On reproductive justice, the failures of neoliberalism, and why ‘choice’ is complicated

It’s a funny one, the word ‘choice’. I spend so much of my time promoting it, explaining it, demanding it – yet whenever I stop to really think about it, I realise that it’s a word I’d much prefer not to have to embrace.

For as long as laissez-faire or economic liberalism has existed, ‘choice’ has been one of its most important buzzwords, second only to ‘freedom’. In fact, the Swedes, keen on optimising language to become its most functional and least wasteful, would talk about a combination of the two: ‘valfrihet’ – freedom of choice. In the name of freedom of choice, neoliberalism has torn down many a welfare state in the hope that the free market, as an invisible hand, would bring us all greater utility by way of rational choice.

In the context of present-day Ireland and the current discussions around reproductive rights, I am unequivocally pro-choice; yet if you tried to twist my words into some sort of neoliberal utopia, I’d cringe.

I grew up in a society steeped in social democrat heritage, where parents shared generous parental leave rights and state schools taught all children from the local area regardless of faith or socio-economic status. I grew up in a country where the school canteen served up free lunches for all, complete with a side serving of the notion of ‘folkhemmet’ – a vision for a society resembling a small family where everyone contributes and everyone’s looked after – and a glass of milk for strong, healthy bones.

Then, in 2006, the liberal-right alliance won the election and neoliberalism swept through the country, the since privatised trains stopped running on time, and finding a good school became all about social capital. Maternity wards got over-crowded, sending women in labour off to the next town or city and midwives home on sick leave due to exhaustion. Many school kitchens stopped serving milk.

I spent a good few years in London, watching the shift from Ken Livingstone to Boris Johnson and hearing David Cameron speak of the ‘big society’, which soon enough turned out to be a cowardly rhetorical device to describe what Thatcher had so bluntly asserted years before him: there is no such thing as society.

I don’t drink milk, yet I liked ‘folkhemmet’ better than what slogans about choice brought about. More often than not, choice-based policies turned out to be get-out clauses for governments who didn’t want to carry any responsibility, for leaders to be able to point to citizens and blame them for choosing wrong instead of providing choice in the real sense, along with care and support. Choice appeared to be to modern-day liberals what the big society was to Cameron – an empty promise, a chance to walk away.

But what’s in a word? Choice can refer to ‘the action of choosing’, ‘the power of choosing’, the sheer ‘fact of having a choice’. At first sight, it seems pretty simple: you either have the right to choose or you don’t. But the action of choosing requires a lot more. I’ve heard campaigners, especially lawyers, point out when pro-choice representatives insist that healthcare and abortion rights don’t belong in the constitution that, in fact, the right to reproductive health should absolutely be enshrined as such. Without a guaranteed, positive right, many people don’t have any right at all.

It struck me as I was thinking about all this that the word for choice isn’t used in the reproductive rights discourse in Sweden. A friend who works in the field explained it to me: abortion rights have in Sweden for quite some time been campaigned for within the realm of sexual, reproductive health rights (SRHR), and in that context the conversation tends to revolve more around justice, access and intersectionality. The dualism of being for or against choice doesn’t really exist.

Turns out, the reproductive justice (RJ) movement, which is growing globally, has already problematised the use of the word choice and its discriminatory and exclusionary tendencies. The right to choose to have an abortion – the fact that a jurisdiction allows for a procedure to take place, more or less without judgement – is not enough for the woman who can’t afford to pay for one, the pregnant person whose local abortion clinic has closed down, the asylum seeker without valid health insurance. And does the right to procure an abortion really qualify as choice if the person needing it has been denied sex education or suitable contraception? What about those forcibly sterilised, what good does choice in regards to abortion and maternity care do them? If the alternative to procuring an abortion, in the event where said procedure is safe and legal, is a life in poverty, judged by mainstream media and society at large – what kind of choice is that?

I’m not sure about the idea of ‘folkhemmet’ as applied to society the way it looks today; I’m not convinced it’s got the scope for pluralism, at least not in its former guise. But the live-and-let-live ideology that left trains derailed and school children discriminated against won’t be good enough. I don’t want to be handed a token notion of choice only for the decision makers to turn around and walk away. I want to prove Thatcher wrong.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” Flavia Dzodan famously declared. Of course the right to choose is a hugely important issue in Ireland, for all kinds of historical and pragmatic reasons. And sure, before you have the right to choose, you’re not going to be marching the streets demanding access. So I will show up for every pro-choice march to demand that most basic of rights; but when the politicians think they’ve awarded it to us, I will keep showing up to try to make it real – to make it free and accessible, complete in every sense of the word, and inseparable from care and support. My reproductive justice advocacy will be intersectional – or it will be bullshit.


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