Usually when abortion is debated in the popular media, a dichotomy is drawn between ‘pro-choice’ campaigners arguing for autonomy and the right of women to control their own bodies, and ‘pro-life’ campaigners concerned with the rights of the unborn foetus.
But if ‘pro-life’ campaigners were genuinely concerned with the preservation of life, they would do more than fight to deny women access to abortion. They would spend their time actively working to create an environment in which women are genuinely supported to carry their pregnancies to term. Instead, these anti-choice campaigners are the exact same people who lobby for legal and economic policies that create poverty and ongoing systematic disadvantage for mothers (particularly in terms of workplace and public life participation).
So what does motivate anti-choice activists? The available evidence seems to indicate they are more concerned with controlling women and undermining their bodily autonomy – a conclusion supported by their participation in denying basic human rights to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. Examples of this include the widespread denial of birth rights (such as free and informed consent prior to invasive medical procedures) and the pervasive shaming and exclusion of breastfeeding women from public spaces.
Obviously, coercive control over women’s bodies and choices should be forcefully challenged by the feminist movement.
Unfortunately, while liberal feminists do fight for women’s access to safe, accessible and affordable contraception and abortion, they often ignore or even undermine the related issue of supporting women who choose to carry a pregnancy to term. Too much of the liberal feminist discourse around pro-choice campaigning focuses only on the choice to have an abortion. There is little ‘choice’ or support for women who either can’t or don’t want to undergo a medical termination.
A recent article by Catherine Deveny supporting a right to so-called ‘financial abortions’ for men clearly demonstrates this problem. Deveny argues that men should have the opportunity to ‘opt out’ of fatherhood if a woman ‘chooses’ to continue with a pregnancy against his preferences. The fact that so many men already get away with washing their hands of any parental responsibility – including the payment of child support – is apparently not enough. Deveny is seeking to both formalise and legitimise this existing practice.
So what is the problem? Isn’t this a natural extension of being pro-choice? Shouldn’t women have to take responsibility for their choices?
In a word: no.
To start with, this argument completely ignores the rights of the child. According to articles 7–9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to know and have a connection to their parents. Exceptions are provided for situations where ‘separation is necessary for the best interests of the child’, but a man’s desire to avoid child support payments doesn’t qualify. Even in cases when separation is warranted, it is rarely permanent in nature, leaving the door open for personal growth and renewed connection.
But the main problem with Deveny’s argument is that it buys into the neoliberal narrative of individual choice by completely ignoring the broader structural issues that fundamentally constrain women’s choices. The reality is that too many pregnant women already face a stark decision to undergo a medical termination or to risk a life of increased poverty and structural discrimination. While some women will opt to have an abortion (which, by the way, is still a criminal offence in much of Australia), termination should not be the only available option for women to avoid systematic disadvantage.
Just as we should fight for the rights of those women who want access to safe, accessible and affordable abortion, we should also be fighting for the rights of women who instead choose to carry their pregnancies to term. If not, we are punishing women for not having an abortion when a man wanted them to, and that reeks of the kind of coercive control that has no place in the feminist movement.