Blogger Anniee has taken extensive issue with my post on controlling birth. This isn’t really suprising, since that post was meant to be controversial. But much of the criticism was sufficiently snarky that I felt moved to offer a response.
I get the impression that Anniee and I disagree on almost everything there is. I think she has a completely false view of what I was proposing in the aforementioned post, because she saw the word ‘communism’ without the word ‘anarchism’ and concluded that everything was to be administered by a centralised coercive minority, i.e. a state. This is completely wrong, but I don’t really have much desire to go into it.
What I do want to go into is the issue of reproductive freedom. Anniee says:
“Let’s get down to the damned bones here. [Radical feminists] are liars. They want to subjugate and control our reproductive choices AND our right to bear children (and most certainly our right to raise them) and control it but good.”
Now I can’t speak for radical feminists in general, or with those who, in Anniee’s words, want to “take my children and your children away at birth to be raised by ecopsychotics and lesbians”. But I can speak for myself.
While her post frequently misrepresents me as advocating “”forced abortions, forced infanticide, forced sterilization”, I will certainly concede that it describes a limitation on reproductive freedom. NOT, it should be emphasised, a ‘hard’ limitation – no-one would be outright forced to do anything or not do anything. But people would be strongly encouraged to follow a certain course, and inhibited from following another course.
Once more for emphasis: if ‘freedom’ means ‘being able to do whatever you want, if you can get it together, without anyone physically stopping you”, then I would support absolute reproductive freedom. But if ‘freedom’ means ‘being encouraged and facilitated by one’s society to do whatever one feels like, being actively given the greatest possible range of options’, then I support some limitations on reproductive freedom. But I also consider the struggle for some forms of this latter reproductive freedom to be a crucial feminist cause. So how exactly does all this fit together coherently?
The thing to understand is that there some rights which are exercised by a single individual, and thus should in general be supported absolutely, while other rights are exercised by groups of more than one individual, and thus are in respect of each member, only relatively protected. What is peculiar about reproductive rights is that they are typically individual in the negative, and but involve groups in the positive.
Hopefully, once spelled out, this will seem like common sense. Take the right to have sex. In its negative form, as the right to not have sex with those you don’t want to have sex with, it is an issue of individual bodily integrity, and should be absolute. That is to say: rape is never right under any circumstances: people have an absolute right to not be raped.
But the positive right, to have sex with people you want to have sex with – that cannot possibly be affirmed absolutely. It involves two (or more) people and so the right of each limits the right of the other. I have the relative right to have sex with people when I want to and when they want to too. I do not have an absolute right to sex.
Now I think this clearly applies to the right to have children. A woman’s right to not be impregnated, not carry a foetus, not give birth, affects her specific body, and no-one else’s, and consequently is individual and absolute (I say no-one else’s body is involved: the foetus’ body is involved, and there is dispute and argument over whether that counts as a person, but that’s a topic for another day). Similarly, I have, at least as an adult, an absolute right to not be married to someone, to not live with someone, to separate myself entirely from my family and anyone else’s.
But the positive right to a family isn’t an individual matter: it includes the other members of that family. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, prescribes the ‘right to a family life’ – but it obviously means only the right to a family life if the other family members agree. I cannot claim that all those who refuse to live with me are violating my rights: my positive right to a family is only relative.
Now the next move I want to make is to go from this to saying that when family-making decisions affect hundreds or millions of people, the rights of those hundreds or millions of people impinge upon the choices of the individuals involved. That is probably the point which is most likely to be disputed – it might be claimed that the only people whose rights should limit that choice are the other family members. I would suggest that the reason other family members count is that their interests are involved, and that in some environmental situations, millions of people’s interests are involved. But that might not be accepted.
That’s ok. People are obviously going to disagree with me. My goal here is just clarity – to bring out why it’s consistent to think that reproductive freedom should be absolute in the negative, but relative in the positive.