2 Mar 2007, Comments Off on The Quick Brown Fox

The Quick Brown Fox

Author: Helen

Image from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?o=5&f=/c/a/2006/01/22/BAG5QGRAKC1.DTL

A while back, under “asshattery”, I quoted two LP commenters whose opinion was that feminism is the concern of overprivileged white chicks, so truly progressive people shouldn’t bother with it, as it’s only making selfish elites even more selfish.

Russell Arben Fox, while somewhat religious, is no asshat. He is a thoughtful writer, the civility of whose responses to his commenters, even the ones who disagree with them, is a model for us all. He’s also fighting the good fight against neoliberal ideas (as far as I can tell). So, it was sad to see him make a similar claim about people who are on the pro-choice side on abortion.

Fox is a moderate, not a wingnut. On balance, he comes down against “…abortion restrictions [such as…parental notification laws, mandated counseling and waiting periods, etc.” On the other hand, he feels that (what he sees as) unlimited access to abortion is just making

…one’s sexual choices … indistinguishable from any other set other commodified choices, ideally having no ramifications on one’s living arrangements, extended family, position in society, obligation to future generations, unacknowledged dependence upon unwritten moral standards, involvement in collective goals, etc.

He doesn’t support legislative banning of abortion, because he recognises that will cause suffering, which is commendable. Before we go any further, what positive recommendation does Fox have for the how we should conduct our reproductive lives? His position is fairly complex, but in general he’s in favour of

… Deterring abortion, discouraging abortion, not outright banning it as a criminal act.
…the creation of an environment where abortions [are] formally discouraged…a more restricted and less present abortion culture, with concomitant consequences for how people interact with and assume responsibilities for one another both sexually and socially.

I’m not a libertarian. I’m no apologist for rampant consumerism and social fragmentation. But Fox’s post is offensive to me in several ways. First, it conflates the idea of “choice”, in the context of reproductive rights, with “consumerism”. Therefore, limiting abortion (by some not-too-specific non-legislative method; I don’t know, shaming? shunning?) equals taking responsibility and promotes social cohesion, but access to abortion makes the decision to abort no more mentally taxing – or meaningful – than shopping for a new pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

You have to hand it to advocates of abortion rights: the rhetoric of choice is perfect for advancing their cause in the modern world. Who doesn’t want more choices, after all? … Abortion as a supremely individualistic, personal, private, even affirmative act makes perfect sense–you control your own body, you determine your own sex life, you weigh your own feelings, you chart your own future…it all fits together.
…Choice, as an ideological priority, is rather commercial: it is about managing one’s options, about taking care of business.

I think that Fox is defining the word choice in an overly specific way which fits his chosen thesis. Humans make choices in every facet of their daily lives; whether or not to go to university, to finish school, to vote for this or that party, to eat this or not eat that, to live here or to live there. Why trivialise this process? There’s another word for it, especially in serious matters like getting married or divorced or having an abortion: Decision. Like it or not, we need to make decisions. The inability to make a decision for oneself is a sign of poverty or powerlessness or both, not necessarily of social cohesion. The ability and desire to make a decision by and for oneself can just as well be a sign of responsibility rather than libertarian selfishness. He seems to be saying that the inability of an Exclusive Brethren woman to make crucial decisions in her own life, because the community has made such decisions for her, is somehow more dignified. I can’t see why.

There’s another theme at work in Fox’s post. He subscribes to the idea that I mentioned above, that abortion activism (like feminism) is by privileged women, for privileged women, and as such is lacking in worth (like, it’s implied, privileged women themselves, by which he means middle class women. And who are they? I’ll get onto that later).

it’s about allowing people–almost always white, middle- and upper-class, secular people–more and freer sexual choices than previous generations enjoyed.

He quotes two other academics, both male, to support this view. Harry Brighouse:

I hated being in a demonstration in which the police were on our side; I hated being in a demonstration in which my side was visibly composed of wealthier more privileged people than the other side; and I hated the fact that I knew that, my socialist contingent excepted, the people on my side were less committed to my ideals of social justice than many of the leaders of the other side; who were often leading lay Catholics and Catholic priests whom I’d seen at meetings and demonstrations in support of our Central America work and helping to organise community support for strikes of low paid workers…

And Bill Martin:

Most people in the anti-abortion movement associate the pro-choice movement with the middle class. This is not entirely accurate, but I think that the dominant rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is very much a product of the middle-class point of view.

(He then goes on to describe an anecdotal example of a woman at a rally with a really badly worded placard. Which is supposed to reveal the triviality of the entire pro-choice movement… or something.)

This saddens me. If you read Crooked Timber you’ll know Harry Brighouse is a generally pro-feminist academic who writes good stuff about gender equality in parenting, so the message here is a surprise. Go home, honky chicks, because The Left has better things to fight for than your selfish abortions.

