Women and mothers have long been seen as inseparable, due to the efforts of many strong women this image is changing. Women can be anything: activists, lawyers, presidents – you name it! But while we’re fighting for women’s right to choose, how do we position ourselves towards their choice for motherhood? Today, on International Women’s Day, youth advocate Aideen reflects on the space motherhood has within the pro-choice discussion. 

As a teenager, influenced by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and other European ‘second-wave’ feminists, I learned very quickly why the ‘right to choose’ was essential to the women’s liberation movement. Securing greater access to contraception and abortion meant giving women the ability to ‘opt-out’ of motherhood – an institution which, growing up in a rural Irish Catholic family, had always appeared to me as hugely demanding; and an obstacle to women’s participation in society.

For a long time, I understood it as my feminist duty to distance myself from ‘the mother’ of all gender roles; and accordingly, I believed that you could not be ‘Pro-Choice’ and ‘Pro-Motherhood’ at the same time. In truth however, the ‘anti-motherhood’ message never sat quite right with me. The women I was raised by – most of them mothers themselves – were generous, tough and strong-minded. Was it possible then, I wondered, to find a way to fight for recognition of their labor and of their rights; whilst advocating for the right to abortion too?

Changing our perspective

With the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule under the Trump administration, a policy which cuts off federal funding to many NGO’s working on abortion, it is safe to say that the ‘Anti-Choice’ movement is currently enjoying somewhat of a renaissance across Europe, the U.S.A. and much of the Global South. Less publicized however is the fact that, as of 2017, the U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. What’s more, maternal mortality is rising in the United States, as infant mortality rates reach their lowest point in recorded history.

Whilst the right to abortion is of course hugely important, I believe that Pro-Choice activists and advocates must expand our focus to include recognizing and challenging issues like maternal health and mortality, as part of a larger, interlocking system of ‘reproductive violence’[1]. The real ‘feminist’ challenge then is not to decide whether motherhood itself is emancipatory or oppressive – an irresolvable question, to which, many diverse and culturally-specific perspectives have been offered – but to come together to recognize and combat all mechanisms by which women and pregnant people are exploited and controlled, on account of their reproductive functions.

The many ways of reproductive injustice

What I am arguing for here is that we as Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights advocates deepen and expand our understanding of reproductive autonomy and in doing so, increase the effectiveness of our campaigning by bringing together activists from many different walks of life. In this vein, there is much to learn from the ‘reproductive justice’ movement – an intersectional, social justice organisation established in the early 1990’s by feminists of color in the United States which gives special consideration to the intersection of a person’s race, class, gender, sexuality and ability in affecting the particular type of ‘reproductive oppression’ they face[2]. By recognizing the diverse yet interlocking nature of these oppressive systems of racism, sexism and classism, RJ activists have come together to challenge a multitude of issues from the cultural shaming of teen mothers, to inequality in accessing fertility treatments for working-class women and women of color.

And so, whilst we must continue our vital work of advocating for the ‘right to choice’, we must learn from the reproductive justice project and recognize that this ‘choice’ may include having, or not having children as well as having children under the conditions and within the environment one chooses. Moreover, reproductive rights should allow us to access a full range of affordable, safe and legal reproductive healthcare services, regardless of gender identity, ethnic background or socio-economic class.

Repeal the 8th

According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 830 women die every day worldwide due to complications arising out of pregnancy and childbirth. Many of these deaths are preventable – resulting from infection, hypertensive disorders or unsafe abortions – and are symptomatic, not only of widespread inequality in accessing reproductive healthcare services; but of the systematic undervaluation of the lives of pregnant women and people alike.

In Ireland, the 8th amendment of the Constitution which was inserted by popular referendum in 1983, gives equal rights to the ‘unborn’ fetus as to the mother, thereby prohibiting and criminalizing abortion; but also, creating an unworkable situation regarding the safeguarding of pregnant people’s autonomy and consent within the medical sphere. Because of the scope of the effects of the 8th amendment, for continued and non-continued pregnancy, the movement to ‘Repeal the 8th’ has attracted an array of supporters from Pro-Choice activists to medical practitioners, to maternal health and rights advocates; and for me, signifies the magnitude of what can be achieved when we come together to recognize reproductive autonomy as our fundamental goal.

Rethinking reproductive health 

In the contemporary Geo-political climate, women and pregnant people find themselves the target of renewed and sustained attack – with the rolling back of basic reproductive rights and healthcare services relating to pregnancy and reproduction across Europe and the U.S.A. Whilst safeguarding the ‘right to choice’ is of the utmost importance, I believe it is high time that we as reproductive health and rights advocates, re-evaluate our collective relationship to motherhood and understand that the battle for abortion rights and the battle to decrease maternal mortality are one in the same. For me, the real ‘reproductive justice’ lies in recognizing this fact and in doing more to combat all forms of reproductive inequality, whatever and wherever they may be.

[1] Donath, Orna. 2015. “Choosing motherhood? Agency and regret within reproduction and mothering retrospective accounts.” Women’s Studies International Forum 53: 200-209

[2]Luna, Zakiya and Luker, Kristin. 2013. “Reproductive Justice.” Annual Review of Law and Social Sciences 9:327-52

In our op-eds CHOICErs get the chance to shed their light on what they think matters in the fight for equal sexual and reproductive health and rights for all. This contribution was written by Aideen O’Shaughnessy, CHOICE Youth Advocate and part of the Dutch-Irish Repeal the 8th Movement