A little over a week ago, Jessica Valenti, a prolific feminist writer at the Guardian, responded to Wendy Davis’s newly released memoir, in which Davis shares her own personal experiences of two abortions. For those who do not know, Davis is a state senator in Texas (now running for the Texas governorship) who rocketed herself to political stardom last year when she engaged in a physically and mentally exhausting filibuster of an incoming bill that would effectively restrict access to abortions in the state. Although Davis prevented the law from being passed that day, Governor Rick Perry managed to push it through at another session shortly thereafter. Despite this setback, Davis’s agonizing eleven-hour effort, during which she was not only expected to stand without using the bathroom but also stay on topic, she nonetheless managed to garner nationwide attention to herself, abortion rights, and the growing influence of the Democratic party in Texas.
For Valenti, Davis’s disclosure of her own experiences of abortion in her memoir represents the growing popularity of such disclosures amongst reproductive-rights campaigns and female political figures, for example Rep. Jackie Speier’s retort to Rep. Mike Spence in 2011. Although Valenti acknowledges the bravery of these women, she backpedals slightly and asks us to consider the gender logics in play in this particular political tactic:
In a political climate so antagonistic to women and reproductive rights, this kind of disclosure is undoubtedly brave. But in a world where there is no privacy for women and their bodies, it’s shameful that we have to lay bare our reproductive lives just so others can – maybe, if we’re lucky – view us as full people. Because, really, women’s abortions are none of your business – not even those of a public figure, not even one who became an international figure because of abortion rights. We shouldn’t have to explain ourselves or justify our life decisions: our abortions are ours alone.
I laud Valenti’s defence of women’s right to privacy, and indeed I find it problematic that the the ticket women must buy to speak in the public sphere is the reduction of their voice to their body (see my previous post). However, Valenti’s application of these principles to this particular debate does not move me. On the one hand, I believe she mistakes an activist tactics for a positive duty. On the other hand, it is precisely the divide between private/public spheres which makes it possible to efface political claims that concerns women (and men’s) bodies.
But, before I explain this further I want to demonstrate how Valenti’s position illuminates a key tension between negative duties and positive duties. Broadly speaking, negative duties presuppose that moral agents have a duty to refrain from certain kinds of action, namely actions that would directly and deliberately involve the harming of some other individual. Conversely, positive duties presuppose that moral agents have a duty to act in certain ways (to do something) in an effort to either prevent harm or afford a benefit to others. Some philosophers contend that negative duties are strong, whilst positive duties, if they can be defended at all, are generally weak. Within this mix, other philosophers also argue for the importance and moral bindingness of agent-relative duties, which hold that moral agents have scope to act in ways that are pertinent to them and them alone, even if this means not benefitting others or preventing the harming of others. Thus, if I see two children drowning in a pond, one of which is my own child, and I only have time to save one, it is permissible for me to choose my own child. These principles can help us make sense of Valenti’s argument and demonstrate where she might be flawed.
Valenti suggests that trends within the abortion-rights movement are imposing a positive duty on women to share their personal experiences in order to benefit women at large. In her view, such a duty violates the agent-relative right to personal privacy. For her, of paramount importance is the right for women to have the personal discretion over the public disclosure of their bodily lives. She writes, ‘not all of us want to be that brave. And none of us should have to be.’ Furthermore, such political tactics can be contested because they reinscribe political norms which require women to open up their bodily lives to public scrutiny. For Valenti, the alleged positive duty to share personal experiences harms women by violating their right to privacy and enforcing norms that reduce them to their bodies, and on these grounds it can be refused by women, and should be refused by political movement.
However, I am not convinced that outspoken politicians such as Wendy Davis or the 1-in-3 Campaign are arguing for such a positive duty. If anything, they are merely pointing out the importance of such acts of disclosure. Rather than require women to be brave, they are inviting women who already feel brave enough. And the cumulative effect of such disclosures is the creation of an environment where less brave women feel less stigmatized about their past and future decisions concerning abortion. This is the penultimate endgame of such politics,and in this respect I concede to Valenti: yes, a feminist politics installs a prima facie positive duty to act in ways that advance women’s interests. Yet, against Valenti, because feminism also valorizes women as individual, it leaves scope for strong agent relative reasons to prevail. In this respect the feminist politics hold that women should share their personal experiences of abortion, rape, sexism, and discrimination in order to advance the aims of women, but recognizes that there are compelling reasons which make it permissible for women women to excuse themselves from these acts of disclosure.
Valenti’s contention that the public disclosure of women’s embodied experiences reinforces norms which relegate women to their bodies is, however, harder to dismiss. Indeed, it is a point with which I broadly agree. However, I worry that the negative duty to refrain from body-speak would undermine the very claim reproductive-rights advocates are making, and would thereby reinscribe the problematic bifurcation between public/private which is so often deployed in order to silence political claims made by women, LGBT activists, sex workers, etc. In my view, the promise of reproductive-rights campaigns lies in their efforts to foreground bodies and make it difficult to draw-up institutions that rely on the abstractions produced through airy pontification, religious sentiments, or fear-mongering. Indeed, Valenti herself recognizes this, citing research which demonstrates the social and political importance of sharing abortion-experiences.
In this vein, I am reminded of an incident in the Michigan state legislature which took place a few years ago. State senator Lisa Brown was ban from the floor in a debate on Planned Parenthood when she stated, at the end of speech ‘finally Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’ The gender dynamics of the housepeaker’s response are striking in every respect: the house-speaker claims that by using the phrase ‘no means no’ Brown was suggesting that support of the legislation was akin to rape, an allegation which Republicans simply could not abide (ahem). For more obvious reasons, others have called the event ‘Vaginagate’. Whatever the reason for her expulsion, both rationales illustrate the momentous effort of anti-feminist actors to foreclose an acknowledgment of women embodied experiences and impose a ‘neutral’ decorum in the public sphere, but neutrality merely translates to the occlusion of women’s experiences. This foreclosure of language makes it difficult – if not impossible – for women to talk about the reality of their lived experiences.
With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that the problem posed by a politics which asks women to speak about their embodied experiences in public is not the highlighting of embodiment itself, but the ways women are elided with their bodies. Too often women are subjected to narratives of embodiments which reduce women to hypersexual beings or passive vessels of reproduction. Such narratives tell us how to live our bodies in very specific ways. In this respect I agree with Valenti: society frames women in biological and sexual terms, while men get to be ‘neutral’ and cerebral actors. But countering such narratives requires feminists to talk about bodies in the public sphere in order to bring different narratives to the fore, narratives which justify protections and privileges that are central to women’s agency and well-being in virtue of our embodiment.
All in all, I appreciate the impulse underpinning Valenti’s article, but I worry that her argument relies on a straw-man construction of feminist reproductive-rights activism and an unhelpful reinstatement of the public/private divide. Women do not have to act in accord with feminism all the time, indeed there are many good reasons why they should not. But if the reproductive-rights movement is to establish institutional change, then the movement needs at least some women to be game-changer. Such women challenge the norms that imbue abortion with stigma and close-mindedness and thus engage in the important feminist activity of structural change. As feminists we should stand by women’s personal privacy, but to unwaveringly do so at the expense of a wider politics seems to defeat the point of feminist politics in general. Indeed, I think Valenti recognizes this herself when she writes that women should not have to share their because ‘not all of us have the Wendy Davis support network’. I agree, but isn’t this what Davis, Speier, Brown and others are trying to build?