The Unhappy Career of the Term “Choice”

Carole Joffe

The term "choice" has had many critics from within the movement often referred to as "pro-choice." The selection of the word is understandable but perhaps inadequate to convey what is needed.

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

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.

The 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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