The ‘generation war’ over abortion rights

ESSAY: Among abortion activists, there’s a worrying shift from supporting choice to demanding ‘justice’.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

A generation war seems to have erupted in the US pro-choice movement. A front-page feature article in Time magazine, published in the 14 January edition, began with the bold statement: ‘Abortion-rights activists won an epic victory in Roe v Wade. They’ve been losing ever since’.

The author, Kate Pickert, sees the famous US Supreme Court ruling in 1973, which struck down many legal restrictions on abortion, as a high-water mark for pro-choice activists. Pickert argues that ‘a rebellion within the abortion-rights cause – pitting feminists in their 20s and 30s against pro-choice power brokers who were in their 20s and 30s when Roe was decided – threatens to tear it in two’, as ‘[m]any young activists are bypassing the legacy feminist organisations that have historically protected access to abortion, weakening the pro-choice establishment at the very moment it needs to coalesce around new strategies to combat pro-life gains and connect with the public’.

Meanwhile, new strategies to ‘connect with public’ have raised eyebrows among advocates of choice across the world, as the major abortion provider and advocacy organisation Planned Parenthood has announced its decision to drop the pro-choice ‘label’ in the light of research showing that a quarter of American votes don’t identify with being classified as either ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’. ‘The labels can mask people’s support for access to safe and legal abortion, and they can politicise a conversation that is deeply personal and often complex’, said Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood executive vice-president and chief experience officer. ‘We’re eager to help people have an authentic conversation – while we continue working to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal.’

Neither the generational wrangles within US advocacy organisations, nor the shift away from a narrative of choice, are sudden developments. These tensions have been growing for a time, and reflect broader political and cultural shifts. But what accounts for the battle that seems to have erupted now?

‘Establishment’ feminist organisations and the abortion cause

Pickert highlights two main reasons for the generational split. One is the ‘reluctance’ of the leaders of ‘establishment feminist organisations’ to ‘pass on the torch’. She notes that this tension ‘had been brewing for years’, but exploded in 2010 when Nancy Keenan, the 60-year-old leader of NARAL Pro-Choice America, ‘told Newsweek that she worried that the pro-choice cause might be vulnerable because young people weren’t motivated enough to get involved’.

Keenan’s comment caused many younger activists to hit back in anger at the insult. It was felt particularly keenly by those who felt their desire to become more involved at a leadership level was being blocked. But many were also riled by the implication that only the older generation properly ‘got’ the pro-choice cause. ‘They are the generation that gave us legalised abortions, but they also screwed up’, said 25-year-old activist Steph Harold.

As well as a struggle for leadership, there also appears to be a difference in values between the generations. ‘The power struggle isn’t based on differences over the right to access abortion’, states Pickert, noting that ‘[y]oung activists fighting for reproductive rights have the same hardline view of abortion access as their predecessors: they say it should be unrestricted by state governments and the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be left solely to women and their doctors’.

Yet the younger activists tend to frame the issue in a different way – they want to ‘modernise the cause, which includes expanding it’, and ‘often don’t mention the term pro-choice, which they say is limiting and outdated’. Their preference is for the more ‘holistic’ frame implied by the concept of reproductive justice, ‘a broader, more diffuse agenda that addresses abortion access but also contraception, childcare, gay rights, health insurance and economic opportunity’.

The move away from ‘choice’ and towards ‘reproductive justice’ marks a significant shift in the parameters of the pro-choice argument. What is striking is not that it has been controversial, but that it has been so widely and quickly accepted.

Why ‘choice’ matters

In an article for Conscience, the journal of the US pro-choice group Catholics for Choice, Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has made an eloquent argument about the problem of attempting to substitute the concept of reproductive justice for the narrative of choice.

‘Traditionally, in our movement, the term “pro-choice” has been shorthand for respecting an individual woman’s “right to decide” for herself’, Furedi explains. While we know that the choice to have an abortion is not like the consumer choice about which dress to buy, and we know that a woman’s capacity to exercise her choice is affected by her circumstances, ‘the inescapable question at the centre of any discussion about abortion, when everything else is stripped away, comes down to this: can a woman be trusted to make her own decisions about her own pregnancy?’

The concept of ‘reproductive justice’ challenges the idea of ‘reproductive choice’ in assuming that choice is not enough. The fact that women have the right to decide whether to continue their pregnancy does not address the deeper problems that they face, and therefore having an abortion will not bring a material improvement to their lives. While this is true, as Furedi explains, the problem with emphasising the limits of the pro-choice argument in terms of wider social change is that it undermines the importance of the pro-choice argument in its own terms.

