The Women's Review of Books
Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United Statesby Solinger
An impassioned argument for reproductive rights
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocates of legal abortion mostly used the term rights when describing their agenda. But after Roe v. Wade, their determination to develop a respectable, nonconfrontational movement encouraged many of them to use the word choice--an easier concept for/i>/i>/i>/b>… See more details below
An impassioned argument for reproductive rights
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocates of legal abortion mostly used the term rights when describing their agenda. But after Roe v. Wade, their determination to develop a respectable, nonconfrontational movement encouraged many of them to use the word choice--an easier concept for people weary of various rights movements. At first the distinction in language didn't seem to make much difference-the law seemed to guarantee both. But in the years since, the change has become enormously important.
In Beggars and Choosers, Solinger shows how historical distinctions between women of color and white women, between poor and middle-class women, were used in new ways during the era of "choice." Politicians and policy makers began to exclude certain women from the class of "deserving mothers" by using the language of choice to create new public policies concerning everything from Medicaid funding for abortions to family tax credits, infertility treatments, international adoption, teen pregnancy, and welfare. Solinger argues that the class-and-race-inflected guarantee of "choice" is a shaky foundation on which to build our notions of reproductive freedom. Her impassioned argument is for reproductive rights as human rights--as a basis for full citizenship status for women.
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CHOICE IS A MOVING TARGET
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Although we strongly believe in the private and responsible nature of our own choices to have children, we simply do not see the choices of women in poverty in the same way.
Thomas Ross, Just Stories
January 22, 1973, was a remarkable day in United States history. That afternoon Lyndon Baines Johnson died. At nearly the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court announced one of its most ambitious decisions ever, Roe v. Wade. On the evening news, the former president's death eclipsed the announcement that abortion was now legal in all fifty states. In the years since the Roe decision, however, the political struggle over the role of abortion in U.S. society has fiercely resisted eclipse. The meaning of the Roe decision, especially the meaning of the "choice" it promised women, has never stopped evolving.
After the Court's announcement, commentators called Roe v. Wade "one of the boldest, most sweeping decisions of the ... era," "an astonishing decision," "extraordinary." Later, after the complexities of Roe had become more apparent, some observers still referred to it as "a total victory" and an "expansive decision." Sarah Weddington, the young Texas lawyer who argued the case before the Court, wrote in her memoir that Roe was "a declaration of human liberty." She remembered that as she read the text of Justice Harry Blackmun's opinion, she "rejoiced that the decision was seven-to-two [and] that it was strong and clear." She also remembered taking a phone call that day from a woman who had an urgent suggestion: "that January 22nd be declared a national holiday for women."
Roe v. Wade generated so much hope and excitement partly because it seemed so clearly to be responding to the dilemma of all women. Many proponents of legal abortion believed Roe was a symbol and a vehicle of women's liberation. A Vermont law student described the Roe decision as a response "to the rallying of women across the nationa rejection of women as reproductive machines and an acceptance of women as individuals capable of choice." The Court had not distinguished among groups of women by age, race, income, or level of education. Roe v. Wade was for everyone.
This sense of triumph was not surprising. After all, abortion rights activists and many ordinary women had talked for years about the deeply degrading impact of anti-abortion statutes and the importance of achieving reproductive freedom. The founders of an early abortion rights organization, the Society for Humane Abortion, described state laws forbidding abortion as a form of sex discrimination. Many involved in the women's rights movement defined abortion rights as having tremendous political and practical significance. One second wave feminist put it this way:
When we talk about women's rights, we can get all the rights in the worldthe right to vote, the right to go to schooland none of them means a doggone thing if we don't own the flesh we stand in ... if the whole course of our lives can be changed by somebody else that can get us pregnant by accident, or by deceit, or by force. So I consider the right to elective abortion ... the cornerstone of the women's movement ... Without that right, we'd have about as many rights as a cow in the pasture that's taken to the bull once a year ... [I]f you can't control your body you can't control your future.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocates of legal abortion mostly used the term "rights," not "choice," to refer to what they were after. Still, the term "choice" did crop up. The National Abortion Rights Action League's (NARAL) first national action in 1969a Mother's Day demonstration held in conjunction with press conferences in eleven citieswas called "Children by Choice." And Dr. Alan Guttmacher, the prominent birth control advocate and important convert to the cause of legalized abortion, proclaimed January 22, 1973, "a great day for freedom of choice." But until Roe, most activists claimed that "the right to control whether you're pregnant or not [was] indivisible from the right to self-determination."
