Sometime in 2013, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, I joined a group of counter protestors on my lunch break. We wanted to ensure students and staff walking through a busy area of campus would not feel isolated beneath the towering anti-choice signs with which a pro-life group was demonstrating. I picked up a sign and found a spot alongside the other counter protesters to hold it. It read: “How can you trust me with a child but not a choice?”
Such a sign certainly fits within the broader genre of “My Body, My Choice” language, which has been one of the most widely used slogans in the United States to demand access to reproductive healthcare. These protest slogans can be powerful. It’s a way of claiming bodily autonomy – a way of saying I am here. This is my body. With it, I will do what I want. The rhetorical question in the sign I held also works to call out the irony of state-sanctioned forced pregnancy in the U.S. through increasingly repressive legislation. At its core, though, demanding choice is a demand about individual agency – it assumes that agency is something we all have equally, that by simply being human we can make choices. But any “choice” we make is always constrained, always contingent upon the social and political infrastructures that absolutely determine who can and cannot exercise individual agency. Put simply, “choice” has only ever been available to some, and focusing on individual decision-making erases greater demands for societal, structural issues that are required to be addressed if we want to ensure that everybody can make choices for their own bodies, their own lives. That is the core problem with choice.
With the recent Supreme Court decision released on June 24, 2022, which means we no longer have federal protection for abortion access up to the point of viability, it’s more important than ever that we ensure our messaging is maximally powerful and maximally inclusive for everybody who will be differentially affected by this repressive legislation. As an activist and a PhD candidate studying rhetoric and communication, I am acutely aware of the power of social movement rhetorics - the messages, tactics, and strategies used by groups to champion issues of significance. For decades and decades, feminist social movement scholars before me have made compelling arguments about why messaging matters so much, especially in social movements for access to reproductive healthcare. Of course, this also entails thinking about the kinds of messaging that does not work; “choice” is one such example.