Monday, February 01, 2010

On The Pro-Choice Movement. A Nasty Post.

The Kissling-Michelman article made me think more seriously about what is called the pro-choice movement in this country, or at least its official face, and those thoughts quickly turned into the nasty post territory. I haven't done one of those for some time, eh? Let's set the stage, shall we? And then I will go off on a rant.

The roots of what I want to say are a bit further back in time than with the Super Bowl ad. They start with a post on Daily Kos, by Angry Mouse, who writes about the awful ineptness of the official pro-choice organizations:

I'm talking about FeminismTM, as in the largest feminist advocacy organizations in the country raising millions of dollars to fight on behalf of women.

And I'm wondering if FeminismTM is really such a good investment.

You know those emails? The ones from NOW and NARAL and Emily's List that declare, with great urgency and lots of ALL CAPS and exclamation marks, that you must give money right now? Stop this bill! Block this nominee! Protect Roe! Save the Supreme Court! And give, give, give!!!

And since you often agree -- why yes, I do want to stop this bill; why no, I do not want that nominee confirmed -- you click and give. It won't stop this bill or block that nominee, but you will get another email at the next crisis.

And it's always a crisis. Even under a Democratic president, with a Democratic supermajority in Congress, the nation's biggest feminist organizations are in crisis mode, raising money but unable to deliver results. They're just as effective as they were under Bush. Which is to say, Not. At. All.


In the last decade, we've seen more restrictions on women's reproductive health, more government-funded sex (mis)education, and budget cuts everywhere -- for after school and early education programs, for employment and training programs, for programs to fight domestic violence -- all of which directly and disproportionately impact women.

And at every step backwards, the major feminist organizations have been powerless to stop it. Or just plain absent.

The proposed solution is to stop giving money to these organizations. It's Consumer Power! That will show them.

(If you have time you can read the attached comments thread (it's very long) to find out astonishing stuff, including the idea that feminism should not be about women at all. For example, Emily's List discriminates against men because it spends money on trying to get more women into politics, and it should stop doing that and just give equally to men and women. Yeah.)

Now, I can understand Angry Mouse's anger. What I can't understand is where she has been these last decades of conservative power. The nineties was many things, including the Decade of Anti-Feminism in the media (remember the evil welfare queens?), and the decade after that was Bush Reich. To fight those single-handedly would be real easy for a Superwoman or two, of course.

The Democratic Party courting pro-lifers is not a problem! The fat moneybags of the conservative forced-birth movement are no obstacle at all! We gave money to Naral! Neither is the fact that Fox News is forced birth propaganda 24/7 or that the other news have adopted conservative framing on the issues. Indeed, the conservative framing crops up everywhere. Unborn babies, you know.

Clearly, the pro-life movement is at fault. If only it had figured out a better meme! Even Michelman, a former president of Naral Pro-Choice America, goes along with that:

Those opposed to legal abortions have learned a lot about reaching out to the many Americans who can't make up their minds about the issue. Many of these people don't want abortion to be illegal but believe that too many such procedures take place in this country. Conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family, have gotten that message. They know to save the fire and brimstone for their hardcore base; for Super Bowl Sunday, you appeal to people's hearts with a smiling baby -- or Tim Tebow and his mom. Presenting Americans with a challenge of personal sacrifice, especially if the person who has to sacrifice is a woman, is a convincing sell.

Women's and choice groups responding to the Tebow ad should take a page from the Focus on the Family playbook. Erin Matson, the National Organization for Women's new vice president, called the Tebow spot "hate masquerading as love." That kind of comment may play well in the choice choir, but to others, it makes no sense, at best; at worst, it's seen as the kind of stridency that reinforces the view that pro-choice simply means pro-abortion.

Time for the rant:

What is the pro-choice movement? Is it like a firm that you pay to get the goods delivered? If it sells something a little bit unsightly, do you have the product sent to you in an unmarked brown box? When opinion polls ask you whether you are pro-choice or not, do you say that you, of course, would never have an abortion, because it costs you nothing to say that and might get you some approval? After all, abortions are still legal and even available in some places. You can get one, whatever you say in opinion polls, or your girlfriend or wife can get one. Lots seem to suffer from this particular type of paradox, given the numbers on pro-life sentiment in polls and the actual figures on abortions.

Who do you complain to when reproductive rights are endangered? The political firms which were supposed to produce them but came up impotent against the Stupak amendment? Not Focus on Family? Or the many wingnut millionaires who fund this stuff?

How do you run an effective pro-choice movement when you can't post grisly pictures of women bleeding to death on their bathroom floors because the pro-choice movement got abortions legal? What is there that you can match with pictures of cute babies or Tim Tebows or unending female sacrifice?

And what do you do when far too many Americans see all this as if they were watching a new show on television, as if they were neutral observers, ready to be persuaded by one side or the other, but only if a catchy meme can be provided? It is the odd consumerism of American politics that I'm complaining about here, once again, and for a good reason: Nobody, ultimately, can take that neutral observer standpoint, not even people with vasectomies or tied tubes, as long as they have women in their lives they care about. Yet that's the way I read much of the writing on this topic: Talk me into buying your product. Make me care! Or I shall get up for another beer during the Super Bowl ads break.

Gah. Take a looong step backwards to Basic Principles: One of the major reasons for women's eternal subjugated position throughout the history has been our inability to control our own fertility, to space our children or to even stay alive while giving birth. A woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding or suffering from birth-related illnesses is not going to paint paintings, compose music, fight for political power or even take a small trip somewhere interesting.

Her family will struggle to feed those children, her husband will view her fecundity as either a handy resource or as a burden, depending on the economics of the situation. No one child will get very much attention or resources. Girls are not worth educating, because all they will do is marry and have children. But they must be carefully watched prior to marriage so that the children won't crop up too soon. If they do, the girl is spoiled goods.

This is an extreme version, true. But then the forced birth side always gives us extreme versions and we swallow them. So swallow mine. It has the advantage of being closer to truth.

The Basic Principles I have outlined above are the crucial ones. Not the women bleeding to death in hidden bathrooms after a botched-up illegal abortion, but the women whose whole lives are chained to their wombs. And that is what contraception and reproductive choice have changed. We forget so very fast, we take the wrong things for granted. We should not.

It is not really privacy that should stand behind reproductive rights but the opportunity for women to have equal lives to those men can have. Ideally, this would be achieved through safe and effective contraception, but as long as such contraception is not available the battle will be about abortion. And make no mistake: Many so-called pro-life entities are also adamantly opposed to all contraception. What they really want is that bad history back.

My take is not the popular approach to reproductive choice, these days. That one focuses much more on women's rights to have children, to determine the way one gives birth and so on. All these are an important part of reproductive rights. But they pale in comparison to the basic right of not giving birth when you don't want to.