05
Jan
10

The Morality of Choice

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the film Precious, a teenage African American girl has two children by her HIV infected father. The possibility of abortion is never spoken of and the girl’s delivery of her second child is treated as a bootstraps triumph over the matriarchal hell of her upbringing by a degenerate “welfare queen” caricature. Yet Precious is simply one more example in a long line of contemporary American films that “omit” reference to abortion as a viable life option. Popular glorifications of young motherhood in such white female-centered vehicles as Juno, Sixteen and Pregnant and Knocked Up, promote a conservative pre-feminist vision of compulsory motherhood. In this moral universe abortion is a third rail alternative that only bad women make in shame and secrecy.

When I chose to have an abortion in my 20s as an underemployed college student on the road to a PhD, it was in a climate in which the horrors of the pre-Roe vs. Wade era seemed distant and unimaginable. Now the pendulum has swung back, underscored by the recent debate over abortion coverage in the health care reform bills. Ostensibly drawing on the ban on federal abortion funding mandated by the 1977 Hyde Amendment, both the House and Senate bills drastically restrict abortion coverage in ways that will reduce the access of working and middle class women to safe legal abortions. Hyde restrictions on funding for abortion through Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for low-income women, effectively denied access to poor women seeking abortions. The House bill goes beyond Hyde, prohibiting insurers who participate in health reform insurance exchanges from including abortion coverage in their plans.

There has been very little national discussion of how women of color will specifically be affected by draconian restrictions on abortion in the health care bills’ mandated insurance exchanges. At approximately 6% of the U.S. population, African American women have a disproportionate number of abortions. African Americans’ long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party has led to the assumption that blacks are unwaveringly pro-choice. However, there is tension between public support for choice among black voters and deeply held antiabortion sentiments in African American communities. A 2006 Zogby International poll showed an increase in anti-choice views among African Americans. Black anti-choice factions have gained greater visibility in the national arena in such influential far right media as Fox News. Internet searches for information on abortion and African Americans yield more references to “black genocide” than to pro-choice African American views. Mainstream black civil rights’ leadership remains steadfastly silent on the urgency of protecting legal abortion access and reproductive justice for black communities.

The overwhelming religiosity of African Americans, coupled with the political ascendance of the Religious Right, has made religious nationalist abortion foes the “authentic” voice of black America by default. It has also made frank talk about abortion’s role in addressing the crisis of unwanted births in black communities virtually impossible. This climate fuels black nationalist and religious propaganda equating abortion with genocide. Hearkening back to eugenicist history, black abortion foes point to a white conspiracy to reduce the black population. However, skyrocketing numbers of black children who are homeless, in foster care and/or Child Protective Services illustrate the gravity of caregiving issues facing many African American families. And black abortion foes offer no viable program for addressing this moral and social crisis. They offer no viable program for the dilemma of an 18 year-old who had her first child at age 12. They’re MIA when it comes to concrete assessment of how this 18 year-old (multiplied by 10,000) raising her second child by an incarcerated older man, develops parenting skills, deals with anger management, gets an education, gets a job, finds health care resources, puts food on the table and grapples with the probability of being a single mother for the rest of her life.

The pervasiveness of popular images in which getting a man and becoming a mother are the end all be all of femininity make it easy to see why some young women decide to forgo abortion. Steeped in a culture where having a child at an early age is not stigmatized, being a young mother becomes an “antidote” to low self esteem and limited life opportunities. It is no mystery then why girls who see their friends get pregnant and have no other meaningful affirmation in their lives decide to sacrifice their youth for the fantasy of a baby’s unconditional love. It is no mystery why girls who are ambivalent go forward with a pregnancy anyway due to ignorance and/or fear about seeking out reproductive resources or lack of access. Because of the deep social stigma associated with abortion and the frayed social welfare net, the burden of educating young women about the existence of alternatives to early motherhood increasingly falls on peers and mentors in their communities.

