her pregnancy, waters down the argument that women NEED support and access to abortion on demand. But maybe the lightbulb just hasn't gone on for me yet.

    Palin, and her ilk, are an insidious bunch for sure - the wave of anti-choice, and generally misogynistic and punitive legislation sweeping the country makes me physically ill, and I can't help by weep from the outrage on some days.