Sunday, 27 June 2010


You may have noticed the latest thread about abortion to explode into discussion about a woman’s right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Everyone who blogs here is pro-choice, although precisely how we choose to define that might differ from person to person. What I’m going to write about in this post is my personal view. Other bloggers may agree with it, I don’t know, and they may well indicate by comments their agreement, disagreement or otherwise. We shall see!

I want to write a bit more broadly about choice and bodies, in the context of women and obviously with reference to abortion as that is the major area of societal discussion about women’s power over their own bodies.

I stated my view of a woman’s right to choose in respect of abortion in a comment on the aforementioned thread, and I’ll quote it again here:
The bottom line for me is that we need to respect the right and power of women to control their own bodies. This extends to unequivocally and without restriction giving individual women the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. They are the people best placed to make the best decision about whether or not to have a child; they know all their own circumstances, which you can never fully know from outside. And sometimes individual women will make choices about their bodies, about their fertility, about their reproductive plans, that others disagree with or wouldn't make in the same circumstances. That's ok; if we just respect that the woman concerned is the person best placed to make a decision that affects her first and foremost then that helps us get by without angst and public judgeyness.
I’ve come to this view of choice through thinking about abortion, and probably the biggest influence on my thinking in this area has been reading and hearing Maia’s thoughts on the matter over the last five years or so. I think this idea about choice extrapolates to other issues in regard to women’s bodies.

This is why I will never support making it illegal for pregnant women to drink alcohol. We should definitely have significant public education campaigns about the dangers and effects of consuming alcoholic beverages during gestation. We should be aiming for a society where everyone has a level of education, and sufficient access to this kind of information, that they can make informed choices for themselves. If a woman still chooses to drink during pregnancy, knowing all that, then we should respect that choice. Just like we shouldn’t restrict access to caesarean sections, or plastic surgery. These are decisions a woman is making about her own body and her own health.

Respecting doesn’t mean agreeing – it means respecting that they have the right to make that choice, for themselves. You don’t have to agree to everything other people do. If that was the case, and everyone had to agree with me, then we would not have a Prime Minister who is prepared to trade basic democratic rights for two pandas.

How does this view influence my behaviour? I’m not perfect and I can be judgey too. What I try my very best to do is to not be judgey to someone’s face. I might have a quiet rant to my partner about an unwise choice I think a friend is making, but I acknowledge that I don’t know everything that they have considered in making that choice, I can’t possibly know because I am Not Them. I might make a different choice if I were in the exact same situation, but I am still Not Them. Sometimes I’ll write something here (often weeks or months later) about the broad pressures around that choice, the things that bug me about it from a wider context, but I try really hard not to write in a way that criticizes individual women* for making that choice. Empathy, that thing Paul Henry lacks, is what I'm striving for, although sometimes I fail.

I have to say that taking this approach is a lot less stressful than wanting to Fix everything for everyone all the time. This is my general approach to feminism too, and why I get a bit annoyed at claims that Feminism HQ somehow doesn't respect women's agency. There is no Feminism HQ, and anyone who claims to be from there should have their credentials checked for signs of being written on Psychic Paper. But that's a whole other ranty post right there.

Getting back to the point, we all make choices everyday. Some good, some bad, some so heavily restricted by circumstances as to not really be true choices at all. I hope that one day we can live in a society where the abortion rate is lower than it is now, but only because that will show that contraception is more available and effective than it is now and that people have more reproductive rights.

* I’m sure someone will come up with some examples of posts I’ve written where I have criticized individual women, particularly women who have made negative statements about other women or about feminism or feminists. What I’m talking about in this post is specifically about choices that women make for how they run their own lives, and even more tightly mostly about their own bodies. I think it’s healthy to critique each other in the public statements that we make about life in general (which is one of the reasons I tend to be quite liberal about comments here). But we head into tricky territory when we judge harshly the choices individuals make about their own lives (see entire rest of post above).


Deborah said...

I contributed to that thread at PAS, in a couple of places, once arguing for a minimal definition of feminism that focuses on women's autonomy (I think I used the term agency too), and once responding to various points people had made, arguing in particular that choice feminism is too thin a definition of feminism, and getting back to autonomy. And in the past, I've argued that feminists must be pro-choice, even if they are anti-abortion for themselves. Being anything other than pro-choice denies women's autonomy.

I'm sure that some of the details of our feminism and activism will differ, Julie, but we are working from the same basic premise of women as autonomous adults, who have the capacity and the right to make decision for themselves.

Julie said...

I have to admit to not reading the comment thread yet, as I can't deal with the extra aggravation at the moment. Glad to hear you put your thoughts in though :)

Maia said...

Aw thanks Julie. This was a great post.

I think the idea of autonomy is a really important one - and fundamentally different from 'choice'. (I like to say I don't think feminism is about choices, but stopping women from having to make choices).

I keep meaning to try and untangle some of these ideas - and talk about why they get so tangled. But given my current blog writing productivity that should happen sometime in. 2054

Megan said...

Um. If I may quote from Emma's post:

"The thing is, of course, that there is no Head Office, that we do have those arguments about who and what feminism is... Some ideas that were powerfully and exclusively feminist a century ago are now so mainstream they are accepted by people like Sarah Palin – a woman's right to vote, to stand for election, to have a career. Why is that bad, and not simply a sign of progress?"