As Furedi writes: ‘Making decisions is part of what it means to be human. We may have no control over what we “are”, in the sense that our nationality and background may be set, but we do have some choice about what we “do”. Socially constructed value systems do not predetermine all the decisions we take… The fact that a woman is black, or poor, or alone, or stigmatised clearly will influence her decision – but it does not take away her capacity to decide, to make a choice.’

She continues: ‘To say, literally, that she has no capacity to make a choice in the matter takes away her humanity, since our capacity to make decisions is part of what makes us human. If our lives are simply dictated by circumstances, then we are no more than base animals – driven by instinct and environment. There is no space for self-determination and no space for conscience because if we cannot choose what to do, then we cannot choose what is right and not what is wrong.’

A further, related problem with the reproductive-justice argument is that it implicitly endorses the prejudice behind many of the arguments made by opponents of abortion, who stress that women are being compelled to abort their pregnancies by a society that does not care enough for them. For example, in Britain, one of the more pernicious arguments currently being mobilised by anti-abortion campaigners is that women who have an unwanted pregnancy are de facto vulnerable, and are thus incapable of making a genuine choice to end the pregnancy through abortion.

This has led to the argument that, merely by offering abortion as an acceptable option, abortion providers are exploiting these women’s vulnerability, and pressurising them into taking a particular course of action. For these opponents of abortion, women need to be enabled to make the ‘right choice’ by a culture that is more supportive of women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term than ours currently is. This is expressed in such measures as ‘independent counselling’, which in the USA has long been understood as an anti-abortion tactic. In this way, a version of the ‘reproductive justice’ argument ends up purportedly protecting women by denying them access to abortion.

There are, then, both principled and pragmatic objections to be made to the shift away from a discourse of ‘choice’, and towards a discourse of ‘reproductive justice’. Given this, why have so many in the US pro-choice movement bought into this shift?

Going ‘beyond’ choice

In an ‘open letter to abortion-rights activists’, published on RH Reality Check, 19-year-old abortion activist Carly Manes writes: ‘It is because of the courageous work by our predecessors that Millennials no longer have to focus all of their energy and efforts solely on establishing the legality of abortion. And isn’t this what our mothers and grandmothers worked for all those years: so that one day women could take for granted the right to decide when and if to have children? Didn’t they want us to live in a country where women (and men) had access to and could afford contraception and, when needed, be assured that safe and affordable abortion would be available?’

The issue, for Manes, is that ‘the dreams of our mothers and grandmothers have yet to be realised’ – meaning that the task of the ‘Millennial’ generation of activists is to ‘continue to push back against the dehumanising restrictions to abortion care, the threats to providers and their patients, and the efforts to stigmatise and isolate women who get abortions’.

This quote provides a more subtle insight into the appearance of the current generational divide among activists than the acrimonious exchanges about whether young people just can’t be bothered to get involved, or whether the problem is the ‘old guard’ refusing to move over and let the younger generation take a lead. For the younger generation, the problem of abortion simply appears as a different one – less an issue of equality and rights than an issue of social justice and respect.

In part, this is because, as Manes indicates, the primary battle over abortion rights – like the battle over formal political equality or employment rights – has been won. This does not mean that the threat to formal abortion rights has gone away: a recent briefing by the Guttmacher Institute highlights the myriad ways in which state laws and regulations are used to restrict abortion access. But these devious attempts by opponents of abortion to make women’s experience harder and more unpleasant generally go alongside a grudging, pragmatic acceptance that abortion should be provided in some circumstances, and there seems to be no general push to overturn Roe v Wade.

However, though the need for abortion is accepted, the question of why it is important seems to have become more difficult for activists to articulate. The traditional arguments used by postwar feminism – about the importance of upholding women’s autonomy, privacy and ‘right to choose’ as a means to enabling women to participate equally in work and public life – are now challenged not only by anti-abortion arguments about the value of fetal life, but also by arguments within the pro-choice camp about whether equality and autonomy are convincing, indeed desirable, goals.

In this regard, the shift in the pro-choice movement reflects a wider reaction against the ‘equality feminism’ traditionally promoted by the established women’s organisations in the USA. This reaction is evident not only in the abortion debate, but also in discussions about work and parenting, often encapsulated in the amorphous – and endless – discussion over ‘work-life balance’.

