We're Fighting for Access, Not Choice

Today "choice" does not exist for women in more than 30 states because they live in states in which legislatures have passed laws restricting access to abortion. When there is no access, there is no choice.
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An article in Tuesday's New York Times focusing on limitations of the term "pro-choice" both over-claimed the recentness of this development and did not fully represent the history of questions about this framing. The issue isn't that "pro-choice" is no longer sufficient. It's that "pro-choice" was never sufficient for many women. I was sorry to see that the Times had not included those voices and missed the rich history of women of color fighting not just for "choice," but for full reproductive justice.

And there's good reason for that fight. The concept of "choice" speaks only to those who had (and have) the ability to make and exercise choices in the first place.

We at Planned Parenthood recognize that organizations and leaders of color made this shift decades before we began to doubt the capacity of the "pro-choice" label to fully represent the dreams of our movement. They led the way, and we respect and honor their vision and leadership. There's a rich context that needs to be told and shared, by Planned Parenthood and others. We should have done more to ensure that the New York Times was hearing from organizations and leaders of color who have provided a reproductive justice framework for decades and led the way in the discussion about the limitations of a "pro-choice" movement. It wasn't our intention to contribute to the exclusion of the history and the work of reproductive justice activists and organizations.

Pregnancy and childbearing have been experienced quite differently by women of various races and economic classes. White married women with economic privilege, who have been able to prevent or terminate unintended pregnancies, indeed have been able to "choose" abortion since it became legal in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. However, historically women of color have not had choices because the ability to control their bodies and reproduction was stolen from them. Racist policies and attitudes have obstructed the ability of women of color to choose whether and when to bear children.

Meanwhile, white unmarried women in the twentieth century were pressured to give up their "illegitimate" babies, and all women lacking economic resources also have been unable to "choose" whether or not to have abortions. After all, if you can't afford an abortion, and you don't have insurance or your insurance refuses coverage, what choice do you really have?

"Choice" as a framework for talking about abortion originated with Roe v. Wade. In their dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist and Byron White associated "the power of choice" with women's "convenience," "whim," and "caprice," and worried that women would be able to abort simply because of their "dislike of children" or "for no reason at all." Historian Rickie Solinger, in her book Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States, notes that "The dissenters clearly and early associated 'choice' with bad women making bad choices." The majority opinion also referred to women's "choice."

On one level, this new way to talk about women inaugurated a sense of freedom and possibility -- women could now take control over their bodies. Yet this language alienated millions of women who were pressured to not bear children and were punished when they did.

Moreover, today "choice" does not exist for women in more than 30 states because they live in states in which legislatures have passed laws restricting access to abortion. When there is no access, there is no choice.

For these reasons, Planned Parenthood is working to broaden the conversation beyond the "pro-choice" label -- so that our terminology reflects our aspirations and women's full experience.

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