I know I promised to write a post about the PETA super bowl ad this weekend, but given that it is black history month and that yours truly is a Catholic, and its Sunday, I had to comment on this instead:
This pro-life ad from CatholicVote.com was meant to air during the Superbowl halftime. As you can see, it relies on several misrepresentations of reproductive choice. Nonetheleast of these is the idea that reproductive choice is synonymous with all-abortions-all-the-time. Or as pro-life people have coined it “pro-abortion,” implying that people who support reproductive choices in fact only support termination of pregnancy. In this construction, Obama would never have been born because pro-choice people would have automatically terminated the pregnancy of an unwed mother. (And possibly implied, an unwed mother of a bi-racial baby.)
The reality of course is that the left is, or should be, less concerned about unwed mothers and interracial dating than the right has often seemed to be. More than that reproductive choice implies that there is a choice, and one such choice is to have children. This is why Democrats, who are traditionally the pro-choice party, are currently fighting in Congress for programs that support children’s health care coverage, housing projects, job creation, and social service programs that help with food, clothing, education, and other essentials for low income and struggling families while the previous administration vetoed expansion of children’s health and put an end to funding of several social service programs. Part of having a choice is having the necessary services and opportunities to raise that child on a level playing field.
The ad also relies on both race and gender assumptions that are seldom associated with the left, including:
- feminists are anti-working class women
- feminists are anti-single mothers
At the same time that it mobilizes these erroneous assumptions about who feminism represents, ie upper class, anti-mother, intelligentsia, it also capitalizes on a racialized narrative of Obama’s upbringing:
- abandoned by his black father
- raised by his struggling mother
- educated/raised in an urban war zone
Thus it relies on unspoken assumptions about blackness in order to destabilize those same assumptions in the pro-choice movement in a bizarro re-appropriation in which Feminists become anti-woman and anti-black and conservative Christians from the heartland become Obama supporters?!? Odd that their own anxieties about black reproduction and power, both of which played out in ugly ways during the election season, would prove such a fruitful ground for a counternarrative to reproductive choice.
What is sad about both these narratives is not only the spin placed on actual facts (Obama’s dad did leave, his mom did struggle, and all though Hawaii, Indonesia, and New England Ivies are hardly the locales of urban decay, he did spend some of his formative years in “bad neighborhoods tho none of these things ultimately impacted him in the ways eitherside often depicts), but also the fact that these narratives are adapted/adopted from the feminists on the left. Conservative Catholics are able to recast genuine concern for the rights of all women to choose when, if, and how to have children into a narrative of bigotry against working class women, women of color, and children of color b/c those narratives have not been adequately removed from the pro-choice movement even tho they do not support them. By which I mean, there is an ongoing willingness to trot out both the spectre of the black welfare mother and her co-conspirator, the uneducated poor white woman sinking into her own presumed muck (usually ethnic) to make the point about why we need reproductive choice instead of a balanced narrative that addresses why reproductive choice is important to women from all economic, racial, and social backgrounds. And there also seems to be an unwillingness to address the reproductive wrongs this country has engaged in with women of color, differently-abled women, poor women, and incarcerated or drug addicted women, including the canonization of women who did not think Italians, Irish, Jewish, or Black people or poor women should be allowed to reproduce.
What we can learn from this advertisement then, is a lesson in decolonized feminist praxis. Instead of balking at the obvious misrepresentation of feminism and choice, we can use this commercial to encourage adoption of the language and practice of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice discusses not only the dire needs of marginalized women with regards to reproductive choice but also the ongoing reproductive wrongs this nation has reigned down on them. It argues that we cannot discuss the need for NRTs without also putting an end to the traditional way of testing them, ie on coerced third world women and incarcerated women. We cannot advocate for more safe abortion clinics without also addressing why most of them are located in communities of color and poor communities nor question the closure of these clinics without also questioning the failure to open full service clinics, that provide a wide range of reproductive options and contraceptive choices as opposed to exclusively invasive ones, in everyone’s neighborhoods.
When we hold our rallies, we can talk about the needs of all women, giving equal time to the scared upper class college student, the rich wife whose abusive husband has already threatened and abused their existing children, the suburban white teen surviving incest, as well as the black teen who might spiral into poverty, or the poor woman who cannot make ends meet as it is, and recognize that college is no more synonymous with white than welfare is with black in the real world.
When we talk about choices we have to be more articulate about the need to have affordable and available childcare in the workplace and on college campuses, access to an array of information about sexual activity, sexual assault, and reproductive technologies not just easy access to abortion or cycle preventing drugs in poor and black neighborhoods and other choices in rich ones, and so on. We need to worry about the posters that rely on transphobia, classism, racism, or just simply narratives of deviance to address repro choice. And we need to rally just as strongly for differently-abled women, incarcerated women, and other “forgotten” women to have and raise their children as we do for women who choose not to have children, to have that choice. And we rally for access to NRTs we need to rally forthe safety of the products and the ethical testing of the products as well as the equal access to them of both straight and queer women.
When we fight for reproductive justice, we deconstruct and reject the underlining eugenicist narratives and their heroines in the reproductive choice past and thus prevent anti-choice groups from exploiting these slippages. It does not mean that they won’t continue to try and paint us as the people who would have killed Obama and Jesus (yes there is an ad about Mary having an abortion as well) but it will be that much harder for them to convince anyone that their rhetoric resonates in anyway.
More than that, by shifting to a reproductive justice narrative we actually address the needs of ALL of the women who support or need reproductive choices and we put an end to the kinds of abuses so many feminists of color and differently-abled rights activist feminists have documented over the years.
I don’t know if Obama’s mother was pro-choice but I do know that there are many mothers in similar circumstances to her who are and they have also raised beautiful children who went on to be the first at any number of things. I know there are pro-choice women raising children right now who blog every day about changing the world to put an end to the kind of inequality this ad relies on and to make a way for the women this ad claims feminism has left behind. If you are one of them, please give us a shout out here or blog about why you are pro-choice (or better yet pro-reproductive justice).
For those of you interested in reading more about reproductive wrongs and reproductive justice start here:
- Andy Smith “Beyond Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life” (access from the library) or Conquest Ch. 4 “Better Dead than Pregnant“
- Angela Davis “Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights“
- Dorothy Roberts Killing the Black Body
- Katherine Krase “The Politics of Women’s Health“
- Betsy Hartman “Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Wrongs“
- Deepa Dhanraj (director) Something Like a War
- Briefing Paper “Repoductive Rights a Human Rights Framework” (some problematic bits but good footnotes for further reading)
Getting back to the ad for a moment, despite the willingness of the Catholics Vote organization to spend $3 million on advertising instead of social programs that might help women choose to keep their children or to have access to health care that would at least make their choices healthy and safe, NBC refused to carry it.