Embracing Justice, or How I Left Choice Behind

(Full disclosure: This is an update of previous essay I wrote.  I still think it’s relevant and wanted to share it with you.)

I’ve been pro-choice all of my life.  And yet, I remember the day that revealed what Choice really meant to me.  I was seventeen and on vacation from my fancy boarding school, where I was a scholarship student.  As usual, my friends and I were meeting at our junior high school to spend the day together.  I was just back from visiting colleges that summer, and I had my heart set on going to an Ivy League school.  My father dropped out of the ninth grade.  Pop, my maternal grandfather, left school in third grade to support himself by running errands and doing odd jobs.  Going to college, particularly an elite school was a big deal to my entire family, and my chances for going to one of those schools were looking good.

I hopped onto the train headed downtown and slid into an empty seat.  Next to me sat another young Latina, and like me she was wearing bright red lipstick and hoop earrings.  We both had long curly hair, which she wore loose down her back.  I was much less confident and wore my mass of hair in a ponytail high on my head.  She seemed deep in thought when I saw it – a neon green pamphlet.  In big bold letters on the front it read, “After your abortion, then what?”  My mind exploded.  What was she doing with that pamphlet?  This girl was my age, from my neighborhood; our families were probably from the same island.  For all I knew we could have been related.  Why her and not me?  I could have just as easily been sitting in her seat holding that green pamphlet.  Instead, I had dreams of making the honor roll and going to Yale, and she was considering her “then what?”

A few months later, I was back at school working on my college applications and dreading the personal essay I had to write.  Then I remembered that day on the train.  I went back to my dorm and searched my journal for the entry I had written about the Latina with the neon green pamphlet.  She changed my life that day.  In my eyes, she was doing the best she could to make her life better, to make the right decisions for herself.  I wanted to reach out to her and hug her that day, let her know that she wasn’t alone, but I couldn’t.  So I did the only thing I could think of – I pulled my journal out of my bag and started to write.  I didn’t want to lose a single detail of that train ride or the young Latina, who could have easily been me.  Later that year, I earned a place in Yale’s freshmen class, I think in large part, because of her.  I never knew her name or the outcome of her “then what?”  But I hoped that her life’s path had lead her to amazing places, and I was grateful an abortion would allow her a different “then what?” than might have been possible otherwise.

Since that train ride, I remained steadfast and loyal to the ideals embodied in Choice.  But over time, my work with young women made clear to me that Choice and I were no longer a good fit.  Choice is meaningless without access to information, funding or services.   Choice doesn’t address classism, racism or sexism, for that matter.  Choice doesn’t shift POWER to the most vulnerable.  And I’m no longer confident that I alone can make the world better for women and girls.  After years of being firmly rooted in Choice, I realized that it speaks only to a small part of the way I live in this world, and I must have more than that.  I deserve more than that.  Yes, we owe a tremendous debt to all those who fought for Choice, but I’ve realized that my relationship with Choice just isn’t enough for me anymore, and it shouldn’t be enough for any of us.

I have left Choice behind for something more.  I have embraced JusticeJustice gives us the tools to identify power and talk about it, but it doesn’t stop there.  Justice requires us to confront power when exercised against us, acquire it and use it to create change that benefits us all.  Justice helps us understand whatever privilege we may enjoy without blaming us or pitting us against each other.  Or without letting us off the hook.  With Justice I can be a whole person, and not just the sum of my identities.  And with Justice I can I bring all of myself to every issue I care about.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I often respond, “I’m trying to change the world.”  Choice is not going to deliver us from the multiple oppressions we suffer as women, women of color, young women, immigrant women, queer folk, low-income women and disabled women.  Justice just may.  And that’s what Justice is at its core – about trying to change the world.  There’s nothing wrong with Choice, we’ve simply outgrown it.  We need something more radical, more revolutionary than Choice.  We need Justice, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.  Surely, we deserve that.