The rights language, however, did not last very long. Justice Blackmun referred to abortion as "this choice" a number of times in his Roe majority ruling. And the determination of abortion rights advocates to develop a respectable, nonconfrontational movement after Roe encouraged many proponents to adopt the term "choice." In a country weary of rights claims, choice became the way liberal and mainstream feminists could talk about abortion without mentioning the "A-word." Many people believed that "choice"a term that evoked women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplacewould be an easier sell; it offered "rights lite," a package less threatening or disturbing than unadulterated rights.
At first, people who used the term "choice" didn't talk much about what it would take for a woman to exercise her new reproductive latitude. The law had made choice legal for everyone, and that was that. A women's health care provider observed in 1973, "What has been happening ... is that if you can afford it, you get an abortion, and if you can't, you have the child and go on welfare." Now, she indicated, the playing field would be much more level. A woman could choose whether or not to get an abortion and whether or not to become a mother, no matter how much money she had in her wallet.
This early, optimistic sense of how Roe v. Wade would affect women's reproductive lives reflected the utopian egalitarianism of many in the women's movement at the time. In the struggle to win reproductive freedom, many activists didn't think about the fact that pregnancy and childbearing have historically and dramatically separated women by race and class in this country. For centuries, enslaved African-American women had endured coerced pregnancies and the human-selling practices of slave owners. White urban immigrant mothers had seen their children targeted and taken away from them by "child rescue" charities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After World War II, white unmarried mothers were roughly pressed to relinquish their "illegitimate" babies, while in the same period Black unmarried mothers were stereotyped as excessively fertile welfare cheats. Which women, under which circumstances, were legitimately pregnant or legitimate mothers, and which were not, had always involved race and/or class distinctions in America. The pregnancies and childbearing of women of color and resourceless women had often deepened the vulnerability of these women, and deepened distinctions between them and middle-class white women who had resources and choices, long before Roe v. Wade. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this historymuch of which was still buried or too fresh to look at historicallycould have tempered optimism about "choice" as a powerful equalizer.
This book is about the complexities of "choice" in the United States after Roe v. Wade. What happens when the special guarantee for all womenthe promise that women can decide for themselves whether and when to be mothersis expressed by the individualistic, marketplace term "choice"? How can users of such a term avoid distinguishing, in consumer-culture fashion, between a woman who can and a woman who can't afford to make a choice? What aspects of "rights" were masked or lost when the language of choice replaced the language of rights at the heart of women's special guarantee?
I use the term "rights" to refer to the privileges or benefits of being a human and specifically a woman in the United States, privileges or benefits that one can exercise without access to any special resources, such as money. For example, women and minorities in the United States have struggled for and won "voting rights," that is, the right of all citizens over a certain age to vote, even if they have no money, no property, and no other resources. By contrast, choice, including the popular and problematic form "the right to choose," has come to be intimately connected to the possession of resources. Many Americans have developed faith in the idea that women who exercise choice are supposed to be legitimate consumers, women with money. This is true even when the choices they exercise, such as the choice to become a mother or the choice to end a pregnancy, might be considered a very fundamental issue of rights.
Like the copywriter in the Kenneth Cole shoe ad that is the epigraph for this book, I find the slogan "the right to choose" fairly ridiculous. It impossibly mixes "right," a privilege to which one is justly entitled, and "choice," the privilege to exercise discrimination in the marketplace among several options, if one has the wherewithal to enter the marketplace to begin with. Our Constitution does not, of course, guarantee anyone the right to enter the marketplace of reproductive (or any other) options. As I discuss later in this chapter, the Supreme Court's decisions regarding the legitimacy of the Hyde Amendment (an act of Congress denying federal funding for the abortions of poor women) have proved that.
Historical distinctions between women of color and white women, between poor and middle-class women, have been reproduced and institutionalized in the "era of choice," in part by defining some groups of women as good choice makers, some as bad. During a time when babiesand pregnancy itselfbecame ever more commodified, some women were defined as having a legitimate relationship to babies and motherhood status, while others were defined as illegitimate consumers. These distinctions and definitions emerged quickly in the era of choice and solidified across the last quarter of the twentieth century. I will examine how choice-driven distinctions undermined the possibility, so vibrant in the early celebrations of Roe, that all women would be equally empowered by legal abortion.
I am also concerned with two additional aspects of choice, issues that are rarely confronted in discussions about pregnancy and abortion, childbearing, adoption, and related subjects. First, given popular definitions of good choice makers and bad, I believe it is crucial to consider the degree to which one woman's possession of reproductive choice may actually depend on or deepen another woman's reproductive vulnerability. Parts of the book will explore this dynamic, interactive quality of choice.
