At the Minimise Project we believe in teasing out the arguments and rhetoric involved in the abortion debate. One of the most interesting phenomena of that debate is the rhetoric and ideology of choice on the pro-choice side. This post from one of our left wing members lays out some of the contradictions in the outlooks of certain prominent sections of the pro-choice political movement in Ireland. You don’t have to ‘buy’ the political outlook that underlies the points made here about internal consistency. Furthermore, nothing that follows is to say that there are no coherent left-wing or republican arguments for abortion: it’s just saying that any such arguments wouldn’t rely on the concept of ‘choice’.

During the 8th Amendment referendum I was amazed first and foremost by how convincing choice rhetoric appeared to be to voters. I remember coming from a canvass in Tallaght and hearing a young couple walking along discussing abortion, likely prompted by seeing canvassers out. The girl said the whole thing simply turned on ‘choice’, it was about letting people choose. Similarly, listening to RTÉ radio and the vox pops they would carry out daily around the country in the final weeks of the campaign, I remember one from a cattle mart somewhere in rural Ireland where a man (I think identified by the reporter as being 70 or 80 odd) when asked for his opinion said it was simply a matter of letting women choose what to do with their own bodies. How had this rhetoric made it all the way here? 

Pro-choice advocates obviously knew ‘choice’ was just inherently seen as a good thing in our society, that’s why they chose the label. Similarly, they call pro-life or anti-abortion people ‘anti-choice’ because they know to be against choice is supposedly a bad thing. Honestly, I have no problem with saying I am anti-choice, I don’t think one human being has the right to choose whether or not to end the life of another. I have no problem with that term any more than Ailbhe Smyth has with saying she is ‘pro-abortion’ – we both know what our positions entail and are honest enough about that to say so. But naturally those of us who are pro-life can never really embrace the term anti-choice because there is a rebuttable presumption in favour of choice in Ireland and across the western world. To embrace that term would be to accept a framing of the issue that (although I’m grand with it), for the average person, will alienate them from our side. This is despite the fact that we do restrict choice as a society in any number of ways and people understand that is necessary. Choice does not exist in a moral vacuum. Where some choices along a range of choices may lead to bad outcomes, we say no you can’t make those choices. We narrow the range. We don’t allow people to drink and drive for example, or we don’t allow companies to pollute to the extent they might desire. But still choice is seen as an inherent good and to be against choice is bad. 

Political actors and the rhetoric of choice: Marxism

But what really struck me even more in the context of the 8th Referendum was how politicians like Bríd Smith and Louise O’Reilly would exalt this idea of choice. Yes of course it would be easy for someone like Kate O’Connell, a former Fine Gael TD and notable landlord, to promote the idea of choice. For someone like O’Connell that would be part and parcel of a centre-right economic worldview which trades in the rhetoric of ‘consumer choices’, ‘freedom’, ‘free markets’, ‘entrepreneurship’ etc. But why would Bríd Smith, someone who is supposedly of the left and has as one of the primary bases of her worldview the work of Karl Marx, be drawing upon this concept of choice? 

Marxism is clearly critical of the liberal worldview that justifies itself with reference to choice. Marx speaks about the illusion of choice in capitalist market situations where workers are supposedly free to enter whatever contracts they wish with capitalists, or employers if you prefer (see chapter 26 of Capital, volume 1). In reality there is totally unequal bargaining power, the worker really has no choice, she has no freedom – under the guise of her free choice she is in fact unfree, she is forced by circumstance towards only one choice. Unless you are some kind of Hobbesian who thinks that when the bandit on the king’s highway gives you the options of ‘your money or your life’ he is actually presenting you with a choice, then you know the worker doesn’t really have a choice. She can enter the employment relationship under the capitalist’s terms or she can starve. So under the rubric of freedom of contract and free choice, the worker really has only one option, or is heavily pressured towards one option. Hmm, is this possibly somewhat analogous to women who ‘choose’ abortion under massive financial, societal, family etc., pressures? It is perhaps an obvious point that the society we live in which promotes this choice rhetorically is actually removing choice through its actions. We leave women with no choice but abortion. Peadar Tóibín was probably the only pro-life politician to make this very obvious point.

On the contrary, the structure of our economy actually impedes choice. Women, now supposedly more free than ever from the domination of patriarchal elements (which largely derive from pre-capitalist societies) now find themselves under the domination of our contemporary economic system. I won’t say the domination of the market here because there could be any number of economic systems that utilise markets (capitalist or otherwise) but do not involve domination by those markets. It is in our society that the tail wags the dog. Thus we have to sacrifice human lives to open up quicker in the wake of Covid-19 or else we’ll suffer from the economic consequences. Is this a community implementing an economic system to further its values or a society that is enslaved, or being dominated by, an economic system? Does Bríd Smith want to strive for an economic structure that furthers her (no doubt laudable) values or does she want to adjust us to the current economic structure she’s meant to oppose?  