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36 comments for “Embracing Justice, or How I Left Choice Behind

  1. September 9, 2009 at 9:36 am

    I’m glad you reposted. This is a beautiful concise mission statement. Yes, sometimes it takes a while to build and refine something that important. And yes, yes, yes, it is critical to revisit it every now and then and see if that’s the standard to which we still want to be held accountable. Love it. Your fan, Kirsten

  2. Politicalguineapig
    September 9, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Good essay, but I’m still sticking with choice. Justice is a pretty concept, but it’s purely imaginary. Plus, it’s a limited concept. What is just for a man means a woman gets shafted, and vice versa. For example, if the public option does not cover abortion or birth control, then justice would demand that women rally to remove prostate screenings, Viagra and prostate cancer treatments. Otherwise I agree with the essay.

  3. kb
    September 9, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Choice is meaningless without access to information, funding or services. Choice doesn’t address classism, racism or sexism, for that matter. -I agree with the main point of your article, but I disagree with this. I’m going with choice because that’s what it should be. It really should be about choice, and because I believe that, I work to increase acess to information funding or services, I work to adress as many issues of classism, raceism, ableism, etc. that I can. because it’s imperfect choice when you don’t have the same range of options as everyone else. and while I wouldn’t ever insult anyone for making the best of imperfect choices-we gotta do what we gotta do-to me choice is exactly about shifting power to the most vulnerable. otherwise it isn’t choice, as you say.

  4. Aimee
    September 9, 2009 at 10:57 am

    To politicalguineapig, I couldn’t disagree with you more about Justice. I don’t think Justice is just a pretty concept nor is it imaginary. We can look back on the history of civil rights movements (there were more than one) and see Justice not only as a guiding force, but as achievable.

    “For example, if the public option does not cover abortion or birth control, then justice would demand that women rally to remove prostate screenings, Viagra and prostate cancer treatments.”

    That isn’t justice. That is vindictive. Justice would push us to remain committed to including abortion and birth control in the public option, AND the services that others need to lead healthy lives.

  5. debbie
    September 9, 2009 at 11:02 am

    How is the concept of justice more imaginary than that or choice, especially when said choice is occurring in the context of grave injustices that limit people’s ability to choose?

  6. Shelby
    September 9, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Aimee, thank you for posting this! I think many people within the feminist/womanist/women’s rights movements have heard the words “reproductive justice” but are still grappling with exactly what it means and how it applies to both life and organizing. Women, especially, communicate in stories and by removing RJ from the academic, jargon-heavy definition into the realm of personal processing you’ve made it more accessible to more people. I can’t wait to use this essay as a resource when I’m trying to explain the RJ framework to young activists!

    As a personal aside, Aimee and the wonderful women at her organization, PEP, were the ones who patiently explained to me, over and over again, how thinking in terms of “choice” limits our activism and can even act as further oppression by excluding women’s lived experiences and brushing over what previous incarnations of the repro rights movement have seen as “inconvenient” realities faced by many women. PEP is an awesome example of how organizations committed to the RJ framework allow the constituencies they serve (young women, especially young women of color and queer/trans women) to take ownership of projects that are relevant to their lives. Check them out!

  7. Bezuelicious
    September 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    While I am very intrigued by the thrust of your essay – choosing to frame your fight in terms of justice rather than choice, I am unsettled by the opening anecdote. In particular I’m disturbed by your assessment of the girl on the train. You begin by drawing physical parallels between you and her – hair, lipstick, earrings, ethnicity – but then all commonality with this girl stops because of the next item you notice: a green pamphlet with “big bold letters on the front” that read “After your abortion, then what?” You then proceed, subtly although quite effectively, to create her ‘then what’ for your reader : a future completely antithetical to yours: “I could have just as easily been sitting in her seat holding that green pamphlet. Instead, I had dreams of making the honor roll and going to Yale, and she was considering her “then what?”

    In my opinion, I feel that this anecdote completely undermines your ensuing polemic on justice. Why? Because is it just to ASSUME that a young woman who chooses to have an abortion – even at that very young age – is incapable of making the honor roll? Of attending an ivy league college? You state that you could easily have been her or related to her, but you are not and therefore are not aware of her individual circumstances and what led to her procurement of an abortion or even if the pamphlet was indeed hers! But, whatever the case may be, how does choosing an abortion indicate mental acuity? Future potential? You present that girl as if she’s a cautionary tale and yet you know nothing of her except one decision in her life.