Historically black women have not had power and control over their bodies. Under slavery compulsory pregnancy through rape and forced breeding was the norm for black women in this country. In the 19th and 20th centuries eugenicist sterilization policies were also imposed on black women to assert racist control over black reproduction. However, noting the connection between reproductive freedom and social justice, Loretta Ross, co-founder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong remarked, “We understand why African-American women risked their lives then and why they seek safe, legal abortion now. It’s been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children.” Choice is a key aspect of achieving self-determination and sovereignty for black communities in a racist patriarchal culture.

Nonetheless, recent polls such as Zogby and Gallup have shown that there is increasing support for anti-choice, antiabortion views among younger people. In a national culture in which the bankrupt “morality” of the Religious Right is the default position on ethics and personal choice, many young people have a limited a-historical view of the real life implications of restricted abortion access. In the debate leading up to the House and Senate bills, the morality police, led by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council, were out in full force, lobbying for more comprehensive restrictions on abortion coverage.

These views are reinforced by the Democratic shift in framing abortion initiated by President Obama.  In January Obama lifted a Bush-era “global gag rule” ban on funding for foreign family planning agencies that provide abortion services. Yet early in his presidential campaign he showed his willingness to kowtow to antiabortion forces out of political expediency. He cozied up to antiabortion evangelicals with rhetoric about “reducing” the number of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies. He rubbed shoulders with homophobe Pastor Rick Warren at his mega-church in Orange County and gave him a plum position at his inauguration. He re-legitimated Bush’s faith-based initiative program by approving its funding base and tacitly endorsing discriminatory church hiring policies. Obama’s politically expedient approach to choice has bolstered the anti-choice antiabortion agendas of Blue Dog Democrats like Congressman Bart Stupak and Senator Ben Nelson. The aggressive recruitment of the Blue Dogs by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has led to the gutting of any semblance of progressive legislation in the Democratically-held Congress.

In the health care reform charade this will have disastrous consequences for black women and communities of color, who rely heavily on services like Planned Parenthood for preventive care (due in part to the Hyde Amendment). Every state that enacts parental notification laws and late term abortion restrictions further imperils the lives of women of color who generally have fewer health care resources than do white women of any economic level. The crisis of unemployment, unequal pay for equal work, unequal access to health care and a cradle-to-prison pipeline mean that African American women can least afford to be mis-educated about the right to choose because of religious dogma or destructive nationalist blather. In the midst of a dangerously reactionary climate we can least afford to cede visibility to the self-appointed “authentic” morality police of black America. Simply put, abortion saves lives, black lives, and standing on the sidelines while the Religious Right and its black allies hijack our rights is not an option.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a commentator for KPFK 90.7FM Los Angeles.

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34 Responses to “The Morality of Choice”


  1. January 5, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    They’re MIA when it comes to concrete assessment of how this 18 year-old (multiplied by 10,000) raising her second child by an incarcerated older man, develops parenting skills, deals with anger management, gets an education, gets a job, finds health care resources, puts food on the table and grapples with the probability of being a single mother for the rest of her life.

    Oh, but, any life for those kids is better than abortion, right? Right?

    Sorry, I got nothin’.

  2. 2 Felix
    January 5, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Oh, but, any life for those kids is better than abortion, right? Right?

    Isn’t that a tricky phrase they use? It creates a false dichotomy between the images of a poor but alive child and a dead baby. It’s an emotional appeal that hits straight home.
    But, the real choice is between having no child, one child, or any one plus x number of children. Dead children do not figure into the “equation”, and they can’t – because a zygote is not a baby. Period. End of.

    • January 5, 2010 at 4:35 pm

      Dead children do not figure into the “equation”, and they can’t – because a zygote is not a baby.

      A zygote is not a baby, true, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing the debates on abortion rights. These aren’t fetuses we’re talking about, they’re pre-born children. They just wanna live! Why can’t we give them a chance?!

  3. 4 Rick Heller
    January 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    alysonmiers,

    Thanks for visiting the blog and being a “devil’s” advocate 🙂

    As Humanists, we base our policy recommendations on scientific evidence, and there simply is no evidence that a zygote wants to live. The feeling of desire correlates with brain activity in a subcortical area called the basal ganglia. An embryo without that brain structure cannot want anything, as far as science can determine.

