Why We Are and Must Remain ‘Pro-Choice’

Both choice and reproductive justice have a place in our battle for women’s autonomy. But one cannot take the place of the other.

Both choice and reproductive justice have a place in our battle for women’s autonomy. But one cannot take the place of the other.

See here for further discussion of framing choice and reproductive justice.

At a time when state legislatures continue to break new records for the number of restrictions on reproductive health-care access introduced, passed into law, and placed on ballots, when lawsuits against birth control coverage continue to trickle into the courts, when political candidates can’t even get it right on rape and the White House has repeatedly used abortion and birth control as bargaining chips, those of us who support reproductive autonomy face critical questions. One question should not be, as some have recently posited, whether or not a group adheres to a pro-choice or a reproductive justice frame when doing its work. It should be how each of us, individually and as organizations, can best use our knowledge, strengths, resources, and values to bring about change that makes women’s reproductive autonomy a reality.

Right now, we need every voice and perspective we can get to speak out loudly, strongly, wherever, and to whomever they can, in whatever language they speak best, to protect rights that many thought were guaranteed. A movement that is monolithic does not use the best everyone has to offer. One that allows all organizations and individuals to identify as they see fit and truly put their passions to work on shared or complementary goals will thrive. We win when we have a definite, common goal that requires real action, and we win when we allow a variety of groups to speak to their own communities with their own voices. We recently saw this in Florida, where women’s organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the League of Women Voters; religious organizations such as Catholics for Choice, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; and reproductive justice organizations such as the Miami International-Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy (MI-LOLA) all worked to soundly defeat two ballot measures aimed at curtailing abortion access and real religious liberty.

Unfortunately, some advocates for reproductive health, rights, and justice insist we wordsmith the movement rather than take action. Some folks are paralyzed by semantics, stuck in a vain search for a magic word or phrase that will convince everybody to agree with us. In doing so, the focus is taken off what we believe and what we need to do, and we are reduced to creating word clouds of marketing frames outlining why we must replace the concept of “choice.” “Reproductive justice” has been suggested as this magic phrase.

Both choice and reproductive justice have a place in our battle for women’s autonomy. But one cannot take the place of the other.

At Catholics for Choice, we approach the word “choice” from an ideological standpoint, one that includes justice at its very core—social justice. We are called by our faith to advocate most strongly for policies that protect and lift up all people, particularly the most marginalized and the poorest of the poor. Our religious beliefs compel us to recognize the dignity and rights of all people, who deserve respect and equal access to reproductive health care, no matter their race, color, class, or creed. We cannot settle for any less. Why some people have failed to recognize that justice is an inherent part of what we do is a mystery to us.

We believe, however, that the reproductive justice model is an important piece of the reproductive rights movement. It works for some groups to reach the constituencies that they must reach. It reminds the rest of the movement that we are not, nor should we be, a homogenous steamroller.

As our colleague Loretta Ross, the co-founder and national coordinator of SisterSong, has noted, it was American women of color who first coined the term “reproductive justice” almost 20 years ago, in 1994. They did this to embrace a broader range of concerns that many women of color in the United Sates shared and that were not being addressed by some in the pro-choice movement. They found a phrase to express their unmet needs and through which they could develop solutions. SisterSong continues to highlight these concerns, and we are a stronger movement because of their efforts.

Unfortunately, as others have adopted this framework, some people have chosen to denigrate the language and framework of choice, even sighing a “huge sigh of relief” when others choose to stop identifying as pro-choice. We do not need to tear down each other in order to build ourselves up, and it is misguided to assume that there is a single way to approach a common goal or a single way of viewing the work that we do and why we do it. Those who have dismissed choice have most often misrepresented it. They have pointed to polling data claiming that the number of people calling themselves “pro-choice” is in decline, when most of us already believed that putting “choice” vs. “life” in head-to-head polling is a mindless approach. We’ve long known that Americans have felt that pitting the two terms against each other creates a false dichotomy, and that even those who consider themselves staunchly “pro-life” don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned and do support abortion access at least some of the time.

Some have also claimed that Millennials don’t “get” choice, that choice does not reflect what Millennials need to hear in order to support access to reproductive rights. As Jennie Bristow noted in her perceptive essay on the alleged generation war over abortion rights in the United States, “Winning the argument for choice might be difficult today—though it is hard to see why it is more difficult now than in previous decades. What is certain is that younger generations of women, and their daughters, will lose a great deal if we turn our back on the ‘pro-choice label.’” It is, on the one hand, patronizing to assume that young people do not understand what being pro-choice means or must be told something different in order to gain their support for reproductive rights. It is equally troubling that many of those claiming that we need to use something other than choice to speak to Millennials view young people as a problem to be solved rather than a source of energy and people power for our movement.

