No More Apologies: Socialist-Feminism and the Struggle for Reproductive Freedom

by Amber Frost
Democratic Left - Summer 2012

In the wake of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s idiotic decision to withdraw its support for Planned Parenthood, a number of revealing themes became prominent in the discourses of the organization’s critics. One of the most telling was the argument that Komen should have “kept politics out” of its funding decisions, the insinuation being that offering breast cancer screenings and health education at a public clinic is not a political act. Of course, there are many potential options when it comes to defining what constitutes politics. The “art or science of government” is admittedly a bit vague, but it works in this case; funding decisions made by organizations like Komen, after all, govern women’s access to these crucial services. If anything, this is why socialist-feminists have long touted the preferability of formulations such as “reproductive liberation” or “reproductive freedom” over the liberal concept of “choice.”

If the personal is political, then Komen’s very existence is political. After all, the funding and provision of health services, whether for women in particular or not, is an inherently political question. Komen’s politics are emblematic of a liberal conception of feminism – helping the poor women who can’t afford treatment or testing, all while putting a pink ribbon on known carcinogens to generate revenue for the organization. The choice of the color pink to symbolize women’s health is telling. It wraps our ethical consumerism in an unthreatening “traditional” conception of maternal femininity. It’s so flimsy that we’re able to look right through it.

Many of us were not surprised by Komen’s decision to pull its funding for Planned Parenthood. It has had some bad press among feminists in the past, and it doesn’t take a lot of Internet searching to turn up some less than flattering information about the organization. So perhaps it’s time to turn the spotlight on Planned Parenthood itself. In recent years, Planned Parenthood has adjusted according to the same sort of apolitical discourse its supporters employed during the Komen controversy. They reflect the current political culture rather than try to shape it. Their rallies and marches are just as unthreatening and contentless as any “‘Blank’ for The Cure” event. When one attends a Planned Parenthood rally, one almost never hears about abortion. Their platform speakers tend to stress that abortion services actually constitute a very small percentage of what they do, and they do indeed. When the matter of abortion is raised at an event organized around the watchword of “choice,” we’re frequently served up the saddest rape story imaginable to remind us that Women Who Have Abortions have values you can connect with. They talk about how emotionally difficult it is for women to choose an abortion, and about how no woman takes it lightly, and about how it’s always a last resort. But that’s not true, is it? Any woman who’s talked frequently and frankly on the subject knows that a lot of women have no difficulty making that decision. In fact, many women are quite frank about knowing immediately that abortion was the right decision for them. DSA Honorary Chair Barbara Ehrenreich, who recently wrote Bright-sided, a delightfully bitter little book about her battle with breast cancer and her hatred of Komen’s marketing, famously said she had no difficulty making the decision to get either of her two abortions. “The one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks.”

So why does Planned Parenthood say that it’s always a hard decision? Why is their defense of reproductive choice always couched in such defensive and regretful language? From Planned Parenthood’s perspective, it seems like talking about abortion as little as possible is the path of least resistance, and that when they need to talk about it, sympathy born out of horrible experience would garner them the most support from public opinion. However, when we are forced to rely on the rhetoric of the experience, our political position becomes vulnerable to the emotional appeals made by the opponents of reproductive freedom. Just look at Norma Leah McCorvey, the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade who morphed into a vociferous anti-abortion activist, or the children of rape who look mournfully into the eyes of politicians and ask, “Isn’t my life worth saving too?”

The current discourse advanced by supporters of abortion is organized around a defensive plea, not a bold declaration in favor of reproductive freedom: Women feel really, really bad about the decision they have to make, and they only have to make that decision under dire circumstances, and you can tell they are absolutely tortured in making that decision, so abortions are (sometimes) Okay. Not only is this position insulting, it’s a lie, and, perhaps even more importantly, it does not demand the establishment and protection of women’s autonomy in the decisions that affect their health and their bodies.

I do not for a minute question Planned Parenthood’s commitment to helping women, but their rhetorical appeals are an effort to appeal to the public’s emotions, not to establish a clear political position. When advocates of reproductive freedom adopt this approach, all the “difficult” abortions become fodder for anti-choicers, as they use that “difficult decision” as evidence that abortion is not good for women, and all the experiences of women who don’t regret their abortions are negated by the ones who do.

It’s time to bring some clarity to this debate. It’s time to say clearly that there are those of us who trust women with their own bodies, and those of us who don’t. At the same time, we need to reinvigorate our struggle for universal single-payer health care. Planned Parenthood has weaknesses that a universal system does not, and a universal system has the ability to solidify reproductive freedom as policy in a way that a nonprofit can’t.

What is the liberal alternative to a radical socialist feminism? A concessionary feminism. An apologetic feminism. A feminism whose gains are built on unstable ground. It’s time to return to “on demand, without explanation, without apologies” and let it be known that no patron, no matter how benevolent, is a substitute for liberation and democracy. Re-radicalizing our rhetoric is the only way to reinvigorate the feminist movement with our socialist-feminist values. Fighting for the decoupling of capitalism and health care is the only way to put these values into practice.

Amber Frost is a former YDS organizing intern and DSA staff member in New York City.

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