Monday, December 21, 2015

Pro-choice and market-choice positions on abortion

At first glance, left and liberal positions on abortion in the United States can seem indistinguishable. This is because our debates have been largely framed by Republican partisans, forcing everyone else into the usual coalition. When misogynist grandpas float ideas like "Let's doom single mothers to either a lifetime of poverty with dependents she can't afford or extremely dangerous home surgery in lieu of legal abortion," most sane people are going to start looking for alternatives.

Still, libertarians also routinely end up as allies with the left on abortion -- but no one would accuse them of sharing the left's values, philosophies, or political calculations. And though these differences may seem academic under some circumstances, they become extremely relevant if we consider long-term questions about coalition building and strategic framing. In that light, while affirming my committment to continuing access to safe and legal abortions, I'd like to contrast two distinct positions that are routinely conflated: pro-choice, and market-choice.

Pro-choice

The pro-choice position, which happens to be the consensus position in most of the world, does what it says on the tin: the goal is to give women as much choice as possible over their lives. In the United States, this position was best articulated by Barack Obama on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:
“I am committed to protecting this constitutional right. I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.”
Crucially, choice is formulated here not just in terms of legal rights, but also in terms of socioeconomic conditions. Women's reproductive choices are governed not just by the law, but also by their material conditions, their access to things like contraception, adoption, and child support, and so on. For this reason, the pro-choice position entails a wide-ranging agenda that focuses on the full range of items Obama lays out.

From here, of course, how one prioritizes and pursues these fights for choice is just a matter of strategic judgment. If for example you think that poverty does more to impede choice for women than inflexible work conditions, you will prioritize the fight against poverty. If you think that child support issues are more consequential than maternal leave issues, those are the issues you'll prioritize. If you think that abortion access issues are more consequential than any of these, that's what you'll focus on. Support for a woman's right to choose implies no necessary strategic priority for these issues, since other things like questions of proportional urgency and calculations about political expedience inevitably come into play. That's why among the opposition to outlawing abortion you'll find little to no consensus on how all of these issues should be prioritized.

Market-choice

Routinely conflated with the pro-choice position, the market-choice position is, as far as I can tell, mostly unique to the United States. Explicitly held by many self-identified libertarians - and implicitly held by a significant faction of bourgeois liberals - its central premise is that government restrictions on women are the only ones that matter. The market-choice position is probably best articulated by Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown:
"Libertarian feminists bring overlooked or under-emphasized issues into the liberty movement, such as reproductive freedom (not just abortion but things like making birth control available over-the-counter, state coercion of pregnant women, surrogacy law, and the emerging legal issues surrounding things like IVF and artificial wombs), state overreach into parenting, the over-regulation of female-heavy occupations, how decriminalizing sex work fits into overall criminal-justice reform efforts..."
This, of course, is just a thin glaze over standard libertarian ideology. Conceivably, a pro-choice position could deprioritize other issues and focus on the state oppression of women; but the market-choice position goes a step further. It doesn't just deprioritize material concerns - it delegitimizes them. Welfare, for example, is clearly off the table in Brown's discussion, and the market-choice partisan obviously considers it illegitimate to prioritize welfare over state oppression.

Thus the market-choice position is in crucial contrast to the pro-choice position, which demands a more expansive conception of liberation, and accepts a diversity of strategy and tactics in pursuit of more choice for women. But unfortunately, it aligns perfectly with a common liberal perspective on choice, which not only prioritizes the fight against state oppression but demands its priority and delegitimizes other material concerns.

Perhaps the most prominent exemplar of the market-choice liberal is the archetypal Hillary Man: the middle-to-upper-class culture warrior who thinks that being a feminist is just a matter of supporting legalized abortions - while utterly disregarding the horrific outcomes Clintonian economic policy would impose on women. These are generally people who have little experience with or understanding of poverty and the shackles it places on the lives of women, and whose position on abortion has more to do with tribalism than with a serious engagement with the stakes and arguments. Of course, the market-choice liberal may happen to accept things like child tax credits or expanded maternity leave as well; but their trademark move is to bracket these issues off of pro-choice issues, and to reduce one's pro-choice position to the priority they give to abortion issues.


ICYMI, the implication here is that market-choice liberalism has more to do with the libertarian fixation on state oppression than it does with an expansive, leftist conception of a woman's right to choose. It is one thing to prioritize the fight against abortion as a matter of judgment or strategic calculation, but it is quite another to then delegitimize leftists who have other priorities as somehow less committed to choice and the rights of women. That is an intrinsically right-wing move, and should be reviled by the left as such.