Young people are the ones most often out canvassing, working phone banks, staffing, and leading our organizations, and they are more supportive of reproductive rights than other generations. They are the ones who are of reproductive age. The supposed “intensity gap” between pro-choice young people and anti-choice young people today largely tracks the so-called “intensity gap” between people of different generations. That perceived lack of involvement does not mean that young people cannot or will not prioritize choice. It does mean that those of us charged with sustaining the movement need to do less talking at young people about how they are the problem. We need to instead offer them real action that all people—young and old—can rally around.

It is not as if reproductive justice itself is not without its challenges. While it is absolutely right for some organizations, we cannot afford to be Pollyannaish in assuming it is right for everybody. In particular, we cannot be dictatorial in charging every group to use the term or pretend that it is inherently superior to choice in its ideology.

Some of the challenges of the reproductive justice framework illustrate why it cannot be a substitute for choice, as a concept or as a practical strategy. They include the following.

  • Seeking to have an impact on everything can lead to having no impact on anything.
    There is a danger that, in pushing everyone to work on every issue, we will lose them all. With limited resources and staff often already pushed to their limits, working on all of the concerns that reproductive justice prioritizes can mean that we are ultimately less effective. It is a good thing when there are experts in different fields, when there are individuals working on separate issues who recognize and spread the word about each other’s work, who celebrate each other’s achievements, and who understand how they complement each other’s goals. People do not lead single-issue lives. But an organization is not a person—there is nothing wrong with concentrating one organization’s time, money, energy, resources, and passions with a laser focus on a single issue in order to advance the common good. There is also nothing wrong with an organization focusing only on the issues that most immediately impact its own constituency. We are all painfully aware that the political power of the Catholic hierarchy has long been one of the greatest obstacles to access to abortion, especially for poor women, here in the United States and around the world. We believe Catholics for Choice must confront this opposition and represent the majority Catholic opinion. And, while we want our allies to recognize the challenge and support us, we don’t think every organization can, or should, focus on addressing particularly Catholic concerns. It is a problem when all organizations feel that they must work on all of each other’s issues, regardless of resources, and it can verge on arrogance to assume that we can.

  • There is a danger of turning allies into adversaries.
    Collectively, we do need to work across all constituencies to gather votes and exert pressure. However, by creating too broad an agenda, we may find that our wider net has larger holes. Where is there room for an organizational ally that can expertly pursue the legal defense of abortion rights, but cannot and does not have the expertise to similarly pursue advocacy on immigration or racial discrimination or same-sex marriage? If their organizational mission doesn’t allow a commitment to every injustice women face, must we count them as being against us? This approach runs the risk of devaluing, marginalizing, and alienating allies.

  • Abortion becomes something to talk about later—but not today.
    With so many issues and agendas to push, something has to give. All too often it is abortion. Whether this happens because the subject entails taking the risk of pushing politicians who are good on other issues; or, as we heard a few years ago, because if we include abortion, we won’t get healthcare reform; or because even among ourselves we can’t agree that women should be able to access abortion when they need it, clear, outspoken advocacy for abortion is increasingly pushed to the back burner. Some even shy away from using the word in the first place. If our organizations, of all groups, are not the ones speaking out most consistently and strongly in support of abortion access, we know that no one else will. And we know that women will be the losers, especially marginalized and vulnerable women who most need strong advocates. Failing to address abortion as part and parcel of women’s lives further stigmatizes it and the women who have abortions.

  • Steering us toward a party platform only serves to narrow our base.
    The list of issues that the reproductive justice movement wants us to work on is long. Most, if not all, of the issues are similar to those that are traditionally associated with the Democratic Party. We should remember that in recent years the Democrats have cravenly played politics with our priorities—we have Democrats to thank for both the Hyde and Stupak amendments’ creation and continuation, and we can’t forget that a prominent Democrat handed over D.C.’s public funding of abortion for poor women in order to make a budget deal. We need to widen our constituency to include all those who support access to reproductive health-care services, not just those who toe a particular party line. Where under the reproductive justice framework is there room for the Republicans and libertarians who agree with us on abortion and contraception but who have other policy positions not endorsed by the Democrats? No single party has been a friend to women on every issue, but there are champions for women in every party, and we should work with them.

At Catholics for Choice, we recognize that reproductive justice works for some, but it is not the only means to a shared end. From both our place of faith and our political positions, we believe in the power of choice, and we remain committed to a thriving, sustainable pro-choice movement that continues to support each person’s individual freedom, no matter his or her circumstances. As Katha Pollitt wrote earlier this year, “‘pro-choice’ means you believe that whether or not a woman keeps a pregnancy is up to her—the position most Americans say they support when asked about Roe.”