Lawyers, Guns and Money has already addressed Fox’s post. Read the whole thing, because they say a lot of the things I’d like to say on this topic, and so might keep this post under 2,000 words. My take: The idea that the things feminists want to fight for, such as reproductive rights (including contraception and emergency contraception as well as abortion), subsidised parental leave, high quality and affordable childcare, and the opposition to exploitative culture in general, to name a few: to claim that that’s all by and for middle- to upper- class women with no thought for or positive impact on poorer women, is just wrong. It doesn’t make sense.

If a woman with an unwanted pregancy also has a low income and/or other disadvantages, how is she helped by outlawing abortion and emergency contraception? If we make abortion illegal, or more restricted, what class of person is still going to get a safe hospital abortion, and has always done so? That’s right – a privileged rich woman.

If a public good like subsidised child care, for instance, is fought for by “privileged” women, does that make that service useless to working class women who need child care, as long as the matter of pricing and access is properly addressed? Commenters like Fox and others seem to throw the “middle class” thing (and how broad a category that is these days, and how precarious a description that is, especially in the US where so many workers are on short term contracts and are one bankruptcy away from serious poverty) around to make it seem as though middle-class feminists don’t care about anyone but themselves and others like them. I’m sure that’s true for a minority, but for the feminists I am reading nothing could be further than the truth. Feminist bloggers (The writers at ‘Alas’ are a worthy example) often stop to unpack their own privilege and think about how it could be affecting their outlook on the problems they write about. “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” comes to mind, as well as the recent thoughtful writings on poverty.

Some left-wing academics, writers and bloggers may be quite well-off, but others, like Lauren and others, are struggling. Many people who might contribute to activism – young academics especially spring to mind – are employed in very insecure short term contracts with few of the trappings that we might think of as “middle-class” and “privileged”. It might benefit Fox, Brighouse and Martin to read BitingBeaver’s account of her unwanted pregnancy and take note of the fact that her “choices” were not those of some daughter of privilege deciding on a whim to “choose” abortion, and financial pressure was indeed front and centre throughout. The same drama is being played out over the world. Freedom from unwanted pregnancy is one of the key freedoms (a “freedom from”) which can help women in poverty escape that poverty. Not a magic bullet, sure, but to me, a necessary condition.

(Note, too, that BitingBeaver was adamant that not having a further, unwanted child, which she and her partner couldn’t afford, was in the best interests of the children she already had. Hardly socially irresponsible, or heedless of family circumstances, as Fox would like you to think.)

And as for this “I didn’t see you with the Janitors at the minimum wage rally” stuff– please. This is a variant of the “you failed to condemn Muslim treatment of women back in 2003, therefore I’ll dismiss your criticism of {insert topic here}”. Everyone does what they can, and the writer’s claim that pro-abortion women don’t attend rallies against poverty and if they don’t, they don’t care, is simply an opinion thrown out as fact. For one thing, self-identified feminists like me do attend rallies for other causes (Actually, you would have seen me rallying with the janitors, that is, their Oz equivalent – the ASU – at the Your Rights at Work rally). But I have a job and a family, and I can’t attend every rally in town. For another, if I don’t, I object to their insulting inference that it’s because I simply don’t care. (Someone should have told Barbara Ehrenreich that her middle-classness made it impossible for her to care, or advance the cause of, the less well off.)

Moving away from class and back to gender: I’m not going to go too far into the “abortion makes sex devoid of consequence which will lead to the hollowing out of society as a whole” idea, which I think is dealt with better than I could by some of the commenters in Fox’s thread. But I’d like to address the corollary to this which is implied throughout:Although he finds the imposition of restrictions on women repugnant and discriminatory, he can’t get away from the idea that if legalised, abortion would just run rampant – and there’s something missing here. There’s an absence of trust in the ability of women to make this decision themselves.

Steve laBonne, a commenter on Fox’s post puts a more extreme version of this position quite horribly – and this seems to be what a lot of people really think, unfortunately:

I think reducing the number of abortions is potentially a reasonable goal (even for purely medical reasons, routine use of abortion as a substitute for contraception would be undesirable).

See, this is what they think of us. People really do believe women are so stupid, so useless at making decisions in their own interests, that they’d use abortion routinely as a substitute for contraception. Just step back and think about that for a minute. So, what would that entail? Suppose you were fairly fertile, you’d have to go through a surgical procedure several times a year, with all the expense and time off work and recovery times that would involve, instead of using a pill or a condom or a diaphragm. Abortions replacing contraception? Just… not… going… to happen.

But then, we’re so stupid, we need the added “protection” of patriarchal disapproval to deflect us from lurching down this disastrous course. Yes, of course there are a few hopeless cases who seem to make accidental pregnancy their life’s work, but these are not the cases on which legislation (Or some byzantine system of non-judicial social punishment) should be based.

