Monday, January 28, 2008

Abortion: it's not about choice

The seemingly endless abortion debate has been framed for far too long as one between those who are "pro-choice" (formerly "pro-abortion") and those who are "pro-life" (formerly "anti-abortion"). Some quick unpacking before I proceed.

"Pro-life" is a disingenuous purr-word that upholds life against those who are...what? "Pro-death?" You mean like supporters of the death penalty? Whoops, most of them are "pro-life." See the problem here?

"Pro-abortion" is what we supporters of reproductive freedom used to be called by the media and, of course, by the "pro-life" folks, who were called "anti-abortion" much of the time by those same media. You've got a "pro," you've got an "anti." Simple.

And wrong. No woman I have ever met supports abortion per se, as a good in itself. Those who have decided to have one don't propose that everyone should do so. State policy that mandates abortion (as in China, with its one-child policy) might arguably be called "pro-abortion," but not the feminist/pro-feminist position. Years ago I played an active role as a member of the board of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League in persuading the media to call our position "pro-choice" instead. It was by far the most accurate one-word definition of where we stood, if one word can ever sum
up such a thing. And "choice," of course, like "life," is a purr-word as well.

But I'm not so sure, any longer, that the term really works. It was always shorthand, for "supportive of a woman's right to choose between abortion or continuing her pregnancy." In the political arena, of course, where complex issues are necessarily reduced to phrases that are conducive to forming up sides and fighting the battles, the term still has considerable force, and I'd be loath to abandon the rhetorical beachhead that we established three decades ago. Yet abortion isn't really about the liberal notion of free individual choice. It's about something much more fundamental: the notion of gender.

I purposely posted the photograph that accompanies this article because it is likely to provoke a number of deep reactions.
What a thing to put up on a progressive blog! What was I thinking?

All right, what does this image convey? It's an icon of woman-as-mother. That's the ideal role assigned to her by the Church and allegedly by
God, a role historically enforced and reinforced by a confusing cluster of gender prejudices, institutions and an over-all structure of unequal power-relations that we call the patriarchy. The picture evokes feelings of love and tenderness. But it can also evoke outrage, not over the content per se, but because of the way it is deliberately deployed. It is made to stand for an immutable, pre-ordained essence. It reifies Woman, and objectifies her every bit as much as visual pornography does. It is propaganda, in other words, and like all effective propaganda it anchors itself in the emotions.

Now, consider for a moment the various continuing initiatives and projects grouped together under the term "feminism." Feminism at its best represents a radical break from ascribed roles based upon gender, and the creation of new frames in which women, like men, become the makers of their own daily histories, social beings who define their own roles as active participants in a democratic and egalitarian society. If one dares to dream (and I do), the eventual outcome should be nothing less than the destruction of the very frame of gender. We already recognize the slippery character of "race," after all, at least those of us in progressive ranks; so what about gender, then?

But let's get back to the here-and-now. The pronatalist image of woman-as-mother is enormously powerful. We refer to "motherhood issues," those that require no debate because the positive side is obvious. And what images does the metaphor "motherland" conjure up? Motherhood in the abstract is presented as an unqualified good. It is, dare I say it, a fetish. And every young woman, even today, is seen as a mother or as a potential mother.

Let me note that there is obviously nothing wrong with parental nurturance--that's an unqualified good, if you like--and both men and women have enormous capacity to participate in creating a loving and positive environment for children. But everyone knows that at present the responsibility for this is still heavily weighted towards women. It's their role. Mary gave birth to the son of God, after all. (Women might have done better emulating her previous incarnation as the huntress Diana, but I digress.)

How, then, is abortion situated within the conflict over gender roles that has been foregrounded for most of the past half-century? I suggest that the f
ierce opposition to reproductive freedom (first expressed as opposition to contraception, which only became legal in Canada in 1968, and then to abortion as the latter emerged from its underground nightmare of coat-hangers, seedy exploiters, sepsis and death) really comes down to a defence of the traditional role of motherhood. The opposition is not grounded in fetus-fetishism, but in anti-feminism. Abortion resonates as the binary opposite of fetishized "motherhood" as expressed in the image above. Hence this is where a fierce battle continues to rage: abortion is an on-going site of struggle between feminists and their opponents.

