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Book Review: Reproductive Politics - What Everyone Needs to Know

19 August 2013
By Jennie Bristow
Jennie Bristow is editor of bpas Reproductive Review
Appeared in BioNews 718

Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Rickie Solinger

Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN-10: 0199811415, ISBN-13: 978-0199811410

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know' by Rickie Solinger


For anyone with an interest in reproductive healthcare, 'Reproductive Politics: What everyone needs to know' is a treasure trove of information and insight. This accessible, short(ish) book manages to cover everything from abortion and contraception to assisted reproductive technologies, childbirth, breastfeeding and disability, effectively bringing out the key issues and milestones in each debate. The book is focused on the USA, and for those of us working in this field in Britain, it provides an invaluable crib-sheet of the myriad legal and cultural twists and turns that have taken place across the Atlantic. 

Solinger grounds her analysis in an historical account, which enables us to appreciate what has changed over time and gain some sense of the course that events might take in the near future. For example, Solinger begins her chapter on 'historical questions' with the statement:

'Since reproduction is a biological process, it is often perceived as timeless. But this process takes place in social contexts that shape and reshape its meaning, as ideas about sexuality, gender, race, class, and maternity changes over time' (p.4).

In everyday media and policy debates about abortion, assisted reproduction, and infant feeding practices, this elementary point is often forgotten. Solinger reminds us, for example, that abortion has only been a criminal offence in the USA since 1821: before then, '[a] woman could legitimately ask a physician or a midwife to end her pregnancy, or "restore" her menstrual period, especially before "quickening", that is, before she felt fetal movement, an event only the woman could verify' (p.4).

Similarly, ideas about the fetus have changed significantly over time, and it is only relatively recently that concerns about 'fetal personhood' – rather than, for example, the notion that 'abortion "murdered motherhood"' (p.88) – have come to frame discussions about abortion and the regulation of women's behaviour in pregnancy.

An important shift highlighted by Solinger is that traditional family forms have changed in recent decades: a process that both gives rise to, and is shaped by, 'the new reproductive logic', in which sex can occur without reproduction (e.g. using contraception or between same-sex couples) and reproduction can occur without sex (via assisted reproductive technologies, or ART)' (p.100). The creation of a new normality, in which women can confidently expect not to become (or remain) pregnant unless they want to, and have access to fertility treatment if they have difficulties conceiving, clearly changes the terrain on which reproductive politics is played out, by foregrounding parenthood less as a natural destiny than as a choice.

Yet it is around that question of choice that things begin to get interesting. The book's concluding chapter, titled 'Language and Frameworks', provides a neat explanation of the shift away from the language of 'rights' used by advocates of legal abortion during the late 1960s and early 1970s, towards the language of 'choice'.

'The language of choice centred reproductive experiences in the domain of women's bodies, and validated women's needs to respond to their reproductive capacities within the context of their whole lives', explains Solinger (p.155). Also, she argues, there was a concern to develop a 'respectable, nonconfrontational' movement after Roe v. Wade because some in the USA were 'weary of – or hostile to – rights claims after the civil rights movement':

'Many people believed that choice, a term that evoked women as individuals, not as an activist mass – even as women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplace – would offer a kind of "rights lite", a less threatening package than unadulterated reproductive rights' (p.156).

In this explanation of the shift to 'choice', Solinger reveals her own discomfort with this language. Like many in the US movement for legal abortion, she appears more favourable to the term 'reproductive justice', to encapsulate the sense of an 'inclusive' movement that supports 'the broader requirements of women whose reproductive health, safety, and even their right to be mothers were threatened and constrained by a society that didn't value all women and children equally' (p.159). Yet by posing the language of choice as representing a 'consumer choice' promoted by, and benefiting, white middle class women, she does the pro-choice movement a disservice.

In a recent article examining the current shift in the language and frameworks through which abortion is discussed, Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has explained that the adoption of the language of 'choice' was about emphasising women's moral autonomy to make decisions about their reproductive lives.

'The "right to choose" replaced calls for "abortion on demand" as we accepted that the key issue was a woman's personal freedom to make a decision whether to have or not to have a child', she writes. 'We recognised that, for some women, what mattered was the demand not to have an abortion, or not to be sterilised because they were coerced into procedures that other women were denied'.

By Furedi's account, to be 'pro-choice' is a properly inclusive position, which insists that all women should have the ability to choose for themselves whether to stay pregnant, and that this decision should not reside with lawyers, doctors or politicians. This is hardly a 'rights lite' discourse, or a demand that speaks to privileged white women alone.

For those of us engaged in reproductive politics today, the battle over choice versus reproductive justice is of enormous significance. It speaks not only to the words that are used, but broader ideas about women's autonomy and decision-making capacity. The strength of Solinger's book is that it raises these questions: resolving them, however, requires a much wider debate.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service's annual lecture, 'What does it mean to be pro-choice in the 21st century?', will take place in London on 21 November 2013. Contact jennie.bristow@bpas.org for details.


Buy Fertility and Reproduction from Amazon UK.

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