Reframing "Choice"

Hilary Rosen’s comments last week about Ann Romney never having “worked a day in her life” may have created controversy but there has been a larger debate going on in the public political sphere for the past year, namely the “War on Women.”  From Maryland, where a few lawmakers wanted to cut Head Start funding because “women should be married, at home with the kids”  to Wisconsin where equal pay legislation was recently repealed and where one legislator wants to make it illegal to be a single parent and blames single mothers because it is the “choice of the women” and it is a “mistake” to the recent debates about birth control with Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh’s comments in the media, to the number of anti-abortion and restrictive legislation that has been proposed across the country, from transvaginal ultrasound bills in Virginia and Texas to personhood law proposals in Mississippi and my current state of Oklahoma, including this legislation that was first attempted in 2010 and is currently under debate –originally designed to protect doctors from being sued for failing to disclose abnormalities found in prenatal screenings, the later version was part of the recent personhood bill as well. One of the key words in this debate/war/attack/whateverthehellitis is choice.  Framed by the Right, choice is negative if it comes to anything having to do with a woman’s body, privacy, or reproduction.  Choice is only positive when it comes to choosing something over the woman’s personal life: choosing family over career, choosing to stay at home rather than work, choosing to care for an elderly parent or sick child over other activities.  Choice is only positive when the woman is in the caregiving role and gives up of herself from that framework.

The truth is that for many women and many families this concept of choice as framed by the Right does not exist.  Many families need two incomes simply to make ends meet, to pay a mortgage or rent, to pay student loans or medical bills—these are necessary expenses, not bills like cable or gym memberships.  For most families this is not a choice, but a necessity, to have both parents working.

Some of the “choices” are framed by our society still running on outdated conservative views: it is still more difficult for a father to stay home and raise children than a mother.  In the first year and a half of our son’s life, my husband was in part-time ministry and I was full-time, so he was home more than I was.  We shared in child-raising and housekeeping duties.  However, if one needed to go out and run errands, it is much easier to find a changing table in a women’s restroom than it is in a men’s.  Play and social groups are often mothers with children; I know from the experience of my husband and of other male friends that even today that men who take part in these activities with their children are often either eyed suspiciously or viewed disapprovingly.  For my male same-sex friends with children, they are often hit with the double-standard of being both male and gay when trying to interact with traditional mom’s groups on the playground.

From my own personal experience, I am outraged over the proposal in Maryland to cut Head Start funding.  My family moved to a very rural location where we had to make ends meet on one full-time income (my husband’s) and I work part-time.  I work part-time because in this economy I have found it difficult to find a full-time job, especially as a female minister in a predominantly male-led social location (that is another article for another time).  As we recognized that our son had unique needs and was later diagnosed with Autism, we found that the best program for him was our local native Head Start program.  They provided the structure and resources necessary for his development, something I could not provide at home.  Many of the children in Head Start programs across the country are not there because their parents dropped them off so they could work and have more things; they are there because they have special developmental needs that cannot be met by a parent staying at home, nor can a parent afford a full-time daycare for their child’s social needs.  Head Start provides valuable resources for children with developmental delays such as my own.

Very few of the women I know ever chose to become a single mom.  Most had marriages or relationships that fell apart.  Some are widows.  This is not their choice.  The idea of enacting legislation to punish single parents who have already been punished by society is sickening.

Women don’t choose to be raped.  They do not choose to be abused by uncles and fathers.  They do not choose to become pregnant and have their own health or life threatened.  They do not choose to become pregnant and have their health insurance or job stripped from them.  They do not choose many of the circumstances that lead to a woman having to make a difficult decision to end a pregnancy.  And in all my years working with pregnant women in crisis, none of them have ever used abortion as a form of birth control.  It has always been a heart-wrenching painful decision.  I would not call it a choice because if there was a better alternative for their health and life—medically, psychologically, and otherwise—they would take it.

For many women, birth control is a choice for the betterment of their own health, and often it is a choice made with their partner/spouse.  It is a choice made for the family, a decision about whether or when to have children.

None of these are “choices” to be made by lawmakers, let alone self-proclaimed moral leaders.  It is sickening to think that a woman chooses to take birth control just so she can be promiscuous (what Rush Limbaugh accused Sandra Fluke, a respected law student, of doing).  It is disgusting to think that a woman should choose to make less because “men enjoy making money more” (one of the arguments used to repeal the Equal Pay legislation in Wisconsin).  It is horrifying to think that a woman would have a choice in becoming pregnant by rape or incest and then be forced to have no choice in remaining pregnant.

We need to be aware of the way the word choice has been used in the public discourse, but especially the way the Right has framed the definition of choice, used positively only in supporting a woman’s decision to remain home (which very few women actually have the choice to do) and negatively in any other scenario in which she might actually have a choice.  Of course there is no need to portray staying at home in a negative light—if one parent could stay at home with children, regardless of whether it is a mom or a dad, single or coupled—it would be wonderful for most.  It is one of the most important jobs in the world, to parent a child—but one can be a great parent at work or at home.  I know for my son, having Autism, staying at home all the time is not what he needs developmentally.  He needs to learn from social groups and have other adults interacting with him, speech pathologists and therapists and special aides to help him learn and grow so he can participate in society.  Thank God for programs like Head Start.  Thank God that I do have choices, though not framed in the way the Right would frame them.

We need to call out the framing of the word choice, the way it is used and defined by society and by the Right, and remember that the best way to have true choice is to strip away society’s old barriers (start by installing more changing tables in men’s bathrooms and/or having more “family” public restrooms—you can do this in your church!) and call out the way the Right uses the word choice.  Let us give the power of choice back into the hands of women, so that they can make the best choice for them and their families.