I am not arguing, of course, that all of the so-called "right-to-lifers" see things this way and are deliberately prevaricating. They have indeed made the fetus itself their battleground. But it has long been observed that their undoubtedly genuine Angst is very precisely situated, in time and space. Concern for the "unborn child" tends to evaporate after live birth, despite the attempts of some to appear consistent. Child poverty, and the increased mortality rates that follow from it, are simply not an issue for the right-to-life crowd. And there are odd consistencies as well: anti-abortion activists, as even a cursory glance at their websites reveals, are also affronted by same-sex marriage. If you step back for a moment and try to work out the connection between fetuses and homosexuality, the underlying pronatalist bent of the "right-to-life" crowd becomes immediately obvious. Ditto the opposition to contraception, which is less regularly explicit now, but is always lurking in the background.

As Susan Faludi documented a few years ago in her book, Backlash, legal interference with pregnant women is not always confined to abortion. They have been apprehended for being seen in a bar, for allegedly not eating nutritious food, and for attempting to leave their place of residence (allegedly to seek an abortion). Each of these incidents, however uncommon, is a wake-up call about the current state of gender relations, just as Marc Lepine's murderous rampage was.

In the end, it's not about choice, or at least not just about choice. Indeed, the notion of choice in this context is somewhat of a mystification. It is usually presented as a legal construct, an instance of the principle of individual rights. But whether a woman seeks abortion against her own wishes because she cannot afford a child, or whether a woman is forced to deliver a child because the doctors in her region refuse to perform abortions, her choices are limited, even where no law exists as is the case now. There is a far wider context of unequal gender and class relations that law and many of the debates over "the right to choose" simply fail to address.

While we obviously cannot tolerate any move to make abortion illegal once again--and there is no reason whatsoever these days to let our guard down in that respect--we can't afford merely to join battle with the anti-abortionists on their own ground, implicitly assenting to the artificial isolation of the "abortion issue" from its context and finding ourselves discussing legality, viability, whether or not a woman has a "right to choose," the metaphysics of personhood, and so on ad nauseam. This is all frankly diversionary. We need to go well beyond and above all that, working together to create a society in which our collective potential can be fully realized, and in which narrow, legalistic, bourgeois notions of "choice" have given way to nothing less than the abolition of unequal social relations, or, in a word--liberation.

R. v. Morgentaler was not just a gain that we must defend. It was a turning point--law was used against itself, resulting in the removal of abortion from the realm of law altogether. It was, after all, assumed by the Supreme Court that a new law would swiftly move in to take the place of the old one. Broad hints to that effect were dropped in the judgement. Indeed, the attempt was made to pass a new law, and it was only defeated by a fluke, in a tied Senate vote. Twenty years later, there is no law in place. The state has effectively been removed from jurisdiction.

So the matter is, in a sense, in our own hands now, where it should be (the word "our" referring to civil society). But the practical problem of access continues. More generally, unresolved ethical questions around reproductive issues have become even more salient as technology develops, and there are some real debates to be had in this area in any case* (but don't go wasting your time on Margaret Somerville and her ludicrous misreading of Stephen Pinker). Gender oppression flourishes at the family level and beyond--for not all coercion, by any means, is exercised by the state.

The struggle over abortion, as indicated, stands as a metonym for unequal gender relations. Our victory was a major step in coming to grips with that structure of inequality, even if on-the-ground organizing played far less of a role than successful lawyering. The state, however, and the unequal relations that it mediates and reinforces, remain. We had one big, arguably lucky, win, and it's one well worth celebrating. But an incalculably huge, uncompleted project lies ahead of us; and new movements and ideologies will arise along the way to confront us. There's still a long way to go, baby, and there will be well after the "pro-life" cult and its spasmodic reaction against feminism are, like witchburning, a distant, unpleasant memory.

UPDATE: (January 29)
Our victory was a major step in coming to grips with that structure of inequality, even if on-the-ground organizing played far less of a role than successful lawyering.

There is some excellent rebuttal on that point here and here, and the context is here. I had not intended to suggest that the struggle over access to abortion was anything less than enormously productive. I was referring to a narrower question: having S.251 tossed out by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms rather than, say, getting it repealed, or turning it into a dead letter. (In Quebec, with the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, the latter is precisely what happened: the new government declared that it would not enforce the law. Years of militancy and consciousness-raising had paid off.)

*Bona fide socioethical issues that progressives cannot avoid include fetal sex-selection, for example, and practices such as heavy drinking or drug use that lead directly to the birth of damaged children whose subsequent lives are diminished through what might be termed pro-active violence. And what of deliberately creating children with disabilities? Since legal control over pregnant women must be uncompromisingly resisted, what positions should progressives take in such cases? What social solutions should we advance?


Cal Andrews said...

Fantastic Abortion Speech in Australia;
Part 1:
Part 2:

Cal said...

abortion is wrong.

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