BitchPHD is right: It comes down to not trusting women. And even honky middle-class women are worthy of respect.

Comments (0)

  • GoTA says:

    Bravo. I’m going to read this again when I’ve had some sleep & less grog, but your’re spot on about the conflation of “choice” thing. It’s interesting, isn’t it, when the language of freedom and choice (and I notice you say “I’m not a libertarian”, which of course means freemarketeer these days) has come to mean freedom to consume. Clive Hamilton has written some wonderful stuff about this.

  • Gigglewick says:


    Excellent post, thank you.

    I think you’re right on the trust issue: lots of people don’t seem to think that women can be relied upon to make the “right” choice, hence the limiting of choice for them. It also informs the debate that we regularly have about this: there’s a lot of talk about what women will do, in consultation with their health professionals…but then the health professional’s judgement gets called into question also.

    I’m starting to get really snippy about the constant bandying about of the phrase “middle class”, it’s a new front from the anti-politically correct brigade. I think the problem with using “middle-class” as a negative where activism is concerned is that it suggests that middle-class people (of whom there are many) have no right to be concerned about the world that they live in. It also is a dog-whistle that what is meant is not actually MIDDLE CLASS, but SNOBBISH, OVER-EDUCATED, PRIVILEGED, LACKING REAL KNOWLEDGE, and SELFISH. I’m not sure how this happened, but it has.

    Similarly, I would have thought it laudable for women who would have access to reproductive health services NO MATTER WHAT THE LAW to be agitating on behalf of their sisters with less income – for whom the law is the only kind of guarantee of access to service we might have.

    Of course there were abortions before the advent of a judicial or legislative instruments which made them essentially freely available through medical services…but the “safest” procedures were always available to those women who could afford to pay the most. For those women, the law does less to enshrine their choice – but I’d be willing to argue that those women would not want anyone to go through the horror of a backyard abortion, nor would they think those unable to pay for the same level of service deserving of a hideous death or permanent incapacitation, infertility and the rest, because they lacked the funds to ensure their procedure was a safe and medically reliable one.

    PS Excuse my capitalisation – I promise I’m not yelling.

  • Helen says:

    You nailed it – it’s a dog whistle.

    “middle class”: sheesh. It encompasses so many people these days with such a varying degree of income and education. There are so many “middle class” people who live from contract to contract, McJob to McJob.

    I have one undergraduate degree, work in an office (for less than what is statistically called the “average” wage, but that is inflated I believe), our family has one car (1994 Mitsubishi) and we don’t have a flat screen tV, so I’m not sure whether I qualify as Teh Evil or not.

  • […] Helen, the Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony has a long post on abortion and attacks on the pro-choice position which ‘C’ at Two Peas in a pod describes as ‘brilliant’. […]

  • Helen,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my post, especially give your strong disagreements with it. Your claim about abortion (and other things) being a “decision” as opposed to a “choice” (which is easily reducible to a kind of commodified view of life) is particularly strong. Figuring out what I would say in response to that would take more time than I have right now; very briefly, suffice to say that I think you’re framing the issue in terms of the affirmative construction of the self (that is, I decide to do this or that thing), where as was thinking much more specifically about the civic or social consequences of making as much as possible, including the whole range of possible outcomes to sexual relationships, subject to one’s own decisionmaking (that is, what used to be consequence or an obligation is now optional, as it were). Do you have to have the latter to have the former–does appreciating the positive and socially strengthening results of responsible decisionmaking become a positive argument in making certain that as many choices as possible are available, especially in regards to such personal matters as sex? I’m not sure. Perhaps. Something that I have to think more about.

    Regarding the middle class thing, I think it’s important to read between the lines there: what’s really being talked about is not that abortion rights benefit the middle class more than the poor–clearly, given that the wealthy have always and probably will always be able to avail themselves of this option, the opposite it true. Rather, what’s being talked about is the fact that, in the U.S. at least, the overwhelming majority of those who demonstrate and agitate on behalf of abortion rights are from that bourgeois segment of the population for whom consumption and choice are natural concomitants, whereas quite often those who oppose abortion rights–those who find it immoral or wicked or just distasteful–tend to be from the lower classes. Religion obviously plays a big role in this; the more educated you are in America, the less likely you are to be religious. But anyway, it’s really just a comment on (I think unintentionally exclusive and even somewhat selfish) styles of speech and rhetoric, not a claim that middle-class women are themselves selfish.

  • kate says:

    Nearly a year ago I found myself unexpectedly pregnant, in a good but relatively new relationship, recovering from eighteen months of caring for my sister during her (ultimately unsuccessful) cancer treatment, and trying to find a way through grief back to an ordinary life. I was studying and working as a temp, my partner was self-employed and broke. Going through our options was the hardest decision-making process either of us have ever dealt with. We decided to have a baby. It was the right decision for us, at this time, and he’s a lovely baby, but babies are also exhausting and stressful. They cost a lot of money and they make you take a fair bit of time off work.

