The Unhappy Career of the Term “Choice”

The Unhappy Career of the Term “Choice”

Carole Joffe

The term "choice" has had many critics from within the movement often referred to as, ahem, "pro-choice."

This post is part of our "What Does Choice Mean to You?" series commemorating the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

The term "choice" has had many
critics from within the movement often referred to as, ahem, "pro-choice." Almost
from the time "choice" came into use in connection with abortion, right around
the Roe v Wade decision in 1973, some feminist activists strongly criticized
it, arguing it was misguided language, ­implying as it did that all women had the
resources to make this "choice. The inadequacy of "choice" became particularly evident
to many after the passage of the Hyde amendment in 1976, which forbade the use
of federal funding to pay for poor women’s abortions.

Yet another problematic use of this
term lies in its evolution into a euphemism for abortion itself. Even some of
the staunchest supports of abortion rights in Congress speak of "a woman’s
right to choose," with the presumption that their listeners know exactly what
might be chosen. (Not that this euphemism always works: I recall visiting a
medical school campus where anxious administrators had forbade the local chapter
of Medical Students for Choice from using that name; the chapter had to be called
something more amorphous like "Reproductive Health Interest Group").

I am not sure precisely how the terms
"pro-choice" or simply "choice" came to be associated with abortion. But I do
think the motivations were well intended. Roe occurred in an era in which there
were considerable tensions between young women in their 20s (mainly single and
childless) who identified with the women’s liberation movement then exploding
and women who were typically older, with children, and, to use a term in vogue
then, "just housewives." The latter felt devalued by the former who were giddily
breaking down barriers into various professional and educational settings.
Therefore, in the name of inclusiveness, some feminists took pains to assert
the legitimacy of women’s different choices about working in the paid labor force
(again, unfortunately overlooking the fact that lower income women did not have
such a "choice" to not work). I believe the use of the terminology of "choice"
around abortion was deployed in the same spirit-­that is, to make clear an acknowledgment
that people respond differently to abortion, and that an abortion is not
something all women facing an unintended pregnancy would pursue.

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terms "choice" and "pro-choice" are problematic for many of us, though we no
doubt will continue to use them sometimes, simply because they have become so
widely used by others. Women facing unintended pregnancies -­ all women, irrespective
of income– need real options, which implies that there are things that can
genuinely be chosen (for example, an affordable, accessible, safe abortion or
prenatal care, quality childcare, and so on). The term "reproductive justice"
is, for me, a far preferable way to describe our movement, precisely because it
suggests that collectively we have to fight for such options. I hope this term
becomes more and more in use.

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