    Whether this anecdote is indeed a personal experience or an ‘effective’ tool to introduce your polemic, it betrays authorial prejudice that may be offensive to some of your readers who were, are or simply empathize with all those other girls on the trains holding pamphlets.

  8. September 9, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    “Choice” is a word used in a very specific situation encountered by a very specific group of people. I’m sure you can guess the characteristics.

    “Choice” is an answer to a problem faced by that group of people.

    “Choice” never bothered to look beyond the in-group and see whether their problem was even the same problem other people faced.

    Instead, “Choice” assumed it could be generalized outward, because “Choice” is obviously way more important than anything other people are facing. All that stuff is side stuff. “Choice” is a Core Issue. Because it affects that in-group, and the other things don’t.

    “Choice” is deliberately ignorant of conditions outside that in-group.

    “Choice” is a rallying cry for members of that in-group to band together based on their shared situation.

    And because “Choice” decides to make itself The Core Issue, “Choice” then explicitly pushes out people who are not members of that in-group.

    “Choice” becomes a rallying cry for This Kind Of Person. Other people can join only if they leave everything else they need at the door. If they will shave their lives of any experience beside that which matches the in-group, then they can join. If they say “but Choice is not the only thing for me, Choice was not conceived for me, Choice drops me cold the minute I need anything else” they are not welcome.

    “Choice” is a concept borne of very specific circumstances and that is why it often leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

    Because I support justice for all people.
    That includes the right to be supported in one’s reproductive circumstances no matter what they be.

    But the idea that it is a “choice” in the first place speaks loudly and clearly of exactly what “Choice” is trying to accomplish — and for whom.

  9. nm
    September 9, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I’m not sure that what you are describing is leaving choice behind. If I understand the idea of justice being presented here, surely choice is a part of it. So it seems like something you’re taking with you on the journey to justice. Making choice not an end in itself, but not something to be abandoned along the way, either.

  10. September 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I’d like to agree with what Bezuolicious said – I definitely know people who had abortions in high school and then went on to elite institutions of higher learning.

    But I do also agree with the thrust of this essay, and find the last three paragraphs in particular extremely compelling, and strongly disagree with this:

    What is just for a man means a woman gets shafted, and vice versa.

    Justice, to me, requires the interests of society as a whole get taken into account – a situation in which a man benefits and a woman gets shafted is not just by any definition of the term I’ve ever heard used. I also don’t see, as debbie pointed out, how justice is any more imaginary than choice, especially a choice that is so often assumed to be more genuinely free than it actually is.

    also, I would like to applaud amandaw’s entire comment.

  11. September 9, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Choice is simply inadequate as a framework in a world in which there are so many limits and pressures. This is actually one of the major themes in the novel I’m currently revising.

    Choice is very appealing of course (who doesn’t want it in their own lives?), and I understand why a lot of people are hesitant to leave it behind, but the truth is that choice–real choices for all–would necessarily follow from a truly just world, so it makes sense to leave choice as a goal or organizing principle behind.

  12. oldlady
    September 9, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Please define “reproductive justice” for those of us who do not know what it means.

  13. Jordan
    September 9, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    I prefer choice because I feel it has a narrower meaning and that people use it in more similar ways than they use “justice.” Choice refers to absence of violent coercion, few external limits on individuals actions. Some people use it to refer to that plus sufficient safety that they can make choices without terrible consequences.

    But when we talk about justice, I feel a lot of us just mean everything good put together. Aimee says justice is about providing health care including abortion and contraceptives. Does that mean justice is impossible with a weak central government? Amandaw says justice is being supported in your reproductive choices. I think this is good public policy but its not how I, or many people would use justice. Free abortions aren’t just, you aren’t being rewarded for being a good person or punished for being bad.

