No Real Choice: How Culture and Politics Matter For Reproductive Autonomy by Katrina Kimport
In the United States, the “right to choose” an abortion is the law of the land. But what if a woman continues her pregnancy because she didn’t really have a choice? What if state laws, federal policies, stigma, and a host of other obstacles push that choice out of her reach?
Based on candid, in-depth interviews with women who considered but did not obtain an abortion, No Real Choice punctures the myth that American women have full autonomy over their reproductive choices. Focusing on the experiences of a predominantly Black and low-income group of women, sociologist Katrina Kimport finds that structural, cultural, and experiential factors can make choosing abortion impossible–especially for those who experience racism and class discrimination. From these conversations, we see the obstacles to “choice” these women face, such as bans on public insurance coverage of abortion and rampant antiabortion claims that abortion is harmful. Kimport’s interviews reveal that even as activists fight to preserve Roe v. Wade, class and racial disparities have already curtailed many women’s freedom of choice.
No Real Choice analyzes both the structural obstacles to abortion and the cultural ideologies that try to persuade women not to choose abortion. Told with care and sensitivity, Kimport’s book gives voice to women whose experiences are often overlooked in debates on abortion, illustrating how real reproductive choice is denied, for whom, and at what cost.
1. Abortion is often framed as a simple matter of choice. Your book grapples with the various subtleties of choice, arguing that while abortion can technically be a choice, it often remains “unchoosable.” How can a better understanding of the complexities of choice help abortion advocates better serve those in these situations?
We typically think about someone with a pregnancy as having “options,” which are either to continue the pregnancy or to terminate it. And so, when we see someone continue a pregnancy, we assume they have chosen to do so—that they want to have a baby. But in interviews I conducted with pregnant women who considered but did not obtain an abortion, I found that many of them were continuing their pregnancy even though they did not want a baby. Instead, they were continuing their pregnancy because they couldn’t choose abortion. In my book, I show several barriers to choosing abortion these women encountered—some, like policy restrictions, will be familiar to many readers; others, like antiabortion cultural narratives and the role of medical racism, may be a new to some readers.
I hope that abortion advocates can draw on these findings to recognize that efforts to ensure reproductive autonomy cannot just focus on abortion policy. For one, my research shows the importance of culture in individuals’ reproductive decision making. What abortion means to someone matters for whether they feel they can choose it. For the women I interviewed, the antiabortion movement had nearly unmatched success in establishing the cultural meaning of abortion, making abortion impossible for many of them to choose. For two, following the principles of reproductive justice, which refuses to think about abortion in isolation, my book shows the importance of advocating for policies not ostensibly related to abortion. For example, poverty can be a barrier to reproductive autonomy, including not only the ability to choose abortion but also the ability to choose to parent, and thus economic justice work becomes integral to ensuring reproductive autonomy for all.
2. Your book reveals how deeply the talking points of anti-abortion groups become ingrained in individual decision-making, even when they aren’t true. What makes these arguments so successful?
That’s a great question—and we don’t have a full answer to it right now. One thing we do know is that antiabortion narratives are ubiquitous. In fact, even people who consider themselves supportive of abortion rights may find themselves repeating ideas that came out of the antiabortion movement, like assuming that having an abortion is always emotionally difficult. My book shows how these ideas have moved from political talking points to impacting real people’s pregnancy decision making, constraining their ability to choose abortion. What we don’t know, however, is whether these ideas are so pervasive because they’re very compelling or because they have no competition in the form of abortion-supportive narratives. That is something I hope future scholarship will investigate.
3. You conclude the book by seeking a path toward reproductive autonomy. What concrete steps can abortion advocates take to help make reproductive autonomy a reality?
Making abortion something any pregnant person could choose is the way to make reproductive autonomy a reality. To be clear, this does not mean that all or even most pregnant people will choose to have an abortion. But abortion needs to be a real choice. To make abortion chooseable, policies that restrict access to abortion must be overturned. In the current political landscape, that may be difficult. Advocates for reproductive autonomy can target other policies that constrain people’s ability to choose abortion, including policies that perpetuate poverty and racism, and advocate for policies that reduce race and class inequality. To make abortion chooseable, we also need narratives that normalize choosing abortion and affirm parenting by socially marginalized groups. Advocates can develop and amplify abortion-supportive messages that can offer a positive meaning for choosing abortion and support the parenting of those who desire to parent.
4. What insights can your book offer to readers following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision?
When I wrote my book, Dobbs was barely on the horizon. From today’s standpoint, my book offers a pre-Dobbs preview of what living in a world without real access to abortion looks like. Through policies, culture, and medicine, the women I interviewed were already living in a world where abortion access was substantially constrained—and Roe was still on the books. Now in a post-Dobbs world, as some states move to enact more barriers to abortion and antiabortion advocates and politicians ramp up antiabortion narratives, more pregnant people will face circumstances like the women I interviewed. My book can help readers understand what it means to deny people real reproductive choice and the grave injustice that represents.