Womens Health

What Does it Mean to Be "Pro-Choice?"

| by

A version of this article appears in the forthcoming issue of Conscience magazine.

What does it mean to be "pro-choice?"

And what does it mean to be a pro-choice politician today?

These are two questions that are far from academic at a time when the main focus of the majority of state legislatures and governors, the U.S. House of Representatives and a substantial number of U.S. Senators is not on jobs, deficits, the economy, the environment, the health of educational systems in the United States or the health and well-being of the U.S. population writ large, but instead on incessant, invasive, prurient, and often pornographic efforts to monitor the vaginas and wombs of the country's female citizens, the loss of freedoms resulting from which indeed negatively affect the basic human rights, health and well-being, economic prospects and educational attainment of women as a class and a demographic group and hence of their children and families.

This article explores what I believe to be the most basic attributes of being "pro-choice" in a political sense and within a reproductive and sexual justice framework. It is the first in two articles examining the issues, the second of which will focus on President Obama's record on the most fundamental of women's rights.  I recognize that some may take issue with, or wish to expand upon, my own thinking on this issue and I welcome and indeed encourage debate about it here.

What Does It Mean to be "Pro-Choice?"

In its most narrow sense, the term "pro-choice" is short-hand for a group or individual who believes a woman should be able to choose an abortion if and when she desires to terminate a pregnancy that is either unintended and untenable, or simply untenable.  And certainly, the anti-choice community focuses solely on this aspect of the pro-choice agenda.

But in the fullest sense--and in the political sense--it means much, much more because in truth being "pro-choice" is a political worldview that sees women as equal actors and full participants in society and is based on the belief that every born child should be a wanted, loved, cared-for child. Being pro-choice means understanding that the condition of pregnancy is not an obligation to parenthood and that unless women have the means to achieve sexual and reproductive health, effectively manage their fertility and plan their families, neither of the above conditions can exist.

Being pro-choice means believing in the right of women to choose whether, when, and with whom to bear a child and to determine whether, when, and to whom make a lifelong commitment to becoming a mother for the first time, the third time, or the seventh time; whether to become a mother not now but later, or never to become a mother at all; whether or not to become a parent to an apparently healthy child or give birth knowingly to a profoundly disabled child; whether to become a mother in spite of health risks or to avoid or terminate a pregnancy because of health risks; whether to freely decide to carry to term a pregnancy resulting from such profound human rights abuses as marital or stranger rape or incest; whether to carry an unintended pregnancy to term and give a child up for adoption or to decide to carry to term and raise a child resulting from an unintended pregnancy. 

These are all choices women with agency and freedom make.

Being pro-choice means understanding abortion as a moral choice among numerous moral and morally defensible choices about pregnancy, childbearing, and parenting. It means understanding that some women--the majority of them already mothers--will make a moral choice to have an abortion when they do not feel ready or willing or able to carry a pregnancy to term, when a pregnancy is untenable for any number of reasons, when an additional pregnancy and a potential additional child threatens their own lives or the well-being, food security, educational attainment, or social development of living children and an established family. And, unequivocally yes, when the birth of a child or another child threatens the ability of any given woman to participate in society--whether by achieving an education, engaging in employment or otherwise deciding that "now is not the time" to bear a child or additional children.

It means recognizing that public and media hand-wringing about "injecting morality into the abortion debate" is profoundly dismissive of the reality that its already there, and that women are moral agents making moral choices about when and how to build their families and whether or not they are equipped to make the lifelong and all-encompassing commitment necessary to parenting a(nother) child.  Being pro-choice means recognizing that no one religious tradition has a lock on what is moral, and that others can not decide for any individual woman how best to balance lifelong responsibilities. Being pro-choice means recognizing and respecting any given woman's right to decide that she could never terminate a pregnancy under any circumstance and any other woman's right to decide to terminate a pregnancy under circumstances not "acceptable" to others.  Being pro-choice means recognizing that sensationalized examples of women who have abortions "we don't like" does not give us permission to regulate the bodies of all other women or deny them their rights.

Being pro-choice is profoundly "pro" life and is about being concerned as much or more about living and sentient women, and the safety and well-being of children actually born into and living in this world as it is about ova, sperm, fertilized eggs, blastocysts, embryos, and fetuses.  Being pro-choice means understanding that healthy women and healthy pregnancies are both independent values in society, and that women who choose to be pregnant or to carry a pregnancy to term deserve quality pre- and post-natal care, choices in childbirth, and choices in childcare in accordance with their life decisions.  Being pro-choice means recognizing--and working to remedy--the inherent injustice in the fact that women of economic and social privilege by definition have far greater access to the most basic sexual and reproductive health care than do women who are economically or socially marginalized or suffer race and class discrimination.  Being pro-choice also means understanding that abortion is a fundamental component of health care and of the health services to which women need access whether or not they need or choose to terminate a pregnancy at any time in their lives.  Being pro-choice means understanding that efforts to separate, marginalize or otherwise undermine insurance coverage for abortion, contraception or other reproductive and sexual health services or treating these differently than other medical procedures is fundamentally discriminatory to women and undermines their health and well-being.

Being pro-choice in the fullest sense means understanding there is no justifiable "trade-off" or "common ground" in denying some women access to contraception, abortion, or any other form of reproductive health care as part of some "sensible" political compromise (sensible only because it serves a particular politician's political interests), just as there is no justifiable trade-off in allowing citizens of one economic class or state to exercise their rights to vote, to freedom of speech, or to bodily integrity, for example, while denying the same to citizens of other states or economic classes for reasons of political expediency.  There is, therefore, no justifiable reason for undermining the most fundamental rights of the women of the District of Columbia whose bodies were used as political pawns in the recent fight over the government shutdown. Being pro-choice it is never ok to use any faith tradition, ideology or personal belief to deny women as a class or individual women their rights.  Ever.

Being pro-choice means understanding that self-determination for women regarding sex, sexuality, reproduction and motherhood is a fundamental precursor to womens' ability to achieve their own educational, economic and familial aspirations, a fundamental precursor to the health and well-being of individuals and families, and a core condition of the long-term stability and health of society.  It therefore also means understanding the profound connections for women--supported by more than ample evidence--between economic and educational status and unfettered access to comprehensive sexual health education, contraception, family planning services, and abortion care.

Finally, it bears repeating again that being "pro-choice" is a political worldview that sees women as equal actors and full participants in society and is based on the belief that every born child should be a wanted, loved, cared-for child. This alone is a moral position, and unless and until these conditions are fulfilled, we can not achieve justice, no matter how many other deals we strike on other issues.