Dear Roe, the other day I was sitting in the pub chatting with a friend and the conversation turned to the battle to repeal the Eighth Amendment. I’m pro-choice. But we kind of disagreed on who should have that choice. She said that if a woman is pregnant, the father should have no say at all over whether she keeps the baby. It’s her body, her foetus. But, I argued, shouldn’t they both have a say? He’s expected to be responsible for the kid when it’s born, and it wouldn’t have been made without him. Isn’t it a bit simplistic to focus on who is pregnant? Who’s right?—Feminist Feeling Guilty
Ah, good, an abortion question – I’ve been running the column a whole month now, it’s about time I wrote something that inspired hate mail.
First, let’s clarify what being pro-choice means. Being pro-choice means that – regardless of your personal circumstances and your desire or lack thereof for children – you advocate for the legal right of a woman to choose whether or not she will have an abortion.
Now, as we know, Irish law is not pro-choice; it believes that, should a woman become pregnant, she should be forced to have a baby, like in some torturous, misogynist dystopia. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend abortion in Ireland is available for those who need it.
You say you’re pro-choice. So following the definition of pro-choice, should you ever get pregnant, you have every right to choose to tell the father and allow him to express his opinion. You have every right to choose whether or not to take his opinion into account. And you have every right to evaluate what’s right for you, and choose whether to have an abortion.
Do you see the theme here? You get to choose. You get to choose what works for you, because the final decision lies with you, even if you allow the opinions of others to influence it.
Now let’s examine your version of “pro-choice” beliefs where the father gets a say. First of all, there’s nothing about pro-choice politics that prevents the father (or anyone else) from expressing an opinion – but, like all opinions, it can be ignored, argued with or dismantled. So when you say you believe that the father should “have a say”, what you’re implying is not that he has the right to an opinion, because he already does. What you’re implying is that you believe that when a woman gets pregnant, the father should have a legal right to oppose and interfere with her decision to have an abortion. Which means you don’t believe that a woman has the right to choose whether she will have an abortion.
While it’s an unfortunate situation when a woman becomes pregnant and she and her partner disagree on whether she should carry the foetus to term, it’s important to remember that the stakes are not the same for the pregnant woman and the father. I believe in empathy. I believe in respecting people’s feelings, emotions and lives. I believe it’s very damn obvious whose feelings, emotions and lives are going to be more effected in this scenario. And I believe neither I, nor a father, nor anyone else, has the right to force a woman to go through that.
Like so many human rights issues, the basic principle is this: you are entitled to your beliefs, and you are free to act upon them in relation to your life. You are not, however, entitled to limit the freedoms of others. Should you become pregnant, pro-choice politics supports your decision on whether to have an abortion, and respects your right to come to that decision in whatever way you choose, including respecting the wishes of the father. Your version of pro-choice politics does not do that for women.
So, definition-wise, your friend is right. Philosophically, politically, and ethically, I believe she’s right too. Believing this does not impact your rights in any way. Which is exactly the point.
_ Dear Roe, I have this friend. Let’s call him “Bob”. He’s a white guy who has spent several years working in Asia – specifically, in Muslim parts of Asia. He’s over there now. Anyway, he’s developed a taste for Asian women. I don’t know if it’s how they look, or that they’re “exotic”, or that many of them have more traditional expectations for gender roles in relationships. But I just wonder whether it’s okay to pick your partners based on their nationality or ethnicity or religion. Seems like there’s something a little fetishistic or something about it. —Bob’s Friend _
I find the way you analyse your friend Bob’s choice in women interesting. He’s “developed a taste” for Asian women, you say – implying that a White man couldn’t merely desire women, some of whom are Asian, and that this desire of Bob’s isn’t as natural as desiring women of the same ethnicity as he. What are Bob’s ulterior motives for desiring Asian women? WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT BOB?
My dear, your friend Bob is in Asia. Asian women are going to be there. He’s going to interact with them and find some of them attractive. This is the way heterosexual attraction – and geography – works. Your analysis, however, is how othering works.
I doubt that you have previously looked at Bob’s romantic partners – or the romantic partners of any of your male friends – and thought “My God, Bob/Jim/JimBob seems to always fancy White women! He obviously has some kind of fetish! He probably gets off on that fact that White women are simultaneously privileged in a way that women of colour are not, but are still affected by patriarchy! Ugh, JimBob, you pervert!”
Of course you haven’t. Because, being in a largely White country like Ireland, we come to see Whiteness as default, and any other race or ethnicity as Other – a delightful by-product of Whiteness that contributes to racism.
Now, your question indicates that you’re concerned about racial and ethnic stereotypes, but being concerned doesn’t mean you aren’t perpetuating them yourself. By leaping to the conclusion that Bob is attracted to Asian women due to his internalised Orientalism or perceptions about Asian submissiveness, you are associating Asian women with these qualities, assuming that the Asian women Bob is seeing have no other qualities that could be attractive apart from their ethnicity, and concluding that Asian women need a White saviour (you) to come to their rescue.
Now, what if Bob does return from his trip and explicitly tells you he is now only attracted to Asian women – is this problematic?
Yes, it is. There’s a difference between having a preference, and being deliberately exclusionary. Sure, I generally prefer dark-haired dudes to blondes, but why turn this preference into a personal rule? All I’m doing is needlessly refusing to entertain the possibility that myself and Josh Holloway would be very happy together (AND WE WOULD BE).
So while it’s not problematic for Bob to find Asian women attractive, it is problematic if this attraction is based on reductive cultural stereotypes. Bob would not only be reducing all Asian women to an othering stereotype, he would also, by default, be objectifying all women by pre-emptively deciding that – regardless of their individual attributes – he’s going to value one ethnicity above another
So, what can we do about it? We can all remain aware of how perceptions of people are affected by reductive cultural messages. And if our peers act or speak in a way that indicates that they’re fetishising, sexualising or objectifying certain groups of people, we can point out the damaging cultural stereotypes that could be influencing their reasoning, and how these prejudices affect everyone and promote reductive othering.
However, we can also remain aware of our own thought processes, and how even our well-intentioned desire to protect people of other races or ethnicities could likewise be fuelled by assumptions regarding these groups. Sometimes worrying about Bob’s othering is a convenient, self-congratulatory way of indulging our own racialised views: not only do we get to make racialised stereotypes, but we get to cast ourself as Saviour.
Do you have a question for Roe? You can submit it anonymously at dubinq.com/ask-roe.