When actress Michelle Williams gave her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, everyone knew what she was talking about. Sometime in Williams’ past, she had an abortion. But she never actually mentioned the word ‘abortion’. Instead, she referenced a common euphemism, ‘a woman’s right to choose’. We all know what she meant by that. Williams conveyed gratitude for her award because she felt it symbolically affirmed her choices, including her choice to have an abortion. Conservative pro-lifers have been quick to jump on some of the fallacies raised by her speech. I’m not going to delineate those here as they are fairly obvious. What I want to focus on is how this euphemism countermands Williams’ message.
The speech is actually quite strange when you think about it.
It’s customary when winning an award of some kind, to thank the people who considered you in the first place. But choosing award winners doesn’t involve affirming every personal choice ever made prior. Let’s take Harvey Weinstein for example. To my knowledge, Weinstein has never won a Golden Globe, but he has won a number of film making awards. Should we infer Weinstein’s awards affirmed all his personal choices? Including his choices to sexually assault numerous women? No, of course not.
But Williams wanted to distinguish between life “happening” to you versus self-determination. For her, that involved “employing a woman’s right to choose.” A woman’s right to make choices in life is certainly fundamental; it is so for all humans. But that isn’t even her ultimate point. For Williams, there is only one relevant choice women must have access to: to end fetal life with impunity.
If I were unaware of this euphemism, then her speech might have been inspiring. For libertarians, the power to make choices is a foundational feature of human nature. We “employ the right to choose” every day, and that doesn’t mean we’re getting abortions. There is something to be said of the lack of choices women have had throughout history. But Williams’ message is that only one choice matters.
Williams says she wouldn’t have been successful without abortion. She goes on to name choices adjacent to abortion which include:
- when (and with whom) to have children
- balancing life circumstances
- freedom to choose differently from others
- acting from self-interest
Her speech implies that she could not have made these choices without having an abortion. But that’s a non sequitur. It further implies that women who don’t have abortions (for whatever reason) haven’t really exercised their right of choice.
Choice & Agency
Libertarianism is predicated on the idea that there’s something unique about human beings. Unlike animals, which behave from instinct, we have the ability to choose and act. Entailed in choosing something, is renouncing things not chosen. If I’m offered both chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and can only choose one, choosing vanilla means choosing not to take the chocolate.
Ludwig von Mises spoke directly to human action in terms of sexual intercourse. A key feature distinguishing human action from animal behavior is our ability to choose against impulse and rationalize sexual relationships. So the choices Williams referenced, apart from abortion, are all true and relevant.
Our agency is acting on choices aimed at particular goals. Our choices are a means to an end, but this doesn’t mean we may necessarily choose our ends. Williams could not choose to win a Golden Globe. She made choices aimed at optimizing her chances of getting that award. But she could only choose the means, she could not choose the ends. Choosing means to achieve a goal doesn’t mean that goal will be achieved.
Somewhere along the way, Williams made a choice which was antithetical to her goal. (I’m assuming she wasn’t raped). She felt the consequence (pregnancy) of her choice interfered with her professional choices.
A woman can choose to have sex, but she doesn’t choose to be pregnant. She can aim at the goal of becoming pregnant by employing means (sex) to achieve pregnancy. But ask any woman who’s struggled to get pregnant and she’ll tell you pregnancy is not a matter of choice.
However, pregnancy also doesn’t occur spontaneously or inexplicably. Women aren’t victims of nature. There are definitive means by which pregnancy can occur. If a woman aims to get pregnant, she must employ means to achieve it. Some means are more reliable than others. If she fails to conceive, she’s not free from those consequences. Likewise, if she aims to avoid pregnancy, she must employ means of prevention. Some means are more reliable than others.
We can’t be told how to act, but praxeology shows how we must act if we want to attain definite ends. And if a woman definitively wants to prevent pregnancy, her chosen action must definitively avoid the risk of conception.
The action of sexual intercourse and the consequence of pregnancy:
I have no idea what Williams’ history is, nor the circumstances of her unwanted pregnancy and later abortion. Her unwanted pregnancy was either the result of volitional intercourse or rape. Either way, abortion is not necessary to a woman’s power and right to act on choices.
If from volitional intercourse, then abortion is a bailout
Necessarily entailed in human action is assuming risks and unintended consequences. We don’t live in a risk-free world. If a woman chooses to go sky diving, she also makes a choice to use means to prevent her death by wearing a parachute. But that parachute is no guarantee; it can fail. Whether she knows it ahead of time or not, she’s assuming the risk of unintended death should the parachute fail to deploy. She’s not free from the natural consequence (death) if her efforts of prevention (the parachute) fail. The same is true of sex and contraception.
A woman’s choices are no more exempt from the law of unintended consequences than a banker’s choice to lend to high-risk borrowers. More simply put, a woman’s choices about her sexual relationships are not “too big to fail.” She has no more right to pass off risks and consequences to others, by being “bailed out” by abortion, than bankers do when their risky loans fail to be repaid.
If from rape, then abortion supplants justice
Williams mentioned having the right to choose with whom to have children. Rape unreservedly denies a woman’s choices about sexual relationships. Victims of rape are truly being denied a choice. This is (in part) what victims are owed restitution for. The use of force at play here is from the rapist; not the fetus, and not the state. Therefore the victims (both the woman and the fetus) are entitled to restitution.
But rape is the least likely of violent crimes to get a conviction in our current legal system. Convicted rapists are often given leniency. Take these facts along with the message that abortion is promoted as the remedy for rape, and what women are left with are “scraps from the table.” It’s like being told, “violence is inevitable; justice is not possible, but here, have an abortion. It’s empowering! Trust us.”
“Choice” as a euphemism for violence is devastating to women
One major problem with using “a woman’s right to choose” as a euphemism for abortion, is that it diminishes what it means for women to choose. For Williams to suggest that pregnancy is something which “happens” to us (as though pregnancy were a disease), is to diminish our very capacity to act and make the choices she believes women have a right to.
“[Woman] does not blindly submit to a sexual stimulation … [she] refrains from copulation if [she] deems the costs – the anticipated disadvantages – too high … Rationalization of sexual intercourse already involves the rationalization of proliferation. … methods of rationalizing the increase of progeny were adopted which were independent of abstention from copulation. People resorted to the egregious and repulsive practices of exposing or killing infants and of abortion. Finally they learned to perform the sexual act in such a way that no pregnancy results.” – Ludwig von Mises, Human Action p. 664
A woman’s right to choose, if we’re speaking in libertarian terms (and apart from abortion), is something to fight for, protect, and celebrate. As it stands, the context in which Williams was speaking reduces the nature and self-ownership of women down to the determination to kill her offspring. It says you’re not really an empowered woman if you haven’t had an abortion. This is what’s devastating! So devastating in fact, that it prompts conservative prolifers to rail against bodily autonomy and women’s choices which perpetuates the divide on this hot-button issue.
Libertarianism promotes a genuine right to choose for women (and men) while maintaining a consistent stance against choices that initiate violence against others – including abortion.
- Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises
- Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell
- Kerry Baldwin Debates Walter Block on Abortion