    I’m not exactly sure when during the 9 months the brain structures necessary to feel desire and to feel pain develop. If one can determine when those brain structures come online, one could certainly make an argument that abortions after that time cause pain and should be avoided.

    However, I think there is good reason to believe that even a late-term human fetus has a less developed sense of pain than a living mammal, such as a cow. I don’t think a person who eats beef (I do on rare occasion) can be more concerned for a fetus than a born cow without being hypocritical. A position of vegetarian anti-abortion Humanism might be intellectually coherent.

    Opposition to abortion is driven by two factors:

    1. Supernatural belief that the fetus has a soul whose incarnation is interrupted by abortion.

    2. A natural intuition that a late-term fetus with a heartbeat is a living individual worthy of moral consideration. I think it is reasonable to restrict late-term abortions out of consideration of this intuition, except when abortion is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.

    • January 5, 2010 at 5:17 pm

      I was being facetious, actually. I don’t believe a fetus has any desire to live and I don’t classify a fetus as a baby. Hence the “sorry, I got nothin'” part.

    • 6 David Kimball
      January 10, 2010 at 10:26 pm

      Rick.

      I agree with you 100%. The whole issue boils down to a definition of when life begins. There are many examples throughout nature of something developing from the beginning to the end with no clear line of demarcation of “when” something becomes the developed extreme. But that cannot be used as the logic to say that something is as developed at the beginning as it is at the end. Examples: color spectrum of a rainbow; when am I not angry and when have I become angry; When am I hungry and when am I full; etc. etc.

      We have to define the issue in terms of defining life and take out the definition according to some religous hierarchy. (It is not in the Bible so it can only come from the church teachings.)

      We need a secular approach based on critical analysis and empathy to the problem rather than allowing the argument to be based on religion.

  4. 7 sikivu
    January 5, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Opposition to abortion is driven by two factors:
    1. Supernatural belief that the fetus has a soul whose incarnation is interrupted by abortion.

    2. A natural intuition that a late-term fetus with a heartbeat is a living individual worthy of moral consideration. I think it is reasonable to restrict late-term abortions out of consideration of this intuition, except when abortion is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.

    Exactly, and I would add the desire for state-sanctioned proprietary and territorial control over the body of the mother whose life is a priori assumed to be subordinate to and sacrificial for the “rights” of an unborn fetus that has no possibility of independent existence from the vessel of her body as “host provider.”

  5. January 5, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Opposition to abortion is driven by two factors:

    1. Supernatural belief that the fetus has a soul whose incarnation is interrupted by abortion.

    2. A natural intuition that a late-term fetus with a heartbeat is a living individual worthy of moral consideration. I think it is reasonable to restrict late-term abortions out of consideration of this intuition, except when abortion is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.

    I would further add:

    –Assumption that a woman’s purpose in life is to bear children without complaint.
    –Belief that sexual intercourse is an immoral act and that pregnancy and motherhood are appropriate consequences for this irresponsible behavior.

    Also: I’ve written a new post quoting this one.

    • 9 James Croft
      January 6, 2010 at 9:57 am

      I would add another, which has some weight for me:

      – The concern that pregnancy may come to be seen as an inconvenience, and the potential coarsening of the moral environment that could ensure if decisions over control over human reproduction becomes as routine as making a choice between consumer products.

      I think how we discuss and debate this issue has the potential to affect, more broadly, our conception of the worth of a human life, and for that reason it is wise not to be dogmatic on either side.

      This is not an argument against “choice” per se, but an affirmation that there are many different types of choice with varying significance. I feel that a certain degree of ambivalence about the question of abortion is healthy if it keeps the issue in perspective – this is not a choice like any other.

      • 10 David Kimball
        January 10, 2010 at 10:29 pm

        “How we discuss and debate the issue” is important. Which means that it must not be debated via anecdotes but rather by principles and values. It is too easy for someone to relate anecdotes of people who have abortions irresponsibly, but that is not how decisions on ethical issues should be made. We must not allow anecdotes to be the means of the discussion.

