The Pro-Choice Continuum

Jessica Arons is the Director of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress and the author of More than a Choice: A Progressive Vision for Reproductive Health & Rights.

In the pro-choice community, we spend most of our time debating the options women should have when they are thinking about terminating a pregnancy. We rarely spend time, however, discussing what options women should have when giving birth. By the same token, maternal and birthing rights activists often do not address issues surrounding abortion in their own work.

The National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) has set out to change that. This past weekend in Atlanta, GA, pro-choice activists and maternal rights supporters came together—for the first time to my knowledge—for a National Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women.

Abortion rights supporters are familiar with waiting periods, funding bans, biased counseling requirements, procedure restrictions, and other obstacles that women must endure when they want to access abortion care in the United States. But how many of us know that the Cesarean section rate in our country (30.2%) is twice as high as that recommended by the World Health Organization (10-15%)? And who knew that over 300 hospitals in this country have an outright ban on letting women even try to have a vaginal birth if they have previously had a C-section despite mounting evidence that it often is safe?

From debates over delivery in a hospital versus at birthing centers or home to attempts to secure health insurance coverage for midwives and doulas (trained birth attendants), birthing rights advocates work to ensure that women get the final say about the circumstances under which they birth and the medical care they receive during the delivery of their children. Through their efforts, they aspire to guarantee that women are truly informed about their delivery options and empowered to have their decisions honored.

The links between their work and that of conventional reproductive rights activists should be obvious. We both seek heightened respect for women's decisions regarding their pregnancies. We both attempt to defend women from unwanted, and often harmful, government intrusion into their reproductive lives. And we both want women to have better access to quality reproductive health care.

When a young mother is denied the childcare she needs in order to pursue her education; when a woman is prosecuted rather than treated for using drugs while pregnant; when a woman cannot afford to pay for an abortion she needs; when a court orders a woman to undergo a C-section against her will; when midwives are denied a state license to practice; and when a prison sterilizes a woman without her knowledge; we all should raise our voices in collective outrage over the denial of women's reproductive and human rights.

Lynn Paltrow, founder of NAPW, noted at the Summit that we as women are all connected by our potential capacity to bear children. Accordingly, when any pregnant woman is treated with disrespect and indignity, when her wishes are undermined or outright ignored, when her life is devalued, we all suffer the consequences.

As we mark the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, it is fitting that we expand the notion of what it means to be pro-choice and join with new allies to ensure that all pregnant women have genuine and meaningful choices and that their decisions—and they themselves—will be respected.

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  • choice-joyce

    Thanks for this great article. Making the link between abortion rights and pregnancy rights is long overdue and crucial. It’s all ultimately the same issue with similar concerns. Because the bottom line is that women can have children and men cannot, and that, in my opinion, is the key gender difference that really MAKES a difference. Most of women’s oppression can be traced to it, in one way or another. For one thing, motherhood is a demanding role that tends to take women away from the public sphere, making them economically dependent on men. Women need more supports to help them bear and raise kids so they’re not put at a disadvantage economically, socially, and politically. Instead, it’s considered women’s natural duty to get pregnant and have kids, without recompense. That’s not right. It has to be each woman’s choice. But since it’s a social and biological imperative for (most) women to have kids, women deserve much more support to do it.

    Ironically, the ability to give life is arguably the most powerful and sacred human ability and should be given utmost respect, yet right-wing groups and our still-too-patriarchal society use it to control and oppress women. Come to think of it, I guess that’s the problem. Powerful women are scary!