Woman as Reason
Roe v. Wade 30 years later, the limits of political emancipation
by Maya Jhansi
The war has served well as a distraction from the
ambitious and alarming attack on women's reproductive freedom issued by the U.S.
Senate on March 13. With a vote of 64 to 33, the Senate passed the
so-called "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003." This bill is
a well-calculated strike at Roe v. Wade on its 30th anniversary.
Essentially, the bill criminalizes a medical procedure
called dilation and extraction used for some second trimester abortions.
The term "partial birth abortion" is not recognized by the medical
community. It is a deceptive description designed to garner support for
the criminalization of a safe medical procedure. The American Medical
Association as well as most other medical organizations are against such bans.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists describes so-called
"partial-birth abortion" bans as "an inappropriate, ill-advised
and dangerous intervention into medical decision making." To make
matters worse, the federal ban makes NO EXCEPTION FOR THE HEALTH OF THE WOMAN.
The timing is revealing. While the world watches the war
on Iraq with horror, the right wing is busy pushing through its reactionary
agenda at home. The hypocrisy of this is too raw to bear: war hawks waxing
sentimental over "the unborn" while they wreak death and destruction
on thousands of living souls.
THE RISE OF THE RIGHT
However, though the war is serving Bush as a war of
distraction from the crises at home, it does not explain the victories of the
Right when it comes to women's reproductive freedom. While this federal
ban is the latest and perhaps most ambitious legislative victory, the arena
where the Right has gained the most ground is morality. Over the last
three decades, the right wing has succeeded in demonizing, not only abortion,
but women, especially poor and Black women. It has gained, in effect,
control over the paramaters of discourse about abortion with the basic
assumption that women cannot be trusted to make moral decisions about their
The Right has learned a lot from freedom movements in
this country, particularly the Civil Rights Movement. It mobilizes support by
drawing on moral arguments, religion, philosophy and history. It's true
that their most fanatical supporters bomb clinics and kill doctors, and the
so-called "moderate" supporters cover for them. But, this is not what
explains the Right's victories. Indeed, the Right has been known to invoke the
memory of Martin Luther King Jr. (nevermind that he was actually pro-choice and,
of course, against mindless violence) to give their "movement" the
semblance of ethical content.
The women's movement has gone the exact opposite way,
towards pragmatism and an almost exclusive focus on electoral politics. Because
the feminist movement has so narrowed its vision and focus to abortion
legislation, it has not provided a viable vision to counter the lies and
misinformation of the Right. The women's movement has all but ceded the moral
ground to the Right.
Partly, as many women of color have noted, this comes
from a narrowing of the movement to the single issue of abortion rights. This
left to the side other realities specific to poor, working-class and minority
women, such as forced sterilization in the 1970s, so-called population control
today, lack of birth control and lack of primary health care. Many poor women
are denied the "right" to be mothers and to have a family. By leaving
out the concerns of women of color and poor women, the abortion rights movement
narrowed its liberatory vision–and thus lost moral ground.
The movement has also left to the side the larger
philosophical questions around women's reproductive lives, questions about
meaning, existence, human relationships, sexual intimacy. For example, such
concepts as "choice" and "self-determination" are taken for
granted, without working out their emancipatory connotations. What does
self-determination mean, outside of a vision of social transformation? What does
"choice" mean in, for example, a context in which economic degradation
makes abortion not a "choice" but an exigency?
Beyond political emancipation
I recently read an article by a libertarian who argued
the pro-choice position by exalting the rights of women as autonomous
individuals over the rights of the fetus, which is neither autonomous nor an
individual. It seems to me the current women's movement has not gone beyond
this, even though women have been the greatest critics of bourgeois
The fact is that the political emancipation of women in
the U.S., hard-fought and important as it is, has always been incomplete and
limited. In many countries around the world that profess to be
democracies, women's lives are circumscribed by personal codes and family
laws–often created to appease fundamentalists–which exempt women from the
rights accorded to "individuals." The issue of abortion in the U.S.
serves this same function.
Women need a world in which they can make meaningful
decisions about their bodies and minds. Roe v. Wade itself rode the waves
of a women's movement that called for a freedom beyond political emancipation.
The transformation of alienated social relationships, not only between humans
but also between humans and nature, is as necessary to the freedom to choose as
access to safe and legal abortion. While it is important to fight to keep
abortion safe and legal, it is time to start asking why we keep having to do so
over and over again.
Published by News and Letters Committees