  14. kb
    September 9, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t know Aimee-to me justice has to much of an element of equality no matter what or fairness no matter what and an eye for an eye. Justice is vindictive. Which is why I support choice, and for everyone, not just some, and not just those who make the same choice as me. Maybe I’m just too idealistic

  15. September 9, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Justice isn’t ABOUT being rewarded for being good or punished for being bad. You might be thinking about morality or religion or certain human desires.

    Justice is about every person’s basic human rights to safety, dignity and self-determination being respected and upheld, no matter who they are or what they’ve done or what situations they’ve been in.

  16. kb
    September 9, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I think we’re having fundamentally diffferent views of justice-amandaw. Justice is about results fitting previous actions. Not about people being respected no matter what-justice gives us guilty verdicts, and just punishments-punishments that fit the crimes. while you could argue what a reproductive crime is, fundamentally justice isn’t about people’s respect being upheld whatever situation they’re in, it’s about upholding what they’ve upheld.

  17. kb
    September 9, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    or to make my point more clearly, justice is “I’m innocent, I don’t deserve this” not, let’s help everyone.

  18. September 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I’ve always thought of justice as, “do right by people.” I guess it takes different forms culturally.

  19. kb
    September 9, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    but what about people who don’t do right by you? is it just to do right by them? I’d say no. Is it important-probably

  20. September 9, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    And why the hell does choice not include access to information and the redistribution of power including the doing away with of poer structures? That’s news to me because many of the pro-choice organizations and people I know consider education, access to information, bodily autonomy, access to medical treatment/childcare/employment/financial independence/good working conditions and such absolutely paramount to increasing choice. Choosing between two poisions isn’t really much of a choice. When people have little bodily autonomy, when the concept of marital rape doesn’t exist, when they have little or no access to family planning or education, then they can hardlybe said to have any real choice.
    Justice can be used just as abstractly seeing as how many of the concepts you listed would not fit ino many people’s definition of justice and most certainly not the dictionary view. As a matter of fact, when leaving the definition of jusice up to the individual it can include illegal abortion, forced abortion, privatized education, theocracy and no minimum standard of labor conditions.
    Justice won’t deliver us from a damn thing, neither will choice. We will, not words and abstract concepts we attach to them that are not even in keeping with widely accepted definitions. So why the animosity towards the word choice over justice? Just who the hell are you to decide choice doesn’t address the things you mentioned but justice does? Who are you to decide what te term coice does and does no entail and then make up a meaning for the word justice? And one of the definitions of justice is reward and punishment.
    The word used is meaningless, especially when it is divorced from widely accepted definitions to the point two people can be using the same word and have completely different ideas and meanings, which occurs with a term like justice or choice regardless. To suggest that in order to advocate for a pecific view of social justice a certain world view is needed is understandable, but to say that choice does not include that view whereas your made up definition f justice does, is nosensical and arrogant.

  21. September 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I think it’s confusing, the idea of “leaving choice behind.” Being for and about other things besides solely any individual woman’s right to choose an abortion or not doesn’t sound like a problem to me. In fact it sounds like a solution to what real life is really like – includes everything, not just one choice or another.

    But leaving choice behind when a) many women no longer effectively do have the particular choice we’re talking about – access to abortion if they want one – and b) inability to make that choice, if/when one wants to, results in fucked up life at best and death at worst (botched and dangerous abortion methods)? Why in the world would or should choice be “left behind?”

  22. September 9, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    fwiw, these terms are obviously very subjective. MY reactions are to the circumstances surrounding the term and the meaning those circumstances impart on the term.

    I am reacting to the way “choice” is structured in feminism and where “choice” came from in the first place and the way it has evolved (and not) over time.

    I have reproductive needs that do not boil down to “the right to choose an abortion” — but that’s the only reproductive need that is EVER acknowledged by the white upper class feminist community. All other needs are sidelined, said to be not related, “yeah you can focus on those TOO i guess” as though they aren’t part and parcel of each other, as though the oppressions we face don’t count as in the same category ‘cuz they don’t affect the most privileged of these.

    That’s the attitude surrounding “choice” and that’s why I’ve always bristled a bit in reproductive discussions in feminist circles.