We believe in choice because it is centered in personal autonomy. A significant concern regarding reproductive justice is that it can devalue the very autonomy that we are all trying to uphold by casting certain women as only potential decision-makers rather than full moral agents, simply because they are victims of an unjust society. Instead, this framework asks us to see these women as individuals who cannot make their own decisions about what they want and need because they face obstacles in carrying out those decisions.

In her excellent article on the value of “choice” and the necessity to hold tight to the concept for every woman regardless of her circumstances, Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service explained:

This does not mean we ignore the very real issues of access to resources, services, or the inequalities caused by socio-economic conditions and the need for structural change. It does not mean that we ignore the impact of race or class. The point is this: life is full of decisions, and it is who makes them that matters. This is not an exclusive class-based, ethnically-specific framework; it is as true for economically disadvantaged women and women of colour as it is for WASP university graduates. It is as true for women in Pakistan as it is in Britain. Claiming that choice “does not matter,” or is irrelevant, to a group of women because, for example they are economically or culturally excluded, implies they have no interest in making these moral choices for themselves, and perhaps no capacity to do so. This is both patronising and degrading.

As Catholics, we believe in conscience. We believe that each person contains a voice that resonates within us, that guides us in our decision-making, and that was granted to us by God. No one and nothing less than God can take that away from us. The fact that we are poor, or Black, or gay, or single, or young will influence our choices, but it cannot wrench from us our free will, our God-given ability to decide what to do at any given time based on what we believe is right or wrong. Choice embraces conscience.

Choice, at its core, recognizes that oppression influences, but does not dictate, our choices. By grounding itself in the idea that each person has a right to bodily autonomy, to determine the course of his or her reproductive life regardless of circumstance, choice respects individual conscience. We believe in choice because it is robust. What matters in the choice framework is whether or not the decision to become or stay pregnant rests with a woman and her conscience. Choice recognizes that the ability to make that decision should not be determined by economic, social, or political factors, but by what each woman believes is right for herself and her circumstances. No matter what she decides, she should be able to do so safely, with dignity, and without having to circumvent unnecessary obstacles, coercion, or stigmatization.

To be pro-choice is to dedicate oneself to this ideal, and to making the legal, political, social, and economic changes necessary to ensure that this true freedom of choice is available to each person. Choice does not negate social justice; indeed, we believe that true freedom of choice compels us to advocate for policies that ensure that everybody, regardless of their situation, has equal access to safe, compassionate, and comprehensive reproductive health-care options.

Choice will not delegate the authority and rights we struggle for to any government. We believe in choice because it is inclusive. To be pro-choice is to acknowledge that we cannot know everything. We cannot make a critical life decision for someone else, just as they cannot do so for us. Freedom of choice is the right to make one’s own decisions while affording others the same right. If you are a person, you deserve the freedom of personal choice. Period.

This framework includes men, it includes women, it includes those who are straight and those who are lesbian, gay, and transgender. It includes those who are young and those of every political stripe. It applies to the decision to continue a pregnancy or to have an abortion, to use contraception or to practice abstinence, to use new reproductive technologies to conceive a child or to have a tubal ligation. In its insistence that those who are pro-choice adhere to a single common principle, choice is applicable and open to each person and each reproductive situation and remains sustainable even as political climates, public perceptions, and social realities come and go. For these reasons, and for many others, Catholics for Choice will continue to view our work through the lens of choice. We do not believe we should sit in judgment about how each organization or individual chooses to identify themselves. We are wary at best, however, of any organization or individual who claims that their approach is the way, the truth, and the light when it comes to ensuring access to reproductive health care for all, and who does so while denigrating others.

For years, Catholics for Choice has had to defend not only our right to dissent from the hierarchy of our church, but to exist within a reproductive rights movement that at times marginalizes or simply rejects the voices of people of faith. The discussions and disagreements yielded by both of these positions have at times been painful. They have also taught us critical lessons about what it means to be a part of something greater than ourselves and how important it is to celebrate and strengthen the idea of unity in diversity. In the reproductive rights movement, as in Catholicism, we are part of a family, not a corporation. A company requires employees to toe the official line, or else risk the axe. A family takes us as we are, for better or for worse, and recognizes that no matter the arguments we have among ourselves, we are still family.

In families, as in the reproductive rights movement, we do not need to have the same opinions on everything in order to advance shared goals. We do not need to live under the same roof, abiding by one set of rules, to remain connected and to respect each other. Like a family, the movement for reproductive autonomy will thrive most when we come together regularly but spend most of our time where we can each be most effective—all the time spreading the values that we share.