The Unhappy Career of the Term “Choice”

The term "choice" has had
many critics from within the movement often referred to as, ahem, "pro-choice."
Almost from the time "choice" came into use in connection with abortion, right
around the Roe v Wade decision in 1973, some feminist activists strongly
criticized it, arguing it was misguided language, implying as it did that all
women had the resources to make this "choice. The inadequacy of "choice" became
particularly evident to many after the passage of the Hyde amendment in 1976,
which forbade the use of federal funding to pay for poor women’s abortions.

Yet another problematic use
of this term lies in its evolution into a euphemism for abortion itself. Even
some of the staunchest supports of abortion rights in Congress speak of "a
woman’s right to choose," with the presumption that their listeners know
exactly what might be chosen. (Not that this euphemism always works: I recall
visiting a medical school campus where anxious administrators had forbade the
local chapter of Medical Students for Choice from using that name; the chapter
had to be called something more amorphous like "Reproductive Health Interest

I am not sure precisely how
the terms "pro-choice" or simply "choice" came to be associated with abortion.
But I do think the motivations were well intended. Roe occurred in an
era in which there were considerable tensions between young women in their 20s
(mainly single and childless) who identified with the women’s liberation
movement then exploding and women who were typically older, with children, and, to use a term in vogue then, "just
housewives." The latter felt devalued by the former who were giddily breaking
down barriers into various professional and educational settings. Therefore, in
the name of inclusiveness, some feminists took pains to assert the legitimacy
of women’s different choices about working in the paid labor force (again,
unfortunately overlooking the fact that lower income women did not have such a "choice"
to not work). I believe the use of the terminology of "choice" around abortion
was deployed in the same spirit—that is, to make clear an acknowledgment that
people respond differently to abortion, and that an abortion is not something
all women facing an unintended pregnancy would pursue.

The terms "choice" and "pro-choice"
are problematic for many of us, though we no doubt will continue to use them
sometimes, simply because they have become so widely used by others. Women
facing unintended pregnancies—all women, irrespective of income need real options,
which implies that there are things that can genuinely be chosen (for example,
an affordable, accessible, safe abortion or prenatal care, quality
childcare, and so on). The term "reproductive justice" is, for me, a far
preferable way to describe our movement, precisely because it suggests that
collectively we have to fight for such options. I hope this term becomes more
and more in use.

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  • debbierlus

    I just saw the segment you did with Laura Flanders on Grit TV. I can’t wait to read your book. I have been looking for guidance as I move forward with my own website to expose the anti-choice movements propaganda campaign to co-opt feminist dialogue and literally rewrite the history of the womens movement. Feminist for Life of America & Feminists Choosing Life of New York have purchased the Susan B Anthony birthplace museum and they are utilizing it as a front for their anti-choice revisionist history. Carol Crossed of Democrats for Life (ha!) is at the center of it (President), & the former VP of Feminist for Life of America is the executive director. This is occuring in my town, & I can’t abide by it, so here I am.

    You would think the mantel of God would be enough for these people but apparently they have to now claim ownership of every feminist leader in history to give credence to their cause. Even though they have no foudation of evidence for their claims. But, when has the anti-choice movement ever let truth stand in their way?

    Thanks for your work


  • captiver

    I find myself reluctant to give up on "choice" and see the word’s close tie with abortion as a good thing. Lately, the anti-choice/abortion/reproductive justice folks have been using it a lot, e.g. the Palin-Palin InTouch Weekly cover "We’re Glad We Chose Life" and so on. Whenever it’s so used, the obvious rejoinder leaps out at the reader/listener – yes, and that’s what everyone should be able to do – to choose. In some ways, indeed, choice is a more limited goal than is reproductive justice — but, heck, we haven’t even achieved "choice" yet. Perhaps they can go hand-in-hand. I hope the reproductive justice focus isn’t hostile to "choice" — the last thing we need is a divided movement. I live in Ireland. There’s nothing close to choice here (unless you consider being able to choose to pay 2,000 euros for a trip to the UK choice) and certainly no reproductive justice. Here, we’re sticking with choice at the moment — it’s simply the most powerful and effective focus in this situation. At least in my view. Though one of the favourite slogans of the antis is "She’s not a choice, she’s a child". How are the antis adapting the "reproductive justice" focus to their own ends, does anyone know?

  • crowepps

    Lately, the anti-choice/abortion/reproductive justice folks have been using it a lot, e.g. the Palin-Palin InTouch Weekly cover "We’re Glad We Chose Life" and so on. Whenever it’s so used, the obvious rejoinder leaps out at the reader/listener – yes, and that’s what everyone should be able to do – to choose.

    Two things – first, they always use the word Choice with a qualifier — ‘Choose Life’ or ‘the Right Choice’ which perverts its meaning — everybody gets their choice from a menu of one.


    Second, to me the idea of using ‘Choice’ as a catchphrase is to acknowledge all women no matter what their personal decisions.  I have heard very few people on the ProChoice side stigmitizing women who carry to term even in cases where the practice is futile because the fetus is nonviable because the personal choice of the woman involved is accepted, but the ‘Choose Life’ side spends a great deal of time stigmitizing women in exactly the same circumstances even though the outcome for their nonviable fetus is identical.

     How are the antis adapting the "reproductive justice" focus to their own ends, does anyone know?

    By insisting that they are working for ‘justice’ for the fetus, of course, particularly in cases where either the woman or the fetus will die — the fetus being ‘innocent’ and the woman apparently guilty of not having enough ‘faith’.

  • marlene-g-fried

    Marlene Gerber Fried

    For those wanting to read more about “choice,” I am posting the link to my article, “10 Reasons to re-think Reproductive Choice.” I would be happy to have your comments.

  • lauracarroll

    Agreed that it is time to move off of "choice" language for a number of reasons. There is focus group research to support Fried’s reason #6 –"Choice" is a "market concept" -in developing campaigns to vote no on parental notification intiatives the word "choice" is met negatively–equating a women’s choice to have a child with consumers "choice" when it come to buying products. When it comes to deciding whether to have a child, it is more than a choice– it is a right. "Choice"’s simplicity and brevity is good however when it comes to language that works. As much as "reproductive justice" is correct, it rings too academic and objective for a matter that is so much more than that. 

    I also have a beef with the language of child"free" and child"less." These two terms have associations that do not work to have this choice seen as equally legitimate as the choice to have children.

    Laura Carroll,

    Families of Two: A Decade Later

  • simershein

    A laudable effort, Professor Joffe, but the expression is not catchy enough. I am offended by the association of the expression Pro-Choice with pro-abortion… and Pro-Life with an anti-abortion stance. As a board-certified OBGYN, I KNOW we are in fact, PRO-LIFE – we FIGHT FOR THE LIVES of all the women who would die in the absence of safe and accessible reproductive services, including abortion. Ironic that the conservative Republicans, the party of less government, chooses to legislate our individual decisions about our own medical care.

    The word CHOICE has been co-opted by Sarah and Bristol Palin on the cover of January’s InTouch Magazine, underscoring how we have fought continuously to give the Palins, and all women options – choices.

    Learn more at my post. Go to Just remember to scroll down until you see the magazine cover and add your comments.