      • January 15, 2010 at 11:24 am

        I cannot tell if you are responding to my post or extending it, but to be clear, I did not intend to suggest that any such discussion should be based on anecdotes. However, ethical principles are formed through debate, discourse and discussion, part of which must by necessity be open to the experiences of individual human beings. Sometimes one person’s experience (an “anecdote”) serves as an exemplar for many. Personal experience must be considered an entirely justified source for moral and ethical reasoning, although not the only one. Otherwise we are put in a paradoxical position of debating human principles without relation to human experience.

  6. 12 sikivu
    January 5, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    where is it?

  7. January 5, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Ms. Hutchinson,

    I’ve been trying to email you to no available. My emails have bounced back saying that your box is full.

    My Assistant Executive Director and I at the Long Beach Freethought Society, would very much like to invite you to come speak to our community. I have intended to make sure that our speakers include women and blacks – and you are wonderfully both! As a black person with a naturalistic worldview, I am sharply aware of how rare we are in the usual secular circles.

    Please contact me. If you cannot come speak, perhaps you can suggest other secular women who voices we can hear.

    In reason,

    David Burchall
    Executive Director
    Long Beach Freethought Society
    LongBeachFreethought.org

    longbeachfreethought@yahoo.com

  8. 16 sikivu
    January 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I highly recommend Alyson’s incisive post for further critique on this issue.

  9. 17 Lendear
    January 7, 2010 at 11:47 am

    The Morality of Choice by Sikivu Hutchinson

    Hutchinson culled four films that did not present abortion as a viable life choice of pregnant teens. She concludes: In this moral universe abortion is regarded as a third rail alternative that only bad women make in shame and secrecy.

    Her input does not proceed to her conclusion. It is therefore non-responsive to the morality of choice issue.

    She boldly states that she decided on, and justified, her own abortion. There is no hint that she did not have a choice or that she is hiding in shame and secrecy as a bad women.

    The article should be retitled:
    My African American Abortion Issues by Sikivu Hutchinson.

    • January 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm

      On the contrary, I agree with Sikivu that mainstream films and TV shows have backed away from showing the characters even think about abortion. I see this as a commercial-decision on the part of the filmmakers; they figure anti-abortion filmgoers are more likely to be offended by abortion than pro-choice filmgoers are likely to be offended by (or even notice) its absence.

      A few films do still show abortion in a positive light, but my sense is that these are mostly independent films, often ones that aim to make a political point and feature abortion as a central issue.

      Here is a rather dated article that discusses this issue

      http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/29/abortion1.html

      • 19 Lendear
        January 8, 2010 at 1:53 am

        Rick, what are you contrarying? I did not say films suggested abortions. The filmmakers are usually smarter than that. They know that free abortion 24/7, no questions asked, is social moral chaos. Why put wharped thinking like that in films. That behavior is only for real life. Did that apply to decisions like Sikivu’s. Her phd was more important than the human being in her womb. I am voluntarily changing human to the euphemistic terms fetus or zygote for clarity. But lets hopes there was more to it than that, agreed? I say that because she is not hiding from moral judgement and shame in secrecy as a bad women or a non-mother. That is what she claimed happens and it must be wrong. Didnt she prove it wrong? And how is she using her phd education? By assisting, family care, contraception, abstinence, education, cultural change, day care, new creative ideas of her own? She is insisting that abortions be made easier like hers was back in the good old post Roe era. Good grief! She tells us that 6% of the population is disproportionally represented having abortions. How much higher does she want it to go? She cant get it past 6%. Thats all thats available. The entire article is, fact ugly, cultural ugly, racist ugly, social ugly, and morally ugly. I originally read the article wondering if someone had developed a moral argument for abortion. She has not and the title is bogus. Is she really saying, I did it easily and I want you to do it too? We can all love a women who has an abortion, but I for one have found no reason to applaud it or to promote it with vengence.
        What carp do you have in this muddy river?

