What Does “Choice” Really Mean?

“Pro-choice” is one of the major positions associated with feminism today.  Roe v Wade is one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in living memory, and one that judicial nominees seemingly live and die by.  But “choice” is much more complicated than legalized abortion, and for anyone contemplating the importance of a woman’s right to choose, I think it’s important to recognize the different layers of that issue.

First and foremost will always be legality.  We cannot even begin to delve the other issues at play unless abortion is legal.  There are obviously many who oppose legal abortion, usually for moral reasons, and to some extent, that’s understandable.  But no one is asking anyone to have an abortion, or to fund an abortion.  All “pro-choice” means is that you support the right of a woman to make that moral and health decision for herself, instead of imposing such a standard on everyone around you simply because you have come to a particular conclusion.  And there is a reason why the slogan of the pro-choice movement is “safe and legal”: even if abortion were outlawed, abortions would still take place.  But instead of taking place in safe, sanitary, regulated conditions, performed by medical professionals, they’ll take place under much more dangerous circumstances.  There’s no reason for women to die trying to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

The second level is access.  Access is actually an incredible complicated issue, so I’ll break it down like this:

#1: Can people access reproductive healthcare outside of abortion?

I actually think this gets kind of overlooked, but it’s fairly vital.  No one wants women to have to have abortions.  I think “choice” really needs to refer not just to abortion but to reproductive justice more broadly, and that means women need to be able to access contraception, and information about contraception.  If something is your only choice, it’s not really a choice at all, which means women need to have options on the table.  This means that women need access to doctors, education about reproductive healthcare, unbiased literature on the subject, and actual medication.  And this brings us to…

#2: Is reproductive healthcare, including abortion, affordable?

This is a bizarrely controversial issue.  No one seems to be batting an EYE at the idea of insurance companies continuing to cover Viagra, and employers aren’t pitching fits about having to cover that, but when it comes to birth control or abortion, suddenly people are up in arms.  In fact, Michigan just passed a law prohibiting insurance companies from covering abortions, and forcing women to take out additional “abortion insurance’.  This adds an additional cost and makes anyone who isn’t aware of this change vulnerable to being caught off-guard.  Many insurance plans may already not cover abortion, which may be problematic.  As a result, abortion funds have been created to help subsidize abortion for women in financial need, and whether we like it or not, their services are necessary.

#3: Are abortion services accessible?

This is a multifaceted issue, and it’s the one that seems to crop up in the news a lot.  In light of court rulings that limit the ability of states to cut off abortion after particular time limits, many states have also attempted to pass laws that restrict the number of functioning abortion clinics within their borders.  This is hugely problematic, because it means that women, though they may have a legal right to terminate a pregnancy, may not have the ability to actually do so.  They may need to travel far within their state or actually cross state lines in order to reach a clinic that can perform an abortion.  This means that their insurance may not be accepted by the clinic they are forced to go to, or that they cannot afford to take additional time off from work to account for the travel; low income women may not have easy access to transportation to get them to and from abortion clinics in order to access these services as well.  Clinics also need to be handicap accessible and be able to work with individuals with other kinds of physical disabilities or language barriers.

#4: Can women feel safe accessing abortion?

Let’s say a woman can legally get an abortion, her insurance will cover it, and she can physically get to an abortion clinic and interact with the doctors there.  Great!  One problem: in many places, women may be harassed in their attempts to access abortion.  This is actually against federal law: FACE, or Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, is a federal statue forbidding harassment or attack of people entering or exiting medical facilities…which should include those which perform abortions.  Nevertheless, women do get heckled by protesters, and their doctors may be harassed as well, so that they may not actually feel safe trying to access abortion services.  Organizations like Planned Parenthood continue to utilize clinic escorts, volunteers who help women to and from the clinic entrances to help them deal with protesters and harassers.

My point here is this: we didn’t win the fight for our bodies 4o years ago with the decision in Roe v Wade.  And the war for reproductive justice is about more, and needs to be about more, than simply limits on when women can get abortions.  That may be an important piece, but the reality is that this issue is much greater, and it needs to be approached in much broader terms.  Anti-choice politicians and activists are finding new ways to restrict access to abortion, and feminists need to be ready.  We need to be willing to fight, not just for abortion, but for preventative medicine, for education, for access to all kinds of healthcare; and we need to be willing to take on not just challenges to the legality of abortion, but challenges to access and to affordability.

Having the theoretical right to make a choice doesn’t mean anything if you are denied the means to carry out said choice.  It’s not enough to protect Roe v Wade.  We need to do more.  We need to fight for a reproductive justice that is actually just.  It’s almost 2014, and the war for control of women’s bodies is far from over.  It’s time to stop pretending that a legal right to abortion is the whole game: it’s not, and if we’re not careful, we’ll have won the battle for Roe, but we’ll lose the war on women.

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~ by Randi Saunders on December 21, 2013.

One Response to “What Does “Choice” Really Mean?”

  1. […] 7. What Does Choice Really Mean? […]

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