I think the thing that I've been arguing over there, and I've had conversations with a number of people, including Emma about, is that I am sick of being told something is bad for me. And for all women. Sex and the City, for example, is just bad. It doesn't have to be Bad For Women. I'm bored of being told I'm a bad feminist because I like shoes and lipstick. I'm bored of having to offer up my credentials and being told that I've not had an experience so I can't have an opinion.

Put simply, I'm a little bit bored of being told what to do. Both by feminists and otherwise.

Julie said...

Megan, that's where I'm coming from too, in this post, or at least that's where I think I'm coming from - does it not read like that?

katy said...

To continue the side discussion about terminology, I like the word "agency" because I see it goes beyond making choices/decisions to being able to act!

megan said...

Julie, I read it as Emma's post made you angry.

Which is why i was confused, because that's emphatically not what she said.

Julie said...

If I'm completely honest, which is not always a wise thing in blog comments/posts, but hey I've started so why not go on, I get quite frustrated with the line of argument that goes "I am not a feminist because I don't like some of the things that some feminists do/say, even though I agree with, and indeed frequently actively support, most of what many feminists do/say." I respect totally Emma's right to say she's not a feminist. I've tried to write up several times now why I find this all so frustrating and I haven't succeeded yet. Hopefully one day I will.

In terms of what I was trying to say in this post it wasn't primarily "I got a bit annoyed at Emma's post." This post wasn't even a result of Emma's post, and probably in hindsight I shouldn't have referred to it because clearly it has muddied the waters in a way I hadn't anticipated. I wanted to talk positively about what I see as a feminist way to think about women's control of their bodies (now leaning towards the term "agency" as pretty useful), particularly in light of the recent discussion here around abortion.

Have to go pick up my child now, probably won't be able to respond further until tomorrow afternoon, but please don't let that stop anyone in the meantime (unless you are a mean nasty troll!)

ms p said...

I'm with you Julie, on how hard it to articulate the trouble I have with that line of argument.

I think the Boobquake thread and a thread about a pack rape allegation (I think, I tried to find it to refresh my memory but got lost in archives) upset people, from what I've read elsewhere. But I didn't see the debate in those threads as attacking individuals' choices. I've read the whole 'sick of being attacked for lipstick and high heels' comments a few times but haven't seen where this is being said.

But even it was, we have to be able to hash out those issues and people will disagree. If someone disagrees, should the conversation stop? That's not what happens in other communities so why should it happen in a feminist community?

Katy said...

I don't want to open up a can of worms but:

"I'm bored of being told I'm a bad feminist because I like shoes and lipstick. I'm bored of having to offer up my credentials and being told that I've not had an experience so I can't have an opinion."

Where is this happening? Seriously? I am bored with being told feminists are ganging up on women who wear make-up when in all my time of being a feminist and reading feminist blogs I've NEVER seen this. I don't see how the 'feminists hate women who buy shoes' meme is not offensive. There are HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of feminist blogs that have make-up tips on there and 'shoes of the week' posts. It's a ludicrous assumption that feminists either a) don't like women who like shoes or b) as a majority don't like shoes at all. Sorry: rant over.

AnneE said...

The thing is, choices don't happen in a vacuum. What choices are available and what is seen as a matter of choice at all depend heavily on the circumstances, which are generally not a matter of individual choice. So with food, for example, what you "choose" to eat or not eat is very strongly influenced by your family's food history and culture, what's available or available to you, how much food-buying money and information you have, who else you are buying food for and what they will and won't eat (women are commonly shopping and cooking for others, not just themselves), what food ad campaigns are doing... The point at which individual choice comes into it is very hard to work out - as those concerned about obesity and eating disorders know only too well. I'm not trying to argue there's no such thing as individual choice. And now that safe contraception and abortion is (sort of) available, many (not all) women in this country do indeed have more real reproductive choices than ever before. But what about choosing to smoke or take other addictive drugs? It's your body, certainly, but aren't there some "choices" that unarguably do so much damage to you and to others, while making a select few a great deal of money, that they should not be available?

Julie said...

I'm going to have a bit more of a think about Emma's post, and the comments here on that topic, and see if I can finally bash something out that communicates my unease about this stuff. It may be some time.

In terms of allowing people to make negative choices like smoking, I guess I see it as similar to what I personally think is often a negative choice to have unnecessary surgery (e.g. a breast enlargement). We can do everything we can (and I don't think we currently do) to discourage the negative choice through education and support, but at the end of the day I think we still need to respect the agency of individuals. I have been tending, as I get older, towards a more liberal attitude to even illegal drugs. I may change my mind when my child is older of course!

Could there be circumstances in which making an on-the-surface negative choice could in fact be not so negative or indeed positive? E.g. someone could be smoking as a form of replacement for a more harmful addiction. They could be having a breast enlargement because they have had years and years of taunting about having small breasts, to the point where it's effected their mental health and they really see this as their only option to improve their self-esteem.

Would that make those choices not entirely negative? I'm not sure, but maybe.

Maia said...

Well I've just reposted something which may or may not demonstrate where I stand on all this.

I have to say Anne - you lost me on your example when you talked about people who are worried about 'eating disorders and obesity' (post on why I find that an offensive pairing here)