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‘Beyond Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life’: A Q&A With ‘Radical Reproductive Justice’ Contributor Andrea Smith

Regina Mahone

"The pro-life versus pro-choice paradigm has so polarized everything, it’s entrenched us in specific positions that don’t allow us to critique and change as we go along," Smith told Rewire in a recent interview.

One of the most striking essays in the new Radical Reproductive Justice anthology, which I reviewed for Rewire here, is Andrea Smith’s “Beyond Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice.” It’s significant because of the connections Smith draws between the “pro-life” viewpoint and the prison industrial complex, and the “pro-choice” stance and capitalism.

Smith is a co-founder of INCITE!—a national network of radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender-nonconforming people, trans people of color, and their communities—and an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside. During our interview, I asked Smith to explain to Rewire readers why the new anthology is important. Here’s what she said:

It’s important that this kind of work is coming out because the mainstream [reproductive rights] movement has so defined things that it’s often hard to have a discussion about anything …. the “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” paradigm has so polarized everything, it’s entrenched us in specific positions that don’t allow us to critique and change as we go along. I think just getting out of those presuppositions, and for an opportunity to really build a movement that can constantly engage and critique, is going to be essential if you actually want to have real reproductive justice.

She added that, for example, “there’s never a chance to critique Planned Parenthood policies. You either hate them or you love them; there can never be, ‘Hey, maybe there’s some good things and maybe there are some bad things, and let’s have a nuanced discussion.’”

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Instead of trying to jam all of Smith’s analysis into my original review, I chatted with her for this separate Q&A to begin unpacking for readers why the “pro-choice”/”pro-life” dichotomy has its limits, and where Smith argues advocates should go from here.

Rewire: In your essay is what I would describe as one of the most powerful sentences in the book: “In the name of promoting life the pro-life movement supports one of the biggest institutions of violence and death in society.” Can you explain to readers how the movement does that?

Andrea Smith: The assumption—and it’s not just the pro-life movement but society in general—is that the best way to deal with a bad thing is to make that thing a crime. And there’s not been an analysis of how criminalization [of abortion] supports the prison industrial complex. And by the prison industrial complex I don’t mean just prisons, but a system of punishment and coercion as the best way to govern society.

What’s not really being considered is that whether or not you believe the fetus is a life, to me, isn’t really the important issue. It’s the assumption that the way to deal with the issue is to make abortion a crime, without any consideration for the unintended consequences of criminalization. The pro-life movement is kind of putting everything behind criminalization as the only way to address this issue, and ends up supporting the logics of the prison industrial complex and carcerality generally speaking.

Rewire: Can you break down how any stance that pushes for criminalization as a solution to a social problem is particularly harmful to communities of color?

AS: Well, because the communities that are primarily affected by prisons and carcerality are communities of color; people of color are disproportionately incarcerated. For instance, say there’s a woman who is pregnant and is also a substance abuser. Race is one of the biggest determining factors of whether or not she’s going to be criminalized for her actions. [In her essay, Smith explains that “increasingly, poor women and women of color are finding their pregnancies criminalized. As Dorothy Roberts and others have noted, women of color are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug use because—as a result of greater rates of poverty in communities of color—they are more likely to be in contact with government agencies where their drug use can be detected. While white pregnant women are slightly more likely to engage in substance abuse than black women, public health facilities and private doctors are more likely to report black women than white women to criminal justice authorities.”]

So, you can’t really support criminalization without it having a disproportionate impact upon communities of color. 

Rewire: Why is criminalization as a solution to social problems inherently flawed?

AS: I can give an example. If you look at the issue of domestic violence, that offers an example of the bad things that happened that didn’t get anticipated when the only solution the anti-violence movement pursued was criminalization. One of the things that happened in pushing for mandatory arrest laws: Now, perpetrators know to call the police first. So you have in many places a large number of women in prisons on domestic violence charges because the perpetrators knew to call the police first. And various kinds of studies show the net result of all these mandatory arrest laws has actually increased mortalities for some survivors; in particular for Black women, the mortality rate has increased. [As Smith writes in her essay, “under mandatory arrest laws, the police often arrest the women who are being battered. In fact, the New York Times recently reported that the impact of strengthened anti-domestic-violence legislation is that battered women kill their abusive partners less frequently; however, batterers do not kill their partners less frequently, and this is truer in black than white communities. Thus, ironically, laws passed to protect battered women are actually protecting their batterers!”]

So that’s an example of where criminalization had a lot of unintended consequences that people didn’t anticipate, and also never thought about if there were other ways we could have addressed this issue. For instance, maybe one policy by which we could have addressed domestic violence is to call for affordable housing for everyone because one of the major reasons why people go back to an abusive situation is they have nowhere else to stay. So we became very singular in our strategies, rather than thinking comprehensively, like what could we do to increase safety for survivors?

Another unintended consequence to criminalization is that anti-violence agencies started to be funded primarily by prosecutors’ offices that are unwilling to support survivors who are also criminalized. That was why we had very little support for people like Bresha Meadows or Marissa Alexander, who were criminalized when trying to survive domestic violence. People are so in bed with the state and prosecution system, they can’t critique it when it’s hurting survivors.

Rewire: You also argue in your essay that the pro-choice position can have unintended consequences for people from marginalized communities. How so?

