Whose Right to Choose?
Posted on May 2, 2014
All About Ann, A documentary about former Texas Governor Ann Richards premiered on HBO this week.
Before watching the documentary, I didn’t know much about Ann Richards, aside from the fact that she was a Democratic governor of Texas and her daughter is Cecile Richards, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood. The documentary, then, was both interesting and educational. I feel far more informed about an important woman in American political history.
There was one moment in the documentary that probably wasn’t meant to inspire a lot of reflection, but that has stuck with me. While identifying as pro-choice, Governor Richards said in a clip, “I believe in a woman’s right to choose.”
Now, this phrase has been around for my entire life.
The emphasis I always heard in that phrase sounded like this: “A woman’s right to choose.” That emphasis on the word choose made all the difference. To a young Christian fundamentalist with little understanding of pregnancy, crisis pregnancy, high-risk pregnancy, rape, the difficulty of acquiring birth control for some women, the lack of sex education in our schools, I didn’t understand the idea or need for choice. If the option to have an abortion was taken away, I felt there were plenty of other choices still available to a pregnant woman.
I’ve long since become politically pro-choice, but I’ve still always interpreted that phrase as being all about choices. (Makes sense, considering “choice” is also in the major identifying label for people who support legal access to abortion.)
When watching the Ann Richards documentary, I heard something different. I heard a new emphasis: “A woman’s right to choose.”
Suddenly, the situation wasn’t: “I believe in a woman’s right to choose to haven abortion.”
Instead, the situation was: “I believe in a woman’s right to choose for herself, as opposed to anyone else making that choice for her.”
It seems silly not to have put it into words until watching that documentary, but here’s the thing: A woman’s right to choose isn’t about the choices she makes; it’s about the fact that she’s the one who gets to make them.
There are a lot of decisions that go into reproductive health. In my life, I’ve made plenty of them. When to not have sex. When to start having sex. Who to have sex with and who not to. Whether or not to use birth control. What kind of birth control to use. When to stop taking birth control. When to get pregnant. Staying pregnant to the best of my ability. What to eat and drink during my pregnancies. What medications to take during my pregnancies. How to miscarry (at home or at the hospital). How and where to give birth. How to recover from my pregnancies. How much time off from work to take.
Now, like it happens for all women, some of these choices have been made more freely than others. (Returning to work has had to be done within the confines of policy, for example.) Additionally, as an employed, health-insured, middle-class woman I have more privilege than others in several of these areas. Still, I was ultimately the person making these decisions. I may have chosen to include other people–my husband, my medical provider, etc–in these decisions, but only because I wanted them to be involved.
The idea that someone else would be making these decisions for me is outrageous.
Things that would be absurd:
- My pastor deciding when I have or don’t have sex.
- My husband deciding whether or not I get an epidural during labor.
- My medical provider deciding when I go on birth control.
- My parents deciding that I shouldn’t be allowed to be pregnant yet.
- My governor deciding when I have to go back to work after giving birth.
- My senator deciding I have to go to the hospital to miscarry instead of doing so in my own home.
And yet, historically and in the present, women have not and do not have the freedom to make these choices. Reproductive health decisions are often not left up to the woman to choose.
Look at these examples of women whose reproductive choices have been made by someone else:
- In a three-year span of the 1970s, 3,406 Native American women were permanently sterilized without consent by the Indian Health Service.
- In 2012, a judge ruled that a woman with mental illness should have a compulsory abortion and be sterilized.
- California sterilized 148 female prisoners between 2006 and 2010.
- State legislators across the country are trying to incentivize sterilization via Norplant among poor women–basically tying the use of Norplant to these women’s welfare benefits.
- Last month, a woman in Brazil was taken from her home–where she was preparing for a homebirth–by police and forced to have a C-section at the hospital.
- It is illegal for a midwife to attend a homebirth in several states.
- Texas law prevented a brain-dead woman from being removed from life support, despite her wishes, because she was 14 weeks pregnant when her brain died–weeks before fetal viability.
- Due to inequalities in the system that favor the rich over the poor, women in China are still being subjected to forced abortions because of the nation’s one-child policy.
- Many of the women Kermit Gosnell took advantage of felt he was their only choice—his methods were able to continue because poor women and women of color are too often invisible to the broader community.
- In my state of Indiana, 1 in 5 girls will be raped before her eighteenth birthday.
- A woman in Ireland died after she was denied an abortion.
These are just a handful of the ways women have not been allowed to make their own reproductive decisions. As you can see, many of them have nothing to do with abortion. And despite the fact that there are a number of ways each of these situations can be debated, the truth is that when women aren’t in charge of their own reproductive decisions, then someone else is making their decisions for them. These women have all lost their right to choose.
These injustices are what happens when choice is taken from women and instead given that to their partners, abusers, legislators, parents, doctors, etc. While pro-lifers do not believe that abortion should be something a woman has a right to choose, it’s important to realize that that phrasing—a woman’s right to choose—is about so much more than abortion. It’s about the fact that when it comes to reproduction, a woman should be able to make her own decisions, even if someone else in authority disagrees with her decision. Decisions about sex and reproduction are some of the most intimate decisions a woman will make in her lifetime. Those decisions should be left up to her, even if some people are uncomfortable with the decisions she makes.