Choice v. Freedom?

Choice v. Freedom?

The abortion rights cause has suffered by being cut off from the larger story of reproductive and sexual life, which is much more complex than can be captured by either "choice" or “freedom.”


Did supporters of abortion rights make a  rhetorical mistake when they  adopted "choice” as their mantra?  In an op-ed piece for the LA Times,  Nuance Matters in the Abortion Debate, “ Nancy L. Cohen argues that the abortion-rights movement needs a verbal (and conceptual) makeover.  While recent polls suggesting increasing numbers of Americans identify themselves as pro-life rather than pro-choice have been hyped and misreported, Cohen thinks the ‘choice” label is too weak to contend against mighty “life”:

" ‘Pro-choice’  has turned into a tone-deaf rallying cry, inadequate to our actual policy preferences and to the philosophical values Americans hold on the subject of abortion. It essentially cedes the moral high ground to the antiabortion movement. It doesn’t do enough to communicate the very American ideals at the foundation of the abortion rights movement — the belief that, in a free and democratic nation, the decision to have a child should rest with the individual woman and those with whom she freely consults.


“Perhaps ‘pro-choice’ was once good enough shorthand for liberty, human dignity, individualism, pluralism, self-government and women’s equality. But anyone who thinks it is still sufficient, as we enter our fifth decade of the culture wars, hasn’t been paying attention.”

 Cohen suggests replacing “choice” with “freedom” : “Are you pro-freedom or pro-life? Now those are values worthy of debate.”


Freedom is definitely a stronger, bolder word than choice, which, as many have noticed, sounds namby-pamby and euphemistic, as if even the supporters of legal and accessible abortion don’t want to refer too openly to what, exactly, is being chosen.  Choice also has unfortunate consumerist, trivializing overtones,  as if  the decision to terminate a pregnancy was like deciding what  sweater to buy or what burger to order. Where’s the sense of  need–the urgency, the desperation? Choice has always had that unfortunate focus-grouped ring to it, which is not surprising since it was intended to defang  the opposition. “Choice” says we can agree to disagree about abortion as long as it stays legal:


To each her own. But would calling for “reproductive freedom” change the debate?  Freedom is a great and noble word, but its fits the same libertarian framework as “choice.” The Hyde amendment and other bans on  government funding would  do fine under the “freedom” banner, because in America freedom means you can have what you pay for: freedom isn’t free. “Freedom” thus cuts both ways in just the same way as ‘choice”:  if you are free to get a legal abortion, shouldn’t I be free not to support it with my taxes?


It is hard to get from “freedom” to fairness, equality, and social support. We don’t talk about unemployment insurance as income freedom, or national health insurance as healthcare freedom. Racial freedom is not how we describe civil rights—and in fact, as the discomfort of Rand Paul and other Republicans with desegregation law shows, it’s not obvious to some even today why “freedom” shouldn’t mean the right to refuse to rent a motel room to black people.  If you believe a fertilized egg/embryo/fetus is a person, then why shouldn’t its  freedom to be born trump  the pregnant woman’s freedom not to give birth?

Freedom is an emotionally more stirring word than choice, while remaining vulnerable to the same objections and limitations. I think “reproductive justice,” a term some activists prefer, makes a better case for abortion rights in the area where they are most threatened, which is access, funding and respect for women.  It also links abortion to other reproductive issues in a broad way: is it justice if a woman aborts a wanted child because of poverty? If landlords won’t rent to families with children? If mothers are discriminated against in hiring?  If health insurance won’t pay for fertility treatments? If a woman is legally compelled to have a Caesarean?

I’m a bit skeptical about the ability of framing to alter a discussion that has been going on now for most of my lifetime.  But no question the cause of abortion rights has suffered by being cut off from the larger story of reproductive and sexual life, which is much more complex than can be captured by either "choice’ or “freedom.”  

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