Shortly after Hillary Clinton failed to become President, I attended a meeting of American abortion providers to discuss the problems they and their staff would face under Donald Trump. Already they struggled with protests and blockades outside clinics; death threats are not rhetoric but reality in some states where doctors wear bullet-proof vests to work and check their cars for explosives. The community of doctors that provide later abortions is small. I’m an infrequent visitor to the US, but even I was on hugging terms with Dr George Tiller before he was murdered for his work in 2009 — shot in the porch of his family church in Witchita.
As the mainly female group shared their despair at the new administration, the older grey-haired man sitting on my left — conservative suit, flamboyant tie — smiled quizzically, before calmly remarking in his Southern drawl: “Well then, I suppose I am the only one here who supports our new President?” He was.
I can’t reproduce my conversation with this doctor from Arizona as accurately as I wish. I wasn’t taking notes and his story did not seem as significant to me then as it does now. But this is the gist of it.
In his small hometown, he ran not only the abortion clinic but two gun stores; he was a member of both the National Abortion Federation and the National Rifle Association. He was, he explained, a man whose values were shaped by the writings of Ayn Rand, whom he had met as a student in the Sixties. He said, and this is the one bit I do remember verbatim: “My support for a woman’s choice about abortion comes from the same place as my support for her right to bear arms. An individual’s freedom matters.”
This is not a conventional view for today’s supporters of legal abortion, many of whom seem to believe personal freedom, autonomy and self-determination are the preserve of the neo-con Right. I am not sure my gun-trading friend would now be welcome in a similar meeting. Perhaps, given what I am about to say, I would not be either.
How we talk about, indeed how we think about, abortion has changed fundamentally since it was dragged from the dowdiness of shame and secrecy to the centre of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Access to abortion was clearly about self-determination and moral autonomy. Yes, abortion was — at least in early pregnancy — a simple medical procedure that was a benefit to personal and to public health. But to those campaigning for its legalisation, abortion was so much more than healthcare. It symbolised a choice for a woman when her life was in crisis; it symbolised a new sense of personal agency, the personal power to shape nature’s plan.
Birth control gave us control of our reproductive destiny, freeing us from the socially constructed, imposed gender-role of mother and carer. It mattered not whether a woman actually used birth control — what mattered was that she could choose to do so if she wished. With contraception to prevent pregnancy and abortion to end it, the spectres of birth and motherhood were pushed away — unless we invited them to us. It’s hard to see what else could make a bigger contribution to a woman’s liberty.
Of course, not all who claim they’re committed to freedom and liberty believe that women should be free to choose to have an abortion. No doubt an abortion doctor would be as alone in a meeting of defenders of the Second Amendment as our gun-shop owner would now be among clinic staff. But when we go beyond the feelings and self-identification of different tribal members, there remains a consistency of a principle: that the state should step back and stay out of private personal decision-making.
Crucially, this foundation is not contingent on a woman’s situation or experience — her race, or class or privilege. We live intersectional lives but some beliefs and principles remain universal concerns because we are more than our own experience. Indeed, the pro-choice principles that won abortion access only did so because they united women beyond personal experience or need.
They mobilised those who would never become pregnant because they were older, or infertile, or expressed sexual feelings in a way that didn’t risk pregnancy. Men joined us in solidarity because they understood how an involuntary pregnancy is a living nightmare. The social movement was built on an idea of what was worth fighting for.
Today, the focus is different. The sails of the movement now seem to be buffeted by winds from a different continent. Freedom of choice, once our principle, has been thrown overboard — not to anchor us as it once did, but to cut the movement loose from a legacy of white supremacy. “Freedom”, as in the personal moral freedom that gives each of us command of life, is dismissed as a privilege of the advantaged, not to be extended to all but instead to be “checked”. “Choice”, in particular the choice between abortion and motherhood, is now dismissed as elitist or consumerist or too binary.