    I don’t think I would have coped with those early weeks of motherhood if I felt at all that this situation had been forced upon me by a lack of other options. If I hadn’t been able to make a choice, for myself, and to plan a way for us to manage our surprise. Having made a choice, I was free to throw myself in whole-heartedly.

    When we call ourselves pro-choice, we’re just that, not pro-abortion as such.

    People who oppose abortion rights most vocally and successfully, incidentally, are just as wealthy as those who support free access to it. Most of the people who go to church might be poor and less-educated, but the institutions, the church leaders, and the politicians are not.

  • […] Diversion: The IWD rally at the GPO in Melbourne was small, but a goodun. Never mind the width, feel the quality. There was some strange moisture falling out of the sky at intervals which might have disconcerted potential rioters. I missed most of Julia Gillard’s speech because I was a bit late. For the benefit of US lefty academics, I should point out that I was jostling shoulders amicably with the ASU (some of whom are janitors, in their lingo). […]

  • […] Diversion: The IWD rally at the GPO in Melbourne was small, but a goodun. Never mind the width, feel the quality. There was some strange moisture falling out of the sky at intervals which might have disconcerted potential rioters. I missed most of Julia Gillard’s speech because I was a bit late. For the benefit of US lefty academics, I should point out that I was jostling shoulders amicably with the ASU (some of whom are janitors, in their lingo).     Crossposted at the Cast Iron Balcony EMail This Post […]

  • proudtobeunion says:

    The canard thrown at women (or men for that matter) that activism in support of some freedom or right may be safely ignored because poor people who are less socially powerful are not as prominent in that movement, or even might oppose it, is an old canard and one which should be vigorously opposed for the reactionary position it really is.

    It is a restatement of that old refrain ‘the darkies [insert relevant group] were quite happy until those darned over educated ratbags came down here and disturbed the deeply traditional and holy relationships that prevailed until their interfering ways disturbed our community harmony’.

    Poppycock. It’s the same ole same ole.

    These creeps’ real position in condemning or rendering illegitimate, ‘middle class’ women or men, who agitate for themselves and others, rights which the wealthy and well connected take as their due, is simply a restatement of the position, that the defence of privilege or power, is really the defence of the underprivileged and powerless.

    The issue of who may be termed ‘middle class’ is also interesting. In the US the term ‘middle class’ is used to describe just about anybody who isn’t demonstrably a part of the indigent poor. If a schoolteacher, social worker, engineer or skilled tradesperson can be safely excluded from having their political and social values and preferences taken seriously, on the grounds that they are ‘middle class’, this leaves the field clear to permit the values and preferences of whom exactly, as being more legitimate? Pull the other one!

  • harry b says:

    The message you attribute to me from my email is not an entirely generous reading of it. I said nothing about the women who actually were having the abortions. And I acted as an entirely good comrade within the defences, and continued going to them during that period. (Much later, I once salvaged a pro-choice protest at our state capitol which two very pushy and frankly incompetent NARAL organisers had almost managed to scupper by alternately terrifying the mainly undergraduate women who’d turned up that they were all going to be arrested, and then pouring open scorn on those of them who said they didn’t want to get arrested that day, an event which did not endear NARAL to me). I simply found them depressing for those reasons among others.

    A word on selfishness. There is a selfish element in most good movements for justice, because most good movements are responses by people who are unjustly treated to their unjust treatment. I know that in the labor disputes I have supported most of the people involved were being selfish in the sense that they were demanding more pay/better working conditions, etc, for themselves. What was especially depressing for me about the clinic defences was the asymmetry in the expression of meanspirited vitriol. People on my side sometimes seemed to have no sense at all that some of our opponents were generally decent people who, in some cases I knew had records of activism for social justice that none of us could hope to emulate. I’ve never had that problem when the police have been on the other side from me.

    Also, just to note that I didn’t use the term ‘middle class’!

    Finally, though, thanks for the very nice comment about my (other) writing, which I really found touching and very encouraging. Hope I don’t seem touchy in the above, I don’t feel touchy I just wanted to expand on what actually happened, and your nice comments outweigh by far the slightly ungenerous reading of my email!

  • Helen says:

    No time to respond to comments, but I’d like to apologise for comments being stuck in moderation for a while – this happens with first comments.

  • […] The Quick Brown Fox: If a woman with an unwanted pregancy also has a low income and/or other disadvantages, how is she helped by outlawing abortion and emergency contraception? If we make abortion illegal, or more restricted, what class of person is still going to get a safe hospital abortion, and has always done so? That’s right – a privileged rich woman. […]

  • Helen says:

    Comments closed due to 123 thoughtful contributions from lousy rotten spammers.

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