This week, Planned Parenthood announced it will let go of the “pro-choice” label, concerned that the pro-life/pro-choice framework for abortion doesn’t resonate with the general public that holds many more conflicting positions on abortion. They instead would like to focus on the real life circumstances of women and the idea that none of us can walk in any woman’s shoes. This decision led to a huge sigh of relief among advocates for reproductive health, rights, and justice across the U.S. While the media and many of the larger more established movement organizations had held onto “pro-choice”, critics of the framework had existed for years and included activists, advocates, and scholars. Lest we forget our history and think the rejection of “Pro-Choice” is a radical departure, I want to acknowledge just a few of those past critiques:
- Pro-choice is an economic term. It suggests that what a woman does about a pregnancy is simply another choice like picking a red or blue car, thereby trivializing the abortion decision. It turns parenting into a decision based on economic rationale and consequently into an economic privilege. Here I think about the work of historian Rickie Solinger.
- Women don’t always have a true “choice.” Choice is only possible when women have the resources to select either option. When there is no funding for abortion or no clinic to go to, women don’t really have a “choice.” The opposite is also true. Women who have abortions often say they feel like they have “no choice.” They don’t mean they were coerced; the abortions are their decisions. They mean that they do not have the economic resources, social support, or capacity to care for a child. Here I think about the work of political scientist Rosaline Petchesky.
- Pro-choice is a singular binary tem that recommends a preferred outcome for a pregnancy. It suggests that as a movement we affirm the right to abortion and do not value the other decisions a woman might make. Here I think about the work of English professor Jeannie Ludlow who always demanded we call it “pro-choices” rather than “pro-choice.”
- Pro-choice is a label that connects most directly to the situation of middle and upper class women. Childbearing is an obligation for white women, thus abortion is the alternative choice. However, for women of color, whose reproduction has been controlled across time, abortion is not the only right for which women need to fight. Rather women need to be able to have a child, not have a child, and parent the children they have. Here I think of the work of the philosopher and activist Marlene Gerber Fried and advocates like Loretta Ross and Akiba Solomon who advocated for a focus on reproductive justice as the broader lens for our movement.
- Pro-choice is a political label and has nothing to do with the real stories and lives of women who have abortions. Here I think of the work of advocate Aspen Baker who pioneered of a third way, called “Pro-Voice” to replace prolife/prochoice.
As organizations like Planned Parenthood back away from the “pro-choice” label, what is next? It isn’t enough to adopt what Planned Parenthood offers, to simply focus on the idea that abortion is a personal decision and that “we can’t know a woman’s circumstances.” The “privacy” or “personal” frames for abortion are just as problematic. To say abortion is an individual woman’s business absolves us of our obligation to create a more just world. A focus on privacy cannot address the stigma of abortion. It cannot reshape our economic policies so that all people can parent with dignity. It cannot get us what we want. The future demands that we do more than simply shift away from polarizing language and instead begin to transform our culture, institutions, and policies so that all people can make the sexual and reproductive decisions they want to achieve the lives they deserve.