Today’s destination is no longer a world where we have freedom to decide what is right and wrong in the private personal domain. Instead, it is a world where self-determination, autonomy and personal freedom are dismissed as privileged and arcane and insufficiently inclusive. It is as though these ideas, by being anchored in a Western philosophical canon, are forever tainted with a stench of old, white patriarchs.
Of course, how we experience reproductive rights and wrongs are woven with the rest of our lives. But, when every aspect of life is thrown into the pot of oppression and denial — racism, poverty, homelessness, educational disadvantage, disability, sexual marginalisation — it is unclear with whom solidarity can be won.
Does my older, white, male, privileged Republican abortion doctor have no place in this movement? Does the rich, white, conservative Texan woman with a $300 haircut and Gucci shoes not suffer the same degradation as her cleaner when she is told that the law no longer permits her to end an unwanted pregnancy? Where does privilege begin and end in this intersectional quagmire? Who is inside our tent, and who is outside it? Crucially, who decides?
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) grew out of Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League, changing its name in 1942. While its origins are tainted in eugenics (like every other mainstream medical organisation formed in the early 20th Century), it has provided birth control and sexual health care for generations of women since, particularly poor women without insurance.
So what is a poor, white, woman — with no job, no education, no home to call her own — to believe when she reads the following statement given by the President of PPFA to the New York Times last April: “By privileging whiteness, we’ve contributed to America harming Black women and other women of colour. And when we focus too narrowly on ‘women’s health’ we have excluded trans and nonbinary people…”
Might not she herself feel excluded by the very organisation on which she relies no less than a poor, black woman? And when she reads that once-champion of women’s choice go on to say that “we’ve claimed the mantle of women’s rights to the exclusion of other causes that women of colour or trans people cannot afford to ignore”, might she not howl with despair that her own colour and absence of “queerness” casts her aside?
From the perspective of today’s reproductive justice warriors, pregnancy by its very nature is problematic. After all, it defies the progressive framing of every issue around social constructions, to the exclusion of hard-wired reality. Pregnancy is starkly binary: you either are, or you aren’t. It’s old-fashionedly objective and challenges self-definition: feeling and defining yourself pregnant or unpregnant won’t make it so. It relies on, and resides in, mature, female physiology — even if you don’t define yourself as “woman”.
Is this why so many young activists insist that I cannot or should not talk about pregnant women when I talk about abortion? Because pregnancy makes it obvious that a woman is more than just “a body with a vagina” or “someone with a cervix”? Her woman-ness is so obviously, physically real that a world committed to social constructionism simply collapses.
And does the fact that pregnancy happens to an individual, not to a community — and so calls for a personal decision that speaks to an individual’s sense of right and wrong — disrupt a narrative that seeks to frame itself as communitarian? It is not a community’s womb that becomes pregnant. It is not a society’s belly that grows, or a people’s breasts that are made heavy as they fill. All of this happens to an individual.
There is something grimly ironic about the tendency among today’s activists to deny this: namely, that their retreat from an old-fashioned commitment to individual choice leads right back to the eugenicist basis from which those of us committed to individual freedom have tried to wrest the birth control movement. A personal choice must be personal — otherwise it isn’t a choice, but social engineering.
Already we see social movements insisting that personal choices are being made for the “wrong reasons”. Advances in antenatal screening, for instance, are blamed for allowing women to make the choice to terminate pregnancies affected by conditions that a pregnant woman understands as disability, but which justice warriors see as “difference”. They protest that women are making discriminatory choices, that the world will be less diverse. But why, a woman might ask, should they get to decide for her? When it comes to her body, choice isn’t something that a woman can simply abrogate: it’s what makes her her.
The freedom to make moral choices is the most important freedom we have; the freedom to act on those choices is the most important freedom we can claim. And while Trump may be gone, that freedom is still far from guaranteed. In the battles ahead over who decides about abortion, I know I can count on the pro-choice, gun shop-owning white Republican to have my flank. I wish I could feel so confident about the twenty-something activists shouting him down.