Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Abortion and the Ascendancy of Arguments for Choice

The racial politics of abortion partly arises from the current framing of abortion as a right to choose. The ideas of choice and privacy privileged in Roe did not speak to the need for state support of reproductive freedom, either in the form of financial support or protection against coercion. In explaining the persistence of the choice framework, studies tend to focus on Roe itself. The Court framed abortion as a matter of privacy, legitimating arguments based on choice.

As my current project shows, the emphasis put on choice arguments did not follow inevitably from Roe. In the mid-1970s, abortion opponents secured a string of victories, ensuring passage of the Hyde Amendment and winning several cases in the Supreme Court. Mainstream abortion-rights organizations attributed these defeats to the advantages the opposition enjoyed in electoral politics. In crafting a new political strategy, the movement emphasized arguments thought to have the broadest public appeal. The idea of choice, many concluded, had more public support than did the abortion procedure itself.

Conflict about the desirability of a choice-based frame continued throughout the 1970s, as feminist women’s health activists argued for a more comprehensive idea of reproductive freedom. Women, as activist Meredith Tax put it, had a right to have children as well as a right to abortion, and that right required government assistance with health care, child care, protection against sterilization abuse. In the period, women’s health activists criticized the idea of a right to choose. Women, they argued, needed a good deal more than freedom from state intervention.

By 1981, however, even advocates like Tax began to focus more exclusively on abortion and choice-based claims. As Tax saw it, her colleagues had little choice, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and Congress seriously considering statutory or constitutional strategies to overrule Roe. Roe came under constant and serious attack. It simply did not seem realistic to make the kind of nuanced arguments or far-reaching demands that characterized Tax’s reproductive-justice agenda.

The politics of choice in the 1970s and beyond reflected far more than the Court’s own framing of the abortion issue. The meaning and relevance of choice, moreover, set the terms of other battles, including those on conscience clauses and the defense of religious freedom. In fact, in debate about marriage equality and abortion, conscientious refusal today is more relevant today than ever. Why and how this came to be the case will be the subject of a future post.