I hate liberalism’s language of “choice.” I always have. Redolent of the marketplace, it reduces the most intimate aspects of existence, of women’s physical autonomy, to individualistic purchasing preferences. A sex life or a Subaru? A child or a cheeseburger? Life, death or liposuction? In that circumstance, capitalism’s only question is, Who pays and who profits? The state’s only question is, Who regulates and how much? If there is an upside to the right’s latest, seemingly loony and certainly grotesque multi-front assault on women, it is the clarion it sounds to humanists to take the high ground and ditch the anodyne talk of “a woman’s right to choose” for the weightier, fundamental assertion of “a woman’s right to be.”
That requires that we look to history and the Constitution. I found myself doing that a few weeks back, sitting in the DC living room of Pamela Bridgewater, talking about slavery as the TV news followed the debate over whether the State of Virginia should force a woman to spread her legs and endure a plastic wand shoved into her vagina. Pamela has a lot of titles that, properly, ought to compel me to refer to her now as Professor Bridgewater—legal scholar, teacher at American University, reproductive rights activist, sex radical—but she is my friend and sister, and we were two women sitting around talking, so I shall alternate between the familiar and the formal.
“What a spectacle,” Pamela exclaimed, “Virginia, the birthplace of the slave breeding industry in America, is debating state-sanctioned rape. Imagine the woman who says No to this as a prerequisite for abortion. Will she be strapped down, her ankles shackled to stir-ups?”
“I suspect,” said I, “that partisans would say, ‘If she doesn’t agree, she is free to leave.’ ”
“Right, which means she is coerced into childbearing or coerced into taking other measures to terminate her pregnancy, which may or may not be safe. Or she relents and says Yes, and that’s by coercion, too.”
“Scratch at modern life and there’s a little slave era just below the surface, so we’re right back to your argument.”
Pamela Bridgewater’s argument, expressed over the past several years in articles and forums, and at the heart of a book in final revision called Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery and the Pursuit of Freedom, presents the most compelling conceptual and constitutional frame I know for considering women’s bodily integrity and defending it from the right.
In brief, her argument rolls out like this. The broad culture tells a standard story of the struggle for reproductive rights, beginning with the flapper, climaxing with the pill, Griswold v. Connecticut and an assumption of privacy rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and concluding with Roe v. Wade. The same culture tells a traditional story of black emancipation, beginning with the Middle Passage, climaxing with Dred Scott, Harpers Ferry and Civil War and concluding with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Both stories have a postscript—a battle royal between liberation and reaction—but, as Bridgewater asserts, “Taken together, these stories have no comprehensive meaning. They tell no collective tale. They create no expectation of sexual freedom and no protection against, or remedy for, reproductive slavery. They exist in separate spheres; that is a mistake.” What unites them but what both leave out, except incidentally, is the experience of black women. Most significantly, they leave out “the lost chapter of slave breeding.”