Irish republicanism

Why did Louise O’Reilly of Sinn Féin utilise the same rhetoric of choice? I suppose in this instance Sinn Féin are not a ‘Marxist’ political party in any sense (unless you, like Michael McDowell say, are deluded) but they are meant to be republican. Now first off, I understand that Irish republicanism and the civic republican ideas of the eighteenth century tracing its roots back to Rome are not the same thing. In fact, as an Irish republican, I think Irish republicanism is not nearly republican enough. However, every organisation in Ireland that plausibly claims to be republican meets at the grave annually of a man of the milieu of those eighteenth-century republican ideas. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were republicans – they even drew and built upon the previous eighteenth-century Irish Volunteer tradition of Henry Flood et al which could itself make a claim to be somewhat republican. Both these movements straddled between the great revolutionary societies of the US (for the volunteers) and France (for the United Irishmen, as Marianne Elliott has so skillfully and comprehensively shown in Partners in Revolution). In the US context, Jefferson certainly was a republican. And the great modern Irish republican thinker Philip Pettit (who I don’t think is an Irish republican :P) has articulated what republicanism really means. Central to that is a republican conception of freedom as non-domination. This is in contrast to the liberal conception of freedom as non-interference. Thus a republican would understand that choice may often have to be restricted by a state or society in order to prevent domination while the liberal, at least on the face of it, would tend to be against such restrictions because to restrict a person’s choices is to interfere. This is not the same as but dovetails with the idea of positive versus negative freedom (most often associated with Charles Taylor and Isaiah Berlin respectively).

So why would Louise O’Reilly exalt this idea of choice when a republican outlook acknowledges that choices often must be interfered with? Indeed Pettit plausibly claims that the liberals gave up the republican idea of freedom precisely at the point they realised it would involve genuinely radical reform in areas like the rights of women. To subscribe to freedom as non-domination, women would have to be given rights in relation to property, participation in the political process etc. Freedom as non-interference was easier! Today it is easier to let the tail (our economic structure) wag the dog again: rather than adjusting society to allow women the freedom to have children without making major sacrifices, simply allow them the choice to take away the life getting in the way of their range of actions.

You should robably understand the implications and effects of your rhetoric

In conversations with left-leaning friends when I have raised the issue of contradictions between the rhetoric of choice and a left-wing republican viewpoint, they say, ‘Ah, but it is simply a trick! Smith and O’Reilly don’t really believe this stuff, they just utilise the rhetoric because they think it has become so dominant that the only way to win the referendum was to use it.’ This argument does not work because: (1) a referendum campaign can be broad enough to encompass various different arguments. Why can’t you let Kate O’Connell do the choice argument and you can do more left-wing arguments? Dominic Cummings understood this in the context of the Brexit referendum where he let Farage do the virulently anti-immigration (at times racist) arguments while Vote Leave could be more subtle; and (2) if you push rhetoric sufficiently, its logic will affect how people actually perceive the world and therefore behave. 

By pushing choice, left-wingers and/or republicans were in fact promulgating the rhetoric and logic of ‘choice’ – they were not just acknowledging and utilising the power of the concept for their own ends. This may come back to bite them when, say, Karl Deeter says it’s his free choice to snub Covid-19 restrictions, or a real classical liberal says, ‘How dare you interfere with my property rights; my choice to do what I want with my money’. Margaret Radin from the American political left and Mary Hirschfeld from further right both illustrate how promulgating market rhetoric itself begins to produce the behaviour it predicts. If you keep telling people they are self-interested rational actors who use a cost-benefit analysis for every interaction then they start to behave like that. Who would have thunk?!

You can also see this at work when left-wingers push for surrogacy and the opening up of prostitution. After all, ‘my body, my choice’ clearly means a woman ought to be able to choose to rent out her own body to produce a child for another or charge for the use of her body sexually. There are of course left-wing critiques of both practices – if your political content intake is entirely American you might not realise that – but perhaps Bríd Smith has said the word choice so many times at this point that the rhetoric has infected the underlying logic of her worldview. 

If it ever was a rhetorical ‘trick’ to talk about choice for some of the pro-abortion left in Ireland, by now they have certainly come to believe it. Whether the use of the rhetoric of choice was a trick or not, it has had the profoundly negative effect of adding confusion and contradiction to the expressed worldviews of the Irish left and Irish republicans. It has rendered many of their public positions ideologically incoherent.

What if the pro-choice left was to back away from liberal choice rhetoric and iron out some of their own internal contradictions? They might find themselves becoming more sceptical of their own stance on abortion.