There is a growing sentiment that the kind of equality fought for by the so-called ‘second wave’ feminists of the baby-boomer generation reflected the particular priorities of a section of white, middle-class women. These ideas, it is claimed, promoted a narrow value-system based on achievement through work, rather than valuing the different ways in which women might choose to express themselves, or engaging properly with problems caused by race, poverty and violence. This, in turn, expresses a wide disenchantment with the virtue of work and public life.

Feminist activism today seems to be less about finding clear causes around which to mobilise (‘pro-choice’), than about emphasising the complexity and diversity of women’s experiences, choices and circumstances. But while this is important as a counter to crude sloganising (women, as we know, are not a homogenous group who share one particular goal in life), it makes for a muddled advocacy argument when what is at stake is pretty clear: women either have the right to choose abortion, or they don’t.

Writing on Slate, Amanda Marcotte draws attention to the absurdity of pitting the idea that abortion is a personal, private decision that women make in the context of their own circumstances, against the slogan ‘pro-choice’. If the focus-group participants mean ‘that they are not “pro-abortion” but rather “pro- a woman being able to make her decision based on her circumstances”, that is the very definition of pro-choice’, Marcotte argues. ‘The only real choice you have is to label yourself or let others do it for you, and of those two options, smart folks will pick the former every time. “Pro-choice” has its drawbacks, but at least it’s accurate.’

A generational divide?

The shift away from the pro-choice ‘label’ often appears as a generational divide – but the critique of pro-choice advocacy does not come from younger generations. For example, Francis Kissling, veteran abortion campaigner and a former president of Catholics for Choice, has arguably been the most vocal proponent of the idea that ‘choice’ is the wrong term to use in relation to women’s abortion decisions, as this does not take proper account of the value of fetal life; and that abortion advocates need to be more open to limiting access to abortion in cases where the decision can be seen as ethically wrong (for example, in later gestations).

Indeed, since abortion advocacy began, the idea has been strongly articulated that access to abortion should be promoted on the basis of sympathy to the harsh conditions of a woman’s life, rather than because of commitment to her choice about whether she wants to continue her pregnancy. Indeed, it is this idea that forms the basis of the abortion law in Britain, where two doctors have to agree that continuing her pregnancy would damage the woman’s physical or mental health. It is for this reason that the case of rape is always highlighted in discussions about abortion provision around the world.

What we might call the ‘victim narrative’ of abortion is certainly not unique to the present day. But what has changed is the extent to which advocates of abortion want to temper this victim narrative with arguments based on women’s autonomy and their capacity to make choices about their pregnancy. The current emphasis on ‘reproductive justice’ is not just about tweaking a message. It runs counter to the spirit of pro-choice advocacy, promoting women as victims of their experience, in need of help and understanding, rather than citizens deserving of rights.

The ongoing discussion about the problem of alienating public support through employing the language of choice masks a deep defensiveness within the movement, about how much advocates themselves believe that women can make choices of their own accord. And the obsession with focus groups and ‘messages’ itself evades the real issue. People’s opinions about abortion are not formed by the message, but by the thing itself. Abortion incites strong feelings, opinions and arguments, based not only on ideas about the relative value of fetal life, but, as Marcotte points out, on anxieties about sexuality, gender roles, and the family. These issues need to be engaged with and argued out; simply picking a different message will not resolve anything.

Many activists today – of all ages, and in the UK as well as the USA – seem to be more comfortable with the idea that women having abortions are doing so because really, they have ‘no choice’; they have been pushed into this course of action by their circumstances. Some women may, indeed, experience their abortion in this way – but for others, the reality is that they do have a choice, which simply did not exist before the 1970s. There is a real danger that the argument for going ‘beyond choice’ undermines the very thing that the pro-choice cause has given us: as Carly Manes puts it, the ability to ‘take for granted the right to decide when and if to have children’.

As Furedi argues, ‘We may not be able to provide women with the social and economic resources to live their preferred lives. But we should not add to women’s burdens by refusing to acknowledge the importance of what they do have – what some people call “agency”, others call “decision-making capacity”.’ Winning the argument for choice might be difficult today – though it is hard to see why it is more difficult now than in previous decades. What is certain is that younger generations of women, and their daughters, will lose a great deal if we turn our back on the ‘pro-choice label’.

Jennie Bristow is editor of Abortion Review and author of Standing Up To Supernanny and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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Topics Politics


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