What does it mean to be pro-choice? For an increasing number of activists, advocates, and advocacy organizations, it includes wanting to be identified with an agenda more comprehensive than supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion—as in, dropping the “choice” label entirely.
The latest to make a change is Choice USA, a youth-focused reproductive rights and justice organization that today announced it has changed its name to URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “For years we have been hearing from our membership that our name and our brand were not capturing the cutting-edge work that they were doing on campus,” URGE Executive Director Kierra Johnson wrote in an email to Rewire. “The name didn’t limit the work we did, but it did limit who we attracted to the organization.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve been around this block. Planned Parenthood announced in 2013 that it would stop using “pro-choice” after commissioning research that showed nearly a quarter of voters don’t identify with either the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” label and that 40 percent say their personal view on abortion “depends on the situation.” In conjunction, it launched a “Not In Her Shoes” campaign that emphasized empathizing with women’s specific situations and leaving decisions to the individual. Around the same time, the National Women’s Law Center launched a “This is Personal” campaign targeting young women with messages that “reproductive health decisions are personal.”
These language conversations are not a distraction. Language is not just about words, but also tactics and strategy, and it’s an important time to assess all of them. After all, abortion rights and family planning are losing huge. As laid out by my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo, we can expect radical new consequences stemming from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision granting a private business the right to assert religious beliefs that trump generally applicable laws. At the state level, legislatures continue working diligently to make abortion more difficult to obtain.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But restrictions upon abortion and family planning are part of and must be considered within a much broader picture. Last year, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for the Department of Justice to tackle an epidemic of voter suppression laws in states dominated by conservative legislatures, which disproportionately affect young people, people of color, and women. Pew Research reported in January that income inequality, by one measure, hasn’t been this high since 1928. This is not race and gender neutral: During the past 25 allegedly enlightened years, the wealth gap has nearly tripled between white families and African-American families. This spring Senate Republicans again blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, a piece of legislation designed to address the gender wage gap. Violence against women is the global norm. In a shameful display of inhumanity earlier this month, protesters in California blocked and heckled three buses containing migrants who entered the country without documentation. President Obama is under pressure to water down a soon-expected executive order against LGBT employment discrimination for federal contractors with gaping, Hobby Lobby-style religious exemptions.
We could, and should, continue at length, but the point is this: “Choice” does not happen in a vacuum. Deeply entrenched and tangibly experienced discriminations on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as less acknowledged but very present discriminations in areas including ability and gender identity, mean that not everyone has a “choice” to control whether and when to parent. Abortion funding restrictions deprive many women, especially low-income women, young women, and women of color, of the practical means to choose an abortion. What’s more, ending reproductive oppression is much larger than expanding access to abortion and family planning. It must include all of these things as well as support for parenting, adoption, breastfeeding, pregnancy, sexual health, and tackling those interlocking oppressions staining the human experience.
What I am saying is not new, nor was it developed by me. An explicitly reproductive justice-oriented framework was developed by women of color leaders such as SisterSong co-founder Loretta Ross with the intent of addressing lived experiences and needs not adequately addressed by an emphasis on “choice.” As explained in a piece on Rewire authored by Ross, Marlene G. Fried, Rickie Solinger, Toni M. Bond Leonard, and Jessica Danforth, “Locating women’s autonomy and self-determination in human rights rather than individual rights and privacy gives a more inclusive and realistic account of both autonomy and what is required to ensure that all women have it.”
Women are not the same or even fundamentally similar, and it’s a dead end to advocate for them as if they were. In the specific instance of confronting an unplanned or otherwise unsustainable pregnancy, a woman with white privilege, a credit card, and a New York City area code does not have the same options as a woman of color living in the South without the same access to financial and other resources. “Choice” does not mean the same thing for all women. It’s not just about ending a pregnancy: It’s also about continuing a pregnancy. For many women, a reproductive justice movement answers the need for a comprehensive focus that values improving a person’s ability to raise healthy children in safe communities as equally important to improving access to abortion, family planning, and health care more broadly.
While respecting the importance of acknowledging the individual circumstances faced by women in light of the interlocking oppressions they may or may not experience is critical, a reproductive justice approach is not the same as dropping the word choice and placing emphasis on the personal, as done by Planned Parenthood. Reproductive justice is not a plea for empathy for what individual women may be going through, but rather an approach that involves acknowledging and dismantling exclusions, hierarchies, and stigmas that perpetuate discrimination and inequitable outcomes for people, their families, and their communities. In other words, reproductive justice is radical.
In her email to Rewire, Johnson made it clear that the new name URGE fits within the broader reproductive justice work the organization had already been pursuing on campus:
While abortion rights are an interest to many young, self-identified progressives, it is not the number one reason that they are seeking an organizing home. They want to be part of a community that values their experience and contribution. They want to talk about strategies to bring down the barriers they experience and are experienced by their families and communities. They want to create a unique vision and have access to the skills, resources and connections to begin experimenting with putting it into place.
I also noticed that while the word “choice” is disappearing from the organization’s name, “gender” is being inserted (as the “G” in URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity). Using the term gender instead of women is in keeping with an ongoing strategy that encourages men to step up in the struggle, an important and worthy goal. Last year, URGE began a “bro-choice” campaign designed to, as Johnson told Rewire in a previous Q&A, “substantively and authentically [incorporate] men of color, low-income men, young men, gay men, transgender men, and, yes, straight white men” in the organization’s work toward gender justice.
But it also sends an important signal: that transgender people are welcome. A long-held controversy within the women’s movement over the inclusion of transgender people continues today, with Twitter serving as one important forum for that discussion. In her piece for The Nation on “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” Michelle Goldberg presented Twitter-based advocacy for renaming a pro-choice fundraiser titled “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas” to exclude biology-specific language so that transgender people would be encouraged to feel more explicitly included as “revolution-eats-its-own-irony,” or in other words, toxicity. But it wasn’t funny, or toxic. It was a conversation that we as advocates need to keep having with open hearts and thoughtful ears. This is but one of many examples of how far the broader reproductive rights, health, and justice movement has to go with transgender inclusion.
In her email to Rewire, Johnson also offered an interesting, sex-positive reflection on the incorporation of “gender” into her organization’s name:
Gender and sexuality (and our assumptions, expectations, fears, and aspirations of them) are at the core of the fight for sexual health, reproductive rights and gender equity. But as a general rule, our movement doesn’t talk about gender unless we mean women and we don’t talk about sex unless we are referring to how to prevent the unwanted consequences of it. Our hope is that URGE will continue to evolve into a place where we can talk about both and discuss how our experience and understanding of gender and sexuality is political and impacts policy change. Our goal is to share a vision of a world that celebrates human sexuality while we also work to understand misogyny and sexism as root causes that negatively impact us all.
Is this a renunciation of choice? No, but it is movement in a very promising direction.