9. 9. 2022

Abortion is Healthcare and So Much More

Darrah Teitel

Abortion is healthcare. It is a personal choice. It’s nobody’s business but the pregnant person’s. All these things are totally true. The push to treat abortion, and all sexual and reproductive health, just like every other private health item on the agenda is a good way to shove cis-hetero misogyny out of our bodies, brains, and beds (or wherever else you like to fuck). There are sound policy and human rights-based arguments to back this strategy, and I do connect emotionally to its messaging, because at its core is the deep scream I’ve been screaming since childhood at the white, male, and Christian gaze: GET THE FUCK OUT!!! 

Here is the political problem: we are losing this war. 


Beyond electoralism, beyond non-profit charity models

I didn’t think much about leaping into a gig as a legislative assistant with the federal New Democratic Party (NDP). The salary was more than I could ever earn as a bartender and playwright. But when I began to distinguish myself as the go-to staffer for “women’s issues,” I started to realize how my status had shifted. I was on the inside of a power-wielding institution, and I was also powerless.

I regurgitated the NDP’s lines about how we were the activist party and hustled for our MPs to get speaking slots at strategic protests across the country. This was between 2011 and 2015, when words like activism and feminism were having a mainstream liberal comeback, but words like socialism were still very scary. As a socialist, I understood that NDP MPs were co-opting activist voices, but I believed that relationships between elected officials and activists would ultimately lead to influence for the latter. I took great pleasure in writing words that were spoken in the House of Commons and, if I was very lucky, clipped in news. Yet I can say now that not a single problem I wrote about was ultimately solved or even significantly helped by having been given a bit of air in Parliament. 

I didn’t understand the meaning of organizing. Like many still do, I mistook proximity to powerful individuals for a means of building grassroots power. I was born in the ’80s and had heard stories about, but hadn’t lived the reality of, the civil rights or women’s liberation movements; I hadn’t experienced a big win by organized labour. I didn’t know a single thing about winning real social power. To my shame, I convinced social movement fighters – some of whom were my friends, people with whom I’d organized demonstrations and direct actions, and who trusted me –  to parade through the halls of power and pose for pictures next to opposition MPs, which those MPs would use as evidence that they were committed to important causes. 

After three months on Parliament Hill, one of the top staffers in the NDP leader’s office told me that the public doesn’t care about women’s issues. If I had a women’s issue that people would vote for, I should call him, but he’d never seen one. I think he was trying to give me career advice: Find a new thing if you want to be important here. The party had given the Status of Women critic portfolio to an MP who was also the Justice critic. She rarely attended meetings of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, and no one expected her to. I did attend, with the backbench MP I worked for, and everyone was fine with us being the only party representatives showing up. 

The one issue that the party would pull out all the stops for was abortion. Conservatives could be trusted to attack it in the House every year or so; New Democrats and Liberals could be trusted to jump in to defend it. An exercise that was good for all parties involved. 

Other problems of gender and sexuality didn’t get that kind of attention. That same Justice and Status of Women critic took an incredibly compromising stance on sex work, for example, advancing the paternalistic position that prostitution is inherently harmful and victimizing. The NDP caucus wanted that whole fight to go away. It scared them. After I had enabled years of parliamentary co-optation of feminism, that was the moment when I stopped believing electoral politics could save us. 

I left the NDP to work for a sexual rights advocacy non-profit, an organization descended from Planned Parenthood Canada and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It had an analysis and a plan that got policy results for women, queers, and kids, even if it operated on a charity model designed never to fundamentally threaten capital. Non-profits like that one have developed a human rights-based language for abortion, and for all sexual rights, that shapes discourse among liberals and much of the left. Abortion is healthcare. But since the US Supreme Court’s recent Dodd decision that overturns the constitutional right to abortion in America, I’ve wondered: are there limitations to that discourse?


Building a case for abortion that includes contradictions   

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who was seeking advice because their partner wanted another baby and they were fighting about it a lot. Every economic and practical argument had been made on both sides. Every plea and promise and compromise had been entertained. They had gone to counselling and really listened to and heard one another. They remained at odds. I said to my friend: “This is not the same choice as any other choice you have ever made. This is about your ability to actualize yourself as a human, so you don’t have a template for how to negotiate or fight about it. You can’t treat it as if it were any other problem. This choice to make another person goes to the core of your very self.” And then I registered the words that had come out of my mouth. They could have been ripped from an anti-choice pamphlet found in a crisis pregnancy centre. But they were true. 

Abortion is healthcare. It is normal. It is common. But the choice to become a parent is massively meaningful, just as forcing someone to birth or parent is hugely violating. Of course these experiences impact your health and well-being, but they’re also way fucking more. Kids are life-consuming, identity-thieving, heart-exploding, titanic changemakers (mostly in a good way) for those of us who have them. Of course, not everyone wants to have children or considers parenting a fundamental part of self-actualization. For many people, becoming a parent would be self-obliterating. If we’re going to build a mass movement to fight for reproductive justice, we have to embrace the contradictions and powerful emotional investments many people have in the questions of trying to make new life or choosing not to. 

To fuck or not. A little or a lot. For money or for play. For love or for marriage. These choices, and the identities and journeys they give rise to, are essential to our experience of being human. They always have been. They are a big deal. They play an enormous role in how you become who you are and a part of your community.

For many people, that community context is a religious one. Right-wing Christianity has led the North American war on abortion, but most religious practices are not right-wing Christian ones, nor are the reproductive rites and rituals of every religion inherently anti-choice. Seeking to ban abortion is misogynist, not religious. Socialist feminist movements urgently need to recruit people of faith and other strategic allies who may not yet have a perfect feminist stance or call themselves “progressive.” We can do this in part by pointing to the truth that only a few religions are avowedly anti-abortion. We need to recruit those who don’t agree with us…yet! 

Another friend said that she cannot distinguish what is strategic from what is true when it comes to abortion and sex, because she has always lived under the shadow of patriarchy. These complexities and grey zones are not the enemy of radical activism, but realities with which our movements must grapple. If there were millions of women in the streets chanting abortion is healthcare and bringing America’s elite institutions to heel, we might be winning. But there are not, because most people cannot be mobilized by a top-down institutional model that prioritizes policy and judicial arguments. To mobilize at the necessary scale, we need a different kind of organizing.

Activists must commit to having one-on-one conversations with those in our communities, conversations inclusive of complex, contradictory thoughts and opinions. We must organize with people who can’t stomach non-profits’ and social democrats’ party lines, and we need to do it urgently. Our peers abroad have built successful mass movements for abortion and other socialist feminist priorities: they can be winning fights. We must learn from those struggles’ organizing methods and discipline, because we can no longer assume – if we ever could – that legislative, judicial, and other institutional powers are protecting us here in Canada and the United States. Perhaps social movement organizing has always been the foundation of whatever reproductive protection folks with uteruses have had. Let’s focus on recruiting.

Darrah is a playwright and lifelong socialist activist who spent five years as a campaigner for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, defending abortion rights in Canada and around the world. Before that, Darrah was a legislative assistant on Parliament Hill, working alongside NDP MPs from Quebec and Manitoba. In 2017, she co-founded Courage Coalition for the Independent Left, an organization that bridges the divide between electoral and movement-based initiatives. Currently, Darrah works as a labour organizer for the Amalgamated Transit Union. Her latest play, Forever Young: A Ghetto Story, will premiere in November 2022.