social movements + innovation lab


Moving from Talking About “the Right to Choose” to the “Right to use”

A recent Time magazine cover story asked What Choice?, making the argument that ever since winning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, abortion-rights activists have been losing.

The author tells of the victories of abortion rights opponents to regulate abortion, especially on the state level, and of the intergenerational battles within the pro-choice movement.

Rather than offer any new analysis (such as, why the pro-life movement focuses on state-based regulations), she tells us that the pro-choice movement’s inability to make concessions is the reason it is losing the abortion wars. Oh, I see, if only abortion rights supporters had been willing to make compromises along the way, more of the public would be on our side? But even a brief review of history negates this argument. Roe itself was a huge compromise. It didn’t give women unrestricted access to abortion; instead it limited their options at 24 weeks and always references a woman’s decision with the involvement of her physician. Following Roe, the pro-choice movement continued making compromises as early as 1976, when it failed to hold the line on Medicaid funding for abortion. Allowing those opposed to abortion to opt out of paying for women’s abortions was supposed to settle the divisive issue…but it didn’t. And none of the many concessions made subsequent have done anything to reduce the intensity of the abortion divide. The only number of abortions that will satisfy opponents of abortion is zero, and that number will never be attained.

“Lack of compromise” wasn’t the pro-choice movement’s downfall. It went wrong when it failed to vigorously defend women’s use of abortion. It called itself the “pro-choice” movement to try to make the issue about the “freedom to choose” rather than the “freedom to use.” For decades it relied on the Courts to protect abortion as a constitutional right. Instead of providing support and empowerment for the 1.2 million women in the U.S. who have abortions every year, the pro-choice movement embraced a strategy of trying to appease anti-abortion forces by supporting efforts to reduce the need for abortion and by focusing on decreasing rates of unintended pregnancy. One of the national organizations in the movement, NARAL Pro-Choice America, went so far as to take “abortion” out of its name. And Planned Parenthood uses every opportunity to remind the public that less than 10% of its services are abortion. Both the pro-choice and the pro-life movements seemed to be saying that there was a problem with abortion. And in doing so, they piled stigma onto the women who had abortions. And the women themselves internalized this stigma and remained silent. They kept their abortion stories to themselves thus making abortion seem uncommon. It wasn’t not compromising that brought us to this point, it was thinking that compromising was going to bring peace and “agreements we could live with.”

It is true that there is a generational divide among abortion rights supporters. Each generation of activists should build off the successes of the last, discontent to settle for what the last generation saw as successes. The new generation of reproductive health, rights and justice leaders want more than simply the right to abortion. They want people to be able to make decisions about all aspects of their sexual and reproductive lives. They want those decisions to be supported. They also want the voices of those affected to be central to the cause. They want people to be able to tell their abortion stories if they so choose, with all the messiness that entails. It makes sense that they aren’t willing to compromise if it means that the needs of people with fewer resources or less access to power are sacrificed. Insurance coverage for abortion, both public and private, is a central part of their agenda. And they aren’t willing to join organizations that think the people who have abortions have done something wrong, even if this means abandoning what Time calls the “legacy” pro-choice organizations. Instead they have started new organizations that focus on meeting the emotional or practical needs of people making pregnancy decisions. They have joined organizations helping young people tell their abortion stories. More than anything, they have addressed abortion stigma head on. They reject the “pro-choice” label but instead embrace support for the people who have abortions.

40 years after the Roe decision, a new movement is emerging that incorporates abortion into a larger fight for social justice. Abortion is not just a constitutional right; it is something women do as part of managing their lives and futures. The pro-life movement may be succeeding at regulating abortion and making it harder to obtain, but those successes will be short-lived. The arch of history bends towards justice and women have and will always have both abortions and babies. Our job is to stop treating that like anything but what it is – simply a fact of reproductive lives.