Class, Race and the Pro Choice Movement
By Ellie Stephenson
As a conscientious pre-teen, with a well-tuned sense of social justice, getting into feminism, one of the most appealing arguments for the movement was its focus on women’s rights to choice. Choice seemed vital and liberating. I found it compelling that women ought to receive the right to determine their own lives -- their career, family, appearance, relationships, and, importantly, reproductive health. Naturally, I was attracted to the pro-choice movement, understanding that it was essential to independence, security, and autonomy.
I still believe that self-determination is important. But I’ve come to see that the pro-choice movement, while nominally about choice, fails to facilitate the bodily sovereignty in a profound way. The pro-choice movement frames choice as the right to not have children, whether through contraception or abortion, but under-examines the right to have children. This neglect comes at the expense of marginalised people, most notably poor people, people with disabilities, and people of colour.
To chart the ways in which the pro-choice movement has let down marginalised people, it’s worth looking into some of its history.
IUDs, now a convenient form of long-term contraception which many women take for granted, have a traumatic history. In the 1970s in the USA, the Dalkon Shield, an IUD, killed around 18 people and injured 200 000. The device had widespread and tragic complications, giving people infections and making them infertile. This was obviously disastrous, but it’s also a telling history lesson if we examine the way that the device was marketed. The premise of the IUDs development and a major part of its marketing was about ‘population control’, with this paternalistic messaged aimed most exploitatively at young, poor people of colour.
The kind of paternalistic message regarding population control which happily sacrificed thousands of people’s fertility is reflected in other, sinister, medical programs. The rise of eugenics during the early 20th century justified and fed into regimes of forced sterilisation under the guise of ‘bettering’ the population. The goal of sterilisation as a public health strategy was to avoid the genetic transmission of undesirable characteristics in the population. Of course, what was considered to be undesirable was necessarily a result of white, male political dominance that gleefully discarded the rights of non cis-men for racist and ableist ideals about humanity.
Because of that context, forced sterilisation inevitably preyed on people of colour. In California, the tubal ligations of 144 non-cis male inmates between 2005-2006 and 2012-2013 were found to have been coerced and non-consensual. Of course, this violation of consent targeted vulnerable imprisoned people who are significantly more likely to be poor and non-white. This is not a one-off instance. Aggressive promotion of sterilisation as public health policy in the 60s meant that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers 20-49 (in a 1965 survey) had undergone the procedure. Government coercion of vulnerable, disadvantaged, and non-white women was US policy in Puerto Rico. More racist American reproductive policy focused on First Nations people, who were targeted by the Indian Health Service. The US General Accounting Office found that Indian Health Service regions sterilised 3406 First Nations women without consent from 1973 to 1976.
These abuses aren’t localised to America. They also represent the same white supremacist and ableist belief where similar policies and rhetoric has existed in Australia. Commonly, advocates of ‘population control’ target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unjustly and racistly. Proposals like making welfare conditional on long-term contraceptive use are bound up in racist rhetoric about the very act of reproducing as a person of colour being irresponsible. These beliefs are repugnant and misled; their proponents’ solutions to poverty and intergenerational trauma is not to deal with institutional and systemic harms, but to argue against the existence of the people who suffer from those harms. The narrative that the solution to disadvantage is Australia is restricting marginalised people’s bodily autonomy suggests that disadvantage is something inherent to people’s identity rather than systematic and changeable.
These abusive attitudes towards reproductive health especially affect people with disabilities. The UN, as recently as 2015, questioned Australia’s record on the sterilisation of women with disabilities without their consent. Ableist infantilisation of non cis-men with disabilities, as well as the idea that they’re unfit for periods and pregnancy, either unfairly gatekeep the right to self-determination or abdicate the state’s and carers’ responsibilities to protect vulnerable people with disabilities from harm and abuse. The practice of involuntary hysterectomies is repulsive in that it is believed to be prevention of abuse -- but if anything, it just masks its physical consequences. Stella Young, the late disability activist, is quoted as writing about the “deep sense of shame and violation” which victims of this violation often feel. This, above anything, illustrates the point that the procedure fails to meet carers’ duty of care.
Contraception, particularly long-term methods, abortion, and sterilisation have commonly been used against vulnerable people. These practices fundamentally violate rights to self-determination and the ability to opt to have children. This is an important right; many people love children and find them hugely enriching to their quality of life. It’s not a right that should be arbitrarily restricted. Therefore, it’s a right that the pro-choice movement has a responsibility to defend: the right to have children.
The right to have children is clearly owed to people, and another right emerges as a consequence: the right to raise your kids. Obviously, unjust violations of this right impinge on the happiness of children’s parents, as well as the rights for children to know and understand their background, history, and identity. For any defence of the right to have children to be convincing and genuine, it must by extension protect the right to raise them.
The most obvious violations of that right are the occurrences of Stolen Generations, in which Aboriginal children were robbed of their history and given the burden of trauma. The Stolen Generations were not the end of unjust, cruel, and racist policies regarding Aboriginal people raising their children. Since Kevin Rudd’s 2008 National Apology, the number of ATSI children in out-of-home care has doubled. Groups like Grandmothers Against Removals have criticised the high rate of child removals, noting that child protection services routinely deprive Aboriginal children from the ability to learn about their culture, lack consultation with communities and families, and lack accountability.
Last year, NSW parliament passed laws allowing children in the foster system to be adopted without parental consent and putting a two year time limit on out-of-home living, where parents must become their children’s primary carers within two years at risk of their kids’ permanent adoption. These laws have been widely criticised for separating Aboriginal children from their families on a permanent basis and lessening the chance for restoration. With racist biases very evident in social work practice and government policy, systemically poor material conditions and subjective judgements about what constitutes neglect allow White Australia to steal Aboriginal children. Doing so deprives their parents to the right to care for their children, give their children a sense of community, and form a rewarding relationship with their kids. It’s immensely harmful to children, making a mockery of the “child protection” justification for removals.
The right to raise your children, and to be allowed to have them in the first place, is not a right which the privileged feminists centred in the pro-choice movement intuitively care about. It’s hard to envision it as a right that needs to be fought for when you’re a able, wealthy, white woman whose capacity to raise her children is taken for granted. The state, media, and corporate incentives to perpetuate racist, classist, and ableist narratives of child protection and population management apply primarily to marginalised women. It is necessarily, then, that the dominant and privileged within the pro-choice movement are careful to include the voices of disadvantaged people so that all reproductive rights can be safeguarded.