Russell Arben Fox has a thoughtful post, expressing his ambivalences about abortion, which you should read. Obviously, much of my disagreement is on well-trodden ground: I don’t think that a woman’s reproductive freedom can be legitimately abridged to further a vague sense that traditional (and generally patriarchal) sexual morality is preferable, I’m happy to be candid that an increase in sexual freedom is a feature not a bug, etc. As even casual readers will know, I also think it couldn’t be more wrong to claim that reproductive freedom is about rights for the middle class. The affluent will always have access to contraception and safe abortions, under any legal regime (including when abortion is formally illegal in most circumstances.) It’s the centrists on abortion, not pro-choice “extremists,” who abstract abortion discourse from social inequities. Whether the decision was framed as a “negative” right or not, Roe matters far more to poor women than the middle class. Things brings us to what I think the the fundamental error in Russell’s analysis:
But at least, in trying, I’m engaged in a genuine social project–whereas the rhetoric of rights and choice is mostly non- or even anti-social. Not that that hurts it as a movement in contemporary, non-participatory, my-your-own-business America; anything but, in fact. Still, it’s a point for liberal defenders of abortion rights to keep in mind, next time they wonder why so few people from the office or the grad seminar show up to walk the picket line with the janitors.
This is very similar to the William Saletan argument that abortion rights advocates won the battle but lost the war, because the rhetoric of choice helps conservatives more. I think this is completely wrong on several levels. First of all, it gets cause and effect backward: reproductive freedom is often framed in terms of rights because it’s effective, not vice versa. Radical feminist critiques of Roe sometimes make a similar error: the choice was not between Roe and a Canadian-style regime of unregulated state-funded abortions; the choice was Roe or nothing. It’s a fantasy to think that abortion would be more accessible if not for the Supreme Court’s intervention, and I also think it’s a fantasy to think that there would be more labor solidarity in the United States if only states could use their coercive power to stop (poor) women from getting abortions, or if women were less aggressive about making rights claims. By looking at other liberal democracies, we can notice that having greater access to abortion than in the United States doesn’t seem to prevent many countries from having robust welfare states, strong labor movements, etc., which further suggests that Russell is getting the cause-and-effect backward. (Moreover, pace Mary Ann Glendon–who focuses too much on law on the books and not enough on actual practices–abortion discourse in Germany is saturated with discussion of rights.)
Relatedly, I think there’s also false a claim that rights upholding individual choice are “non” or “anti-social.” A woman’s right to choose does involve individual claims against a particular vision of the social (patriarchy, class and gender double standards, assumptions that the biological capacity for childrearing should be central to a woman’s experience, etc.), just as the civil rights movement was opposed to the deeply embedded social mores of Jim Crow. But the right to choose is also part of a social vision of its own, one that assume that a woman’s equality, dignity, and security of person are better for men, women, and society as a whole. (It’s not feminists, after all, who oppose the welfare state, and nor does the communitarian, religion-drenched rhetoric that is so pervasive below the Mason-Dixon line seem to lead to more unionization.) Moreover, even if one assumes that most people are happier and children better off in committed, monogomous relationships and society should encourage this, it is (to put it mildly) unclear that increasing the number of unwanted–or, at least, unplanned–pregnancies will increase family stability. (Consider LizardBreath’s post about Roe–I think that the individual/community split is a false dichotomy. Her exercise of abortion rights was in her interest, and also in the long-term interests of her committed relationship and eventual loving family.) I have to respectfully reject the claim that abortion rights-claiming is fundamentally anti-social.