AS: I think the big problem with the pro-choice movement is that it focuses only on one choice, like the choice of whether or not to have an abortion, rather than what are all the other conditions that give rise to that choice. Consider this example: Should somebody have an abortion if the child will be born with a disability? We just say, “sure,” rather than say, “well, wait a minute, what’s going on with society that having a child with a disability is seen as an overwhelming burden? Why are there not support services to raise children with disabilities?” The larger ableism in society doesn’t get addressed if you just think about that choice without the larger context in which that choice is happening.

Another example would be the issue of contraceptives. Women should have the right to have whatever contraceptive they want without a concern of whether the contraceptive is actually safe. This is just the many things I could say about [how] the choice framework isn’t really the best framework; it kind of narrows everything down to an individual consumer’s choice, and it’s not really based on a framework that’s about ensuring justice for all people.

Rewire: How might the pro-choice ideology be helping to legitimize policies like the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding of abortions, through its choice framework?

AS: If you have more money, you get to make more choices; the choice framework doesn’t have a critique of capitalism or economic injustice that gives more choices to some people. So the Hyde Amendment in particular obviously does not provide access to folks who need federal funding [for care] and is also discriminatory to Native people, who largely get their health services through Indian Health Services. Regardless of how you feel about whether abortion should be criminalized, this should be the same policy for everyone; the law shouldn’t be economically, racially discriminatory.

Yet there’s very little critique of the Hyde Amendment [by mainstream reproductive rights organizations], because the pro-choice movement has largely been organized around middle-class women who have more choices. And, another example: When the issues around sterilization abuse became public in the 1970s, most of these mainstream groups did not actually support enacting policies around sterilization abuse, because they only focused on whether or not that would stop white women from having the choice to be sterilized and didn’t look at how these policies were detrimentally affecting communities of color.

Rewire: What are you proposing in lieu of a pro-choice versus pro-life dichotomy?

AS: The problem with the pro-choice versus pro-life dichotomy is that it substitutes the strategy for the goal. Let’s say your goal is either to make abortion legal or to make it illegal—that becomes the goal. In a sense, if you’re pro-life or pro-choice, you hate each other. There’s no room for conversation. Instead if the goal isn’t to make it legal or illegal but is to have healthy, vibrant communities that can thrive, then making abortion legal or illegal could be a strategy depending on your perspective—but that’s not the goal itself. So if we turn our attention to the goal, then we can have a discussion about different strategies. What could be the consequences? What are things we’re not considering? It’s possible to then start to be more on the same page, and—in my organizing experience, once we reframe it that way—people who are arguing with each other can start to argue less, because they can start to say, “Hey, yeah, maybe criminalization wouldn’t be the best idea here” or “maybe this other thing, maybe we don’t agree on this thing, but we can agree on this and we can actually work together on the things that we agree on.”

[In her essay, Smith offers an example to illustrate her point. She compares Planned Parenthood, which had relationships with the eugenics movement and is “heavily invested” today “in the population establishment,” to the North Baton Rouge Women’s Help Center in Louisiana, which is a “crisis pregnancy center” that, writes Smith, “articulates its pro-life position from an anti-racist perspective.” The organization takes the position that, “We cannot encourage women to have babies and then continue their dependency on the system. We can’t leave them without the resources to care for their children and then say, ‘Praise the Lord, we saved a baby.'” Smith then asks, “If we are truly committed to reproductive justice, why should we presume that we should necessarily work with Planned Parenthood and reject the Women’s Help Center?”]

Generally speaking, in my experience with anti-violence movements, we get so wedded to a strategy, we never ask if it’s working. And your position on that strategy determines whether or not you are morally correct. Like, if you think abortion should be illegal, then you hate women. Or, if you think abortion should be legal, then you kill babies. So the moral perspective gets wedded to a strategy, rather than saying, “No, our vision is really a healthy community for all people.” Let’s look at this strategy, analyze it, see if it’s working, and be willing to dispense with it if it’s not, without feeling like, “oh my gosh you’re immoral if you’re rethinking that strategy because it turned out to be not as effective as you thought it would be.” So, I think if we were to redo this, I just think different conversations are possible, different possible solutions become possible, and we can have more of an imagination to think about what we need to have a movement that can actually support justice for all people.

Rewire: What would that framework look like in practice?

AS: For one thing, we would be more flexible in the strategies and realize we don’t always know all of the answers—so to be so wedded to any strategy doesn’t make sense. We always need to be open to new information, try things out, and realize that a lot of things we think are good ideas will not be good ideas later. And if we have that larger vision of what we’re looking for, we can always then use that vision to look at the strategies and examine whether they take us closer to where we want to go or further away.

I think reproductive justice is more of a verb rather than a noun. It’s not a clear program that you adopt for all time. It’s a vision, but it’s always in practice and in flux based on us trying things, trying ideas, learning from mistakes, and being willing to change and revise as we go along.

Rewire: And lastly, I’m wondering what role, if any, you think media makers should be playing to help build a human rights culture?

AS: I think the media can be helpful in also questioning these frameworks. For instance, a lot of times when people are applying the reproductive justice framework, the media will always call it a pro-choice movement. They use that language and don’t allow for alternative framing that could make us rethink things; they’ll always frame it in a binary way. You don’t see in the media voices that might complicate these divides or look at things in a different way. I realize that can be difficult because sometimes you need a quick soundbite, so you go with something that’s familiar to people—it makes sense. There’s not really space to say, “Hey, maybe it’s a little more complicated, maybe it’s more nuanced, and maybe we can’t just put things in this simple box.” So whatever the media can do to create more space for different kind of conversations, I think, could help support building a different kind of movement.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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