Second, and perhaps most important of all, I am devoted here to making the argument that simple "choice" actually underlies the very popular (though much denied) idea that motherhood should be a class privilege in the United Statesa privilege appropriate only for women who can afford it. I am convinced that choice is a remarkably unstable, undependable foundation for guaranteeing women's control over their own bodies, their reproductive lives, their motherhood, and ultimately their status as full citizens.
I consider the problem of choice by investigating its role in the ways Americans have talked about abortion, adoption, and welfare over the past generation. I am also interested in how "choice" figured in creating public policies to govern women's behavior in these areas. I start off by looking at two immediate post-Roe developmentsthe denial of federal funding to pay for the abortions of poor women and the emergence of the foreign adoption market. Together these developments at the dawn of the era of choice facilitated a crucially consequential shift in the claims associated with the Supreme Court's bold ruling: from women's right to consumer privilege.
THE MEDICAID CASES: HOW CONSUMER PRIVILEGE TRUMPED REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS
At the very moment when the era of choice was born, Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist and Byron White excoriated "choice" and the women who would exercise it. In their dissenting opinion in Roe v. Wade, Rehnquist and White defined "the power of choice" as based on a woman's "convenience," "whim," "caprice," on women willing to "exterminate" their pregnancies "for no reason at all," or because of their "dislike of children." The dissenters clearly and early associated "choice" with bad women making bad choices. In this way they provided a harbinger of the future.
The dissenters' language is a reminder of the historical moment in which "choices" were granted to women. For about a hundred years, the law had denied women reproductive choices, including, for much of that time, access to effective methods of birth control. Women who tried to control their reproductive lives were first criminals and later, in the twentieth century, diagnosed as mentally ill. In addition the country was just emerging from a generation of widespread cultural hostility to white, broadly middle-class mothers who "chose" to work outside of the home for wages. Such women were frequently and prominently tagged as having made poor, selfish, and damaging choices. A 1955 article in the popular women's magazine McCall's, "Is a Working Mother a Threat to the Home?" was typical. The article featured a male psychiatrist's assessment of working mothers as bad choice makers: "Until children are at least six, motherhood is a twenty-four hour job and one that no one can do for you. A mother who runs out on her children to workexcept in cases of absolute necessitybetrays a deep dissatisfaction with motherhood or with her marriage. Chances are, she is driven by sick, competitive feelings toward men, or some other personality problem."
When, in 1973, Roe granted what both the majority and dissenting opinions in Roe v. Wade called "choice," this represented, on top of everything else, a major cultural shift in mainstream Americans' view of women. Yet another male psychiatrist-expert, this one quoted in the issue of Time magazine that reported the Roe v. Wade decision, guided Americans toward a new, post-Roe view of choice-making women this way: "For the woman who let her life wash over her, who has let her life be directed by forces outside of herself, to make a decision to take charge of her life can be an extremely liberating, positive experience. For the first time in her life, she is the master of her destiny." Indeed, American womanhood had been redefined.
"Women" were supposed to be alienated from reproductive and employment choice making in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but race definitely created divisions and distinctions among women. For one thing, African-American women had always worked; since the end of slavery, they had typically worked outside of their homes for wages. In recent times, these same women had been provided with publicly sponsored access to birth control long before other women, an opportunity that poor, minority women were pressed to accept as a duty. A pre-Roe study of birth control distribution and race found that counties "in which family planning services were available as of 1969 were likely to have a higher percentage of Blacks than those counties in which services were not available." This same pattern, the study found, "appeared in most regions of the countryin poor counties, in rich counties, in rural and urban counties." (Human rights activist Loretta Ross quotes a Louisianan in this era to explain some white support for such a pattern: "The best way to hate a nigger is to hate him before he is born.")
African-American women and other women of color were pressed early and often in the years before Roe to avail themselves of "family planning" services as an antipoverty and population-control duty. The number one reason that the federal government increased expenditures for birth control (mostly targeting women of color) between 1967 ($4.5 million) and 1971 ($24 million) was to diminish poverty and "prevent, reduce, or eliminate dependency." Reproductive autonomy, or a woman's right to control her own body and her destinyher right to make choiceswas way down on the list of reasons.