      • 20 David Kimball
        January 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm

        The exception does not negate the rule. The author was an exception to the rule that most people are made to feel guilty for having an abortion. To Leandear’s comment that her example disqualifies her general rule is not logical. Of course there can be general statements and these general statements can have exceptions. And I would definitely claim that this author is an exceptional person.

      • 21 Remiel Crow
        January 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

        Regarding TV and film treatment of the topic, I’ve noticed that, usually when a woman or girl turns up in the script pregnant and is deciding whether or not to have an abortion, in every single case I can recall, she opts to give birth instead and will most of the time keep the baby. It’s to the point where, on a popular ABC drama last night when a black 15-year-old character turned up pregnant (much to the devastation of her upscale, professional parents), as soon as abortion was brought up, I thought, “Well, she’s not going to have one.” In my mind, based on what I’ve seen portrayed in the past, the character refusing the abortion was a foregone conclusion.

        Even when the prospect of abortion is destigmatized in the script, popular media continue to depict women and girls choosing to give birth rather than have an abortion, often without the character really having the least idea what the raising of a child will entail. I agree that the media actually tend to romanticize teen motherhood, as Ms. Hutchinson points out.

        In the show I watched, the teen’s mother dragged her into a hospital room where a patient had been in screaming hard labor for three days, and demanded, “Is this what you want? Look at that!” Just then the baby was delivered and was presented to its ecstatic (single) mother. The teen beamed a glowing smile and says, “But look at that!”

        She decided against the abortion. I wasn’t surprised.

  10. 22 Shatterface
    January 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Re: Knocked Up: I can’t understand why a comedy about mismatched parents didn’t spend half it’s running time debating abortion.

    Oh, wait: it’s a comedy about mismatched parents.

    For a minute there I was a paranoid, humourless prick who thinks it’s Hollywood’s role to lay out all my life options for me rather than amuse me.

  11. 23 justdust
    January 7, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    “Simply put, abortion saves lives, black lives, and standing on the sidelines while the Religious Right and its black allies hijack our rights is not an option.”

    Education about abortion will not save as many lives as the use of an inexpensive contraceptive. That is a right no one has hijacked!

  12. 24 sikivu
    January 7, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    “Education about abortion will not save as many lives as the use of an inexpensive contraceptive. That is a right no one has hijacked!”

    Evidently you are unaware of the many barriers to contraceptive access that exist for young women of color in communities where reproductive services that offer comprehensive birth control resources are inadequate or endgangered. You may also be unaware of the prevalence of so-called abstinence-only education (brought to us by the Bush Admnistration) in the South and Midwest. In addition, the Religious Right has not stopped at draconian attempts to prohibit abortion access but has also pushed for restrictions on contraception by sponsoring initiatives that seek to confer unfertilized eggs with legal rights. See for example, http://richarddawkins.net/articles/4416

    “Her input does not proceed to her conclusion. It is therefore non-responsive to the morality of choice issue.”
    “The article should be retitled:
    My African American Abortion Issues”

    Clearly you’ve failed to grasp the premise of this critique. The entire article delineated the 21st century social stigma, political propaganda and religious prohibitions on abortion (which is still a LEGAL procedure in this country) and argued for the moral imperative of choice vis-a-vis the life circumstances women encounter and the sovereignty and proprietary right of control that women should have over their own bodies. Given that the reproductive (and not just babymaking but caregiving) and productive labor of women is systematically devalued and exploited, this is not a marginal “ethnic” issue as the poster snidely suggests, but a social justice deficit that has major implications for all poor and working class women in a nation that is ostensibly based on individual liberty and democratic access. Neither the state, nor patriarchy nor organized religion should have the moral right to dictate a woman’s right to choose. Period.

    • 25 Lendear
      January 8, 2010 at 9:17 pm

      This article was difficult to read on several levels. I am jaded by machine gun sound bites and tired cliches even when they identify real problems. This sounds like the work of a threatening know-it-all complainer screecher and not a creative hands-on problem solver. Although both may be needed to combat our nations stultifying problems, I will admit to favoring the latter. My response to the loquacious author is: You have not shown that the “morality police of black america” are going to stop your “life saving” abortions. They clearly do not and will not have the moral or political authority to do so.

