On Choice.

12 Apr

Blame it on my liberal elitist Ivy-league education or whatever, but lately I’ve been really wary of the idea of “choice.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an Operation Rescue blogger, here in disguise. I identify as pro-choice and I am proud to be the sister of the amazing woman behind IamDrTiller.com.  Still, I’ve been wondering, what does choice really mean and who actually has it?

When activists and supporters of the pro-choice movement use the term, they generally suggest some sort of combination of bodily autonomy, individual free will, and the ability to make a decision responsibly without the threat of violence and/or coercion. Yet as a current student of Western philosophy (thank you, Columbia University core curriculum), I can’t help but notice that the ideals behind these concepts—freedom, equality, individuality, rights, progress—are products of Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill.  In other words, the ideals may sound great, but they aren’t “natural”–they have a complicated history that ties them both to expansionary reforms and to state-sanctioned sexism, racism, and colonialism.


I’m not saying much new here—the philosophers Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have theorized a lot of this before. Foucault looked closely at the “dark side” of the development of Western liberalism, noting the way in which supposed government reforms come along with regulatory measures that especially condition and restrict the body.  Foucault might ask, if bodies are always already limited and confined by social regulation, what can “free will” mean?

Butler, influenced by Foucault, writes about the relationship of the body and the community in “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” a chapter of her book Undoing Gender. After asking the main question on the book—“what is a livable life?”–Butler asserts,

    “To be a body is to be given over to others even as a body is emphatically, “one’s own”…Bodily autonomy is a paradox.  I’m not suggesting, though, that we cease to make these claims. We have to, we must…[yet] if I am struggling for autonomy, do I not need to be struggling for something else as well, a conception of myself as invariably in community, impressed by others, impressing them as well, and in ways that are not always clearly delineable, in forms that are not fully predictable? Is there a way to struggle for autonomy in many spheres but also consider the demands that are imposed upon us by living in a world of beings who are, by definition, physically dependent on one another, physically vulnerable to one another?”

In other words, Butler wonders, can a body can ever be autonomous when it’s dependent on and defined by in its family, community, and society?  And so, with Butler deconstructing autonomy and Foucault questioning free will, does “choice” fall apart?

These questions, to me, do challenge the dominant discourse of the reproductive justice movement.  They suggest that choice itself is a complicated concept that reproduces problematic historical and patriarchal discourse. Butler seems to think “we must” continue this discourse to protect and fight for freedoms. But are there alternatives?  Is it possible to reclaim choice? Could individuals within the movement come up with something new?

Maybe in the end it’s semantics. We use “choice” because it recalls the Western philosophy that’s so intuitive to us, in hopes that everyone else finds it intuitive as well.  But it’s the principles behind the rhetoric that are so much more important. In the end, women need access to abortion in order to protect themselves and their families.  Maybe we could get rid of autonomy and embrace Butler’s theory on the relationship between the body and the community: an answer to the question “what is a livable life?” might be one that necessitates the access to and availability of safe, legal abortion.


3 Responses to “On Choice.”

  1. tenya April 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    I think we this particularly when the woman seeking an abortion or deciding to continue a pregnancy is not thinking “this is what I want” but rather “I would love to do otherwise but cannot right now.” Maybe it is job/family/relationship constraints – where do those come from? The culture a woman is in may expect her to put the needs of her existing family, maybe her extended family or inlaws, as the primary constraints on her “choice.” The cultural impetuous can be from very close quarters, like a partner who says “But you always wanted a third baby” or societal, “it’s irresponsible for a woman to have so many children.” All of these of course contribute to the “choice” – and some of them don’t really feel like a choice at all.

  2. WeCanChangeIt April 12, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    I think of being pro-choice as not what is happening right now but what should happen in the future. For me, it’s an aspirational term. I think “justice” works much better for what I’m thinking could happen now, but I do believe in a future in which people can really make choices that are best for them and not be coerced by people or society or anti-poor, women, queer, trans, people of color laws.

  3. NYCprochoiceMD April 12, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    I had a similar education to yours. Many of us are moving away from “choice” in our struggles for reproductive autonomy. As you suggest, choice refers only to one person and does not take into account her context, her community, her family. It also suggests a simple dichotomy, choice or no choice, which does not acknowledge the complexity of the many factors at play for a woman planning her family (and her life).

    This is why we are trying to rename our movement as reproductive justice. When we include access to abortion as part of a social justice framework, we have a new frame and a new context, and we build upon a different philosophy and social movement. Rather than focusing on abortion alone, we see abortion access as part of a larger issue, planning one’s family, which is part of an even larger issue, planning and living one’s life with just access to all society has to offer regardless of economic status, race, or gender. Justice in this case refers to equality in reproductive health; equality of access to contraception, abortion, infertility treatment, midwifery, high quality prenatal care, and birth centers. This framework is more intuitive, inclusive, and understandable by people who have not enjoyed education on the classics.

    The idea of justice did start with the same philosophers you cite, but when we look to the development of the idea of social justice, we can find more recognizable and understandable philosophers such as Martin Luther King, Jr. This allows the movement to be more inclusive and more understandable.

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