    (also, I am in a state of cognitive disarray the past month or so and that is why my comments aren’t particularly coherent. I apologize for that.)

    that’s the background I’m coming from

  23. September 9, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    iow, this is about the way the concept is treated, not about the word/concept itself. but the reaction – “but the word/concept is still important! (i guess all that Other stuff is too, sort of)” is always distressing — and that’s not any one individual commenter, it’s just how these discussions *always* play out on the whole

  24. kb
    September 9, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I think once again we’re coming from vastly different perspectives-I’ve never seen a choice group that didn’t recognize that the choice to have a baby and support for that has to be true if the opposite choice is going to be a choice. So protesting coercive sterilizations in prisons doesn’t count as dealing with “other stuff”? so the right to keep your child when authorities are threatening to take them away because you don’t speak the language/refused to consent to a medical procedure doesn’t count as defending “other stuff”? and these are just things I’ve found out about here.
    Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean, and I’m sorry.
    Choice does abosolutely involve actively fighting the things that try to constrain ones life and take away options instead of just saying “well, you made the choice” but to me, that last statement comes more from justice-you did the action, you deal with the consequences. Which doesn’t seem like a feminste way to live.

  25. Aimee
    September 9, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Sorry for not coming back sooner, but I was taking care of some family business.

    To Bezuelicious, thank you for calling me out. I certainly did not intend to communicate that the young Latina I wrote about (who was a real person, I’m not that clever) was somehow less intelligent, less capable or less than me in any way. I had never read that paragraph that way before. And while it was not my intention to communicate that, it is certainly a reasonable reading of it. I take full responsibility for that. And I apologize.

    It’s clear that there are various ideas of what justice means. I don’t subscribe to the idea of justice of people getting punished or rewarded. I don’t mean the kind of so-called justice dealt about by our legal system (which in my opinion is inherently unjust). I’m talking about a just society, where people have the information, resources and services they need to lead healthy lives.

    To Oldlady, there is no universal definition of reproductive justice. One quick shorthand is: reproductive health & rights + social justice =reproductive justice. But really if you want a deeper understanding of reproductive justice and how it differs from reproductive rights and health, check out Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (www.reproductivejustice.org) and their groundbreaking analysis, “A New Vision for Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice.”

    I don’t really think I can add to the discussion of “choice” beyond what amandaw has already laid out.

  26. Politicalguineapig
    September 9, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    “The various ideas of what justice means:” Yeah, we definitely speak a different language when it comes to that. Anyway, I hope this discussion keeps going on. Everyone’s making a lot of good points.

  27. shah8
    September 9, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    When oppression is usually mediated by systems of hypocrisy, i.e. IOIYAAR, justice is a term that is just too easily coopted. You can’t just replace choice with justice. You actually have to use themes, and multiple words and clarity.

    Remember, much of the games of kyriarchy is expressly about getting people to oppress themselves, leaving the ruling elements free to deal with the real troublemakers. Guilt and shame and various stripes of dysporias and depressions are encouraged via the idea that it is just to feel this way. The pain of living in the closet, or yo-yo dieting, or any number of stupid shit is painted the color of water and meant to dissappear.

    Choice is embedded in the context of the struggle (and the meme is well defined), and never far from our strongholds of righteousness. What is wrong is that we don’t talk about other things concretely and relevantly, not that we use the term…choice.

  28. Azalea
    September 9, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Choice pretty much has a main focus of centering on abortion when not every abortion was made by choice, many were made by compromise. Women who reluctantly have 3rd trimester abortions because the child they’ve wanted for so long is destined to live only short moments full of suffering would RATHER there been the option to help her baby live. “Choosing” between aborting a wanted fetus and watching your newborn suffer is NOT a choice its a compromise.

    “Choosing” between feeding yourself and the children you have and potentially going hungry or worse not being able to feed your family or the newborn is NOT a choice.

    “Choosing” between adoption and VERY possibly, highly likely dying in childbirth is not a choice.

    “Choosing” between continuing a pregnancy you do not want to
    continue and never ever being able to carry another pregnancy to term is NOT a choice.