  13. 26 S.D.
    January 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I think that the anti-abortion lobby (especially the nationalist approach) falsely thinks that the “saved” fetuses will be born in addition to the “wanted” babies.
    They completely forget that outlawing abortion does not necessarily mean that the invdividual woman will end up with overall more babies. Forced motherhood may also mean that the individual woman (who experiences motherhood as hardship instead a chance of joy) will do anything (including having an illegal abortion entailing sterility) to prevent having another baby. So, paradoxically, legal abortion may result in more babies.

  14. 27 David Kimball
    January 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I thought this was a great article pointing out a desperate need in our society. However, I personally don’t think it’s just the black women who are suffering as a result of society’s backsteps regarding abortions. Not only do I not see it as an issue in the popular medium like movies and TV, but I don’t hear it discussed in the village square. I think we have lost ground and as the author said, the religious right have taken over by default.

    Why didn’t the ladies in pink scream loudly during the health care debate? Where is the debate, black or white, about making available what is legal and necessary and ethical and moral? Why is it easier to hear about the future of breast cancer than the dangers of losing our abortion rights now?

    • 28 Lendear
      January 13, 2010 at 7:32 pm

      David Kimball:
      Your use of the word desperate applied to abortion issues is a dishonest manipulative of priorities. Abortion is already legal and available. Women with breast cancer are desparate for treatment that is not available. The religious right lacks the authority to do anything about either issue and have not taken over anything . They are therefore irrelevant to the subject. Your rhetorical questions as attempts at persuasion are unconvincing.

  15. 29 sikivu
    January 11, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Yes, and again we exist in a political climate in which abortion doctors have been assassinated, funding for reproductive services has been gutted (in CA Schwarzenegger is weighing sweeping cuts on the state level at this very moment), there are fewer providers who have actually been trained to perform abortions, parental notification and other states rights’ laws proliferate and Congress is weighing “historic” health reform coverage that severely limits access to legal abortion for all women. This represents a major turning point in policy that has been informed by a decade of unrelenting antiabortion political propaganda from the religious right and the relative silence of mainstream civil rights orgs. The confluence of restrictive legislation and the antiabortion “zeitgeist” has the potential to turn the country back pre-Roe to an environment in which only middle to upper middle class women will have the luxury to seek abortions in the safety of a private doctor’s office.

    • 30 Lendear
      January 13, 2010 at 7:52 pm

      We do not exist in a political climate of anything, specifically not an assassinate abortion doctors climate. Abortion should not be prohibited but it certainly should be limited. Free abortion 24/7, come on down, is outrageous. An antiabortion zeitgeist does not exist, its more of your fake rhetoric. To call abortions luxury is morally repugnant and obscene!

      • 31 David Kimball
        January 13, 2010 at 10:53 pm

        I don’t remember seeing anyone mentione “free abortion 24/7”, so I don’t know where that comment came from. As to an “antiabortion zeitgeist” while you, Lendear, agrees that “abortions should not be prohibited”, I might suggest trying to get an abortion anywhere in the state of South Dakota. If that isn’t an “antiabortion zeitgeist” there, then we have different definitions of the phrase.

  16. 32 sikivu
    January 14, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    “We do not exist in a political climate of anything, specifically not an assassinate abortion doctors climate. Abortion should not be prohibited but it certainly should be limited. Free abortion 24/7, come on down, is outrageous. An antiabortion zeitgeist does not exist, its more of your fake rhetoric.”

    Right parallel universe, which is why the late George Tiller was one of the few doctors remaining that performed late trimester abortions, conservative Dems in the House and Senate held up the health care bills to ram through radically restrictive abortion coverage provisions that go beyond Hyde, and many reproductive services clinics like my local PP here in liberal L.A. have to hire security and/or disguise their names to protect their clients and staff. The illogic and ahistoricism of your response is staggering.

  17. 33 kahri
    March 4, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the writing you do. I appreciate reading your words. Don’t let the bastards get you down!

  18. May 28, 2013 at 1:26 am

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