In the period immediately following Roe v. Wade, unofficial, extra-legislative public policy continued to target poor women of color in ways that clarified dramatically the limits of the Court's ruling. Sociologist Elena Rebecca Gutierrez has described how the fertility of a Mexican immigrant woman in Californiaone of manywas targeted in this era:
While under general anesthesia in preparation for her Cesarean section delivery, Jovila Rivera was approached by a doctor who told her that she should have her "tubes tied" because her children were a burden on the government. Ironically, Ms. Rivera was not receiving public assistance, nor were any of the other plaintiffs in the Madrigal case [a class action suit brought by Mexican-origin women sterilized against their will]. However, it was the doctors' perception of these women as poor welfare recipients that deemed them necessitating sterilization.
It became impossible to claim that Roe could grant all women equal protection, reproductively, after the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia noted in 1974 the existence of "uncontroverted evidence that poor people, particularly pregnant women whose deliveries would be paid for under Title XIX [of the Social Security Act], had been coerced into accepting sterilization under the threat of losing welfare benefits." News of coerced sterilizations of poor African-American women in Alabama and South Carolina received national attention between 1973 and 1975. Two women, Virgil Walker and Shirley Brown, dealt with a South Carolina obstetrician who made public policy on his own: he refused to accept as patients any welfare recipients who already had a certain number of children unless they agreed to be sterilized. In the spring of 1974, having been presented with some of the "incontrovertible evidence," federal judge Gerhard Gessell ordered the government to redraft its sterilization regulations regarding welfare patients. And in the summer of 1975, the government officially acknowledged that some health and welfare professionals were exerting this kind of pressure against poor pregnant women when it adopted an anticoercion amendment aimed at government employees and anyone who managed or received federal funds. These personnel were enjoined from coercing or endeavoring "to coerce any person to undergo an abortion or sterilization."
Despite the ugliness publicly associated with sterilization, however, the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare decided at the end of 1974 (seven months before Congress passed legislation to stop sterilization abuse of poor women) to develop an attractive federal funding scheme for reimbursing the states for sterilizing poor women. The funding scheme allowed for much less generous reimbursement for abortions. For many poor women after Roe, perhaps especially for poor women of color, reproductive choice came to mean deciding between an abortion they didn't have the money to pay for and a sterilization they also did not have the money for, but for which the federal government would pick up the tab. Many poor women and their advocates interpreted this 1974 policy as an official expression of the government's desire and determination to curtail certain women's childbearing permanently. For some women, choice was, early on, a hollowed-out promise.
In the early 1970s the federal government was crafting ways to reduce the childbearing of poor and minority women. But studies showed that these women were, on their own, seeking and often obtaining abortions at rates much higher than those of white middle-class women. A New York City study conducted between 1972 and 1973 (New York State legalized abortion in 1970) found that there were twice as many white women of childbearing age as Black in the city. But Black women were getting more abortions. Of the 69,776 abortions performed during this period, 47.6 percent were obtained by Black women, 39 percent by white. Several years later, a national study indicated that "the poor" obtained about three times more abortions than "the non-poor."
In the middle 1970s, however, negative attitudes toward poor, minority, childbearing women became much more powerful and relevant to many Americans than factual information about how many children or abortions these women actually had. As I will make plain in Chapter 5, these years saw the emergence of widespread hostility toward such womenoften called ghetto matriarchs, and then "welfare queens." At the same time, the anti-abortion rights movement was coalescing and developing its tactical agenda. When these two strains of hostility entangled, the result was a political program that fatally attacked the idea of abortion rights and seriously diminished the citizenship status of poor women in the United States. In these years, federal-level politicians and others devised and promoted restrictions on abortion access to crack down on poor women as choice makers. They also drew on the unpopular specter of poor women making choices to establish the sturdiest antiabortion beachhead they could. These accomplishments were completed in 1980, before Ronald Reagan became president. Sarah Weddington reflected on the developments that followed Roe when she wrote years later, "I feltand still feela chill when I think about [those] years."
Almost immediately after Roe v. Wade, state departments of social services began to craft rules to limit the use of public funds to pay for the abortions of poor women. In Utah, for example, the rule said that a woman seeking an abortion must submit an application to the department of social services and the department must approve the abortion as therapeutic, that is, "necessary to save the mother's life or to prevent serious and permanent harm to her health." Like a number of early state efforts of this kind, Utah's attempt to restrict public funding was invalidated by a federal appeals court that decided "this broad abortion policy is intended to limit abortion on moral grounds." Such a policy, the court found, "constitutes invidious discrimination and cannot be upheld."
Excerpted from BEGGARS AND CHOOSERS by Rickie Solinger. Copyright © 2001 by Rickie Solinger. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Rickie Solinger, a historian and writer, is the author of three other books about reproductive rights: Wake Up Little Susie, Abortion Wars, and The Abortionist. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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