    In those situations abortion is nothing more than the lesser of two evils because neither is what the woman wants, neither is what she deserves, neither gives her power of her reproduction in a way that reflects her bodily autonomy in the sense that she WANTS to reproduce.

    There is an entire group and class of women who have been told they are NOT good enough to reproduce, they are NOT fit to be mothers, they are NOT naturally fertile so they should NOT have biological children, they are NOT educated, able-bodied, financially secure, attractive or white enough to use their uteruses for anything other than pointless monthly cycles caused by contraceptives.

  29. ripley
    September 10, 2009 at 9:47 am

    shah8 “choice” is and has been as easily coopted as “justice” – it has been coopted by a superficial vision of people’s lives that denies the reality that shapes what choices are available to people. But justice is about relations between people as well as an individualistic vision of rights & dignity. “choice” puts the focus on the individual, not on how people relate to each other. this narrows its usefulness precisely in relation to fighting kyriarchy.

    Your point about kyriarchy is exactly why “choice” is not enough – the fact that society “gets people to oppress themselves” is one major problem with focusing on choice. Because our society does get people to choose to oppress themselves and others. Getting out of that requires more than focusing on choice, but on larger issues about how we exist in relation to each other.

    I didn’t read this piece as simply replacing one term with another, but with pointing out why one term is very narrow. I agree that “justice” is a broader term, precisely because it requires a broader definition. That broadness leaves more room for the very issues you identify.

  30. shah8
    September 10, 2009 at 11:07 am

    If we are talking about embracing Justice and many other things as well as Choice, then I’m cool and dandy with that. In fact, I applaud the rejection of parochialism.

    I still think that Choice is vastly more difficult to twist. It’s usually pretty easy to comprehend the pretzel-twisting of logic that goes on when antis try to coopt Choice.

    It’s another thing when they make a call for a fetus’s Justice. That’s much harder to rebut crisply, because what is just for women is unfair to others (in the sense that the burdens are often explicitly rendered invisible).

    Choice is largely about one issue, autonomy of self. It has a whole ecology of ideas that reinforce what it means and doesn’t mean to various groups of people. Abandoning Choice in favor of a much more ephemeral and contested term like Justice gives up many advantages that lie in situ. Justice must be about other terms, which is incorporated into it, to be what we’d call justice. Otherwise…

  31. jemand
    September 10, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    I agree completely with shah8, because before this article, the only use of “justice” in the reproductive rights discussion was by anti-abortionists high handedly deciding that women must submit to the greater of the two evils in the situations Azalea outlines.

    It bothers me greatly when we start talking about “leaving choice behind.” We can build on it, but you cannot have justice without choice.

  32. jemand
    September 10, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    I meant to say “as far as I was aware” in my previous post

  33. Jay Becker
    September 10, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Azalea makes very important points. Choice alone is not a sufficient, but it is a necessary condition for women to be free, free to change the upside-down society that forces such impossible ‘choices’ on millions of women! I was inspired to be with over 100 other pro-choice activists two weeks ago in Omaha, NE defending Dr. LeRoy Carhart from the misogynist doctor-killing anti’s who want to put him out of business, one way or the other. In Chicago, we’re going to be reporting on our experiences & showing some video of the action thiat Saturday, 9/12, at 4 pm at I Space Gallery (230 W. Superior, 2nd Fl) which has a cool exhibit opening, “EveryBody! Visual resistance in women’s health movements 1969-2009” If you’re in the area and want to be part of reframing the abortion discussion (yes, we use the A-word), join us!

  34. kahri
    September 11, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Aimee, nicely done. I agree, whole hearted.

  35. September 15, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    I agree with you. Choice is something need to be done in our lives. Justice must be served to everyone who needs it. It simple as the golden rule. If you apply the golden rule in your life then everything will be fine.

  36. kellie
    October 1, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    This article is amazing, reproductive justice needs to remain attentive to the powers that divide us-choice is overly defined by the capitalist ideals of consumption, choice is a fictitious concept defined by our social positioning and not afforded to all.

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