Rickie Solinger, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Affects Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the US, 2001

Beggars can’t be choosers. That common truism is the basis for Rickie Solinger's study of the inequities of abortion politics in the late twentieth century, when reproductive rights became framed in terms of “pro-choice” and “the right to choose.” Her 2001 book Beggars and Choosers begins with the following quote from a Kenneth Cole shoes ad from 1996:

"Confusing the right to choose with the right to shoes, he campaigned only in his pumps, saying, 'It's my body and my decision.”

Solinger considers the whole idea of the “right to choose” to be ridiculous – more ridiculous, in fact, than the right to shoes. The slogan “impossibly mixes 'right,' a privilege to which one is justly entitled, and 'choice,' the privilege to exercise discrimination in the marketplace among several options, if one has the wherewithal to enter the marketplace to begin with." (Solinger, 7)

One can question whether it is “impossible” to conflate rights with choice. It is not self-evident that "choice" has a narrowly economic meaning that refers only to making selections in a market. Being able to make a free choice is fundamental to the concept of "free will" - an autonomous agent who can make independent decisions has been a recurring character in the history of democracy and Western philosophy in general. Such an interpretation of “choice” may be too expansive in contemporary American politics, but it is preferable to the very limited one that Solinger assumes in imposing a purely consumerist orientation on the abortion rights movement. In late twentieth century consumerist America, perhaps 'pro-choice' does heavily connote the market and shopping, but that is not all there is to it. "Rights" and "choices" are not as utterly dissimilar as Solinger suggests. Consider the competing traditions of liberalism and republicanism in earlier American history. The Anglo-American ideal of independence was based on the idea that a person could make decisions for himself free of undue influence from others – without a master, king or boss to control his choices. Being able to choose among candidates was different than living under a king. While the early Americans did not use the term "choice" explicitly, they were talking of a condition in which, to be truly free, an individual must have some autonomy - which usually meant having enough resources to be able to avoid depending on anyone else (like a child, slave or woman). With the triumph of liberalism, this notion of independence morphed into possessive individualism – the idea that a person owns his or her own body, and can apply its skills, talents and resources in any way (working for wages, starting a business, etc.). This seems to be where the "my body, my choice" rhetoric of the abortion rights movement comes from, not purely from consumerism per se.

Solinger locates the rhetorical shift in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision: "Until Roe, most activists claimed that 'the right to control whether you're pregnant or not [was] indivisible from the right to self-determination.' The rights language, however, did not last very long. Justice Blackmun referred to abortion as 'this choice' a number of times in his Roe majority ruling. And the determination of abortion rights advocates to develop a respectable, nonconfrontational movement after Roe encouraged many proponents to adopt the term 'choice.' In a country weary of rights claims, choice became the way liberal and mainstream feminists could talk about abortion without mentioning the 'A-word.' Many people believed that 'choice' - a term that evoked women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplace - would be an easier sell; it offered 'rights lite,' a package less threatening or disturbing than unadulterated rights." (Solinger, 5)

Corroborating Solinger’s view, Sandra Patton-Imani describes a children's book about adoption, The Chosen Baby, published in 1939, in which, "Mr. and Mrs. Brown… had everything they could ask for, except one thing - they needed a baby to make their happiness complete. So they went down to the friendly government agency where they met the nice caseworker, who began searching for just the right baby for them. After an anxious wait (probably about nine months), Mrs. White finally called with wonderful news. She had a beautiful baby boy for them to come and see." (Patton-Imani, 813)

"I read the 'chosen baby' narrative as an allegory about family, gender, race, class, patriarchy, choice, and commodification. Structuring the surrender and adoption of children around choice reveals the consumer relations guiding the social reproduction of families in the United States in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond… Not only are they granted the power to 'choose' the baby, but their 'choice could transform an 'unwanted' baby into one who was 'loved and cherished.' Their 'choice' has conferred the legitimacy granted through patriarchal marriage on an 'illegitimate' baby born out of wedlock to a poor choice maker… There are significant absences in this postwar middle-class allegory. Though the assumption is that the adoptive parents chose their child, it is actually the social worker who chose him for them. They chose to accept the child whom the state deemed appropriately matched to them. The story doesn't include such details as screening policies, economic requirements, and home studies. In this sense, the adoptive parents were also chosen by the state as appropriate parents." (Patton-Imani, 814)

"'Choice' has largely structured feminist dialogues on reproductive rights, but framing these issues around choice relies on the assumption that all women have access to the same range of opportunities. It disregards the role of social structure in regulating which options are available to which women. As critical legal scholar Dorothy Roberts argues, reproductive freedom, as it functions in the United States, 'protects all citizens' choices from the most direct and egregious abuses of government power, but it does nothing to dismantle social arrangement that make it impossible for some people to make a choice in the first place'… Political considerations of poverty, for example, typically range from liberal emphasis on inequality as a feature of the overdetermined power relations of the state to conservative explanations focusing on the 'bad choices' poor people make. In my view, a more useful framework includes attention to the ways in which state power shapes the range of options available to different people based on gender, race, poverty and other features of social identity." (Patton-Imani, 816)

"The reproductive behavior of low-income women, particularly those of color, has historically been targeted for regulation by the state as a means of controlling poverty. Indeed, women who were sterilized involuntarily or who were coerced into using birth control have always had a problematic relationship to the politics of 'choice.' While many middle-class women have fought for the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, poor women have, too often, had to engage in battles for the right to bear and keep their own children. As historian Rosalind Petchesky argues, 'the critical issue for feminists is not so much the content of women's choices, or even the 'right to choose,' as it is the social and material conditions under which choices are made. The 'right to choose' means little when women are powerless.'" (Patton-Imani 817)

Solinger believes that the rhetoric of “choosing” helps to mask the deep-seated view that motherhood should be a privilege of the economically secure and well-to-do. In her view, “choice is a remarkably unstable foundation for guaranteeing women's control over their own bodies, their reproductive lives, their motherhood, and ultimately their status as full citizens." (Solinger, 7).

Solinger's argument runs something like this:

1. Thanks to the rhetoric of white, upper-class feminists, people think of reproduction in terms of choice. In reality, this usually means being able to choose not to carry a pregnancy to term, courtesy of Roe v. Wade.

2. In fact, women's reproductive choices have never been equally open. Racist policies forced some women to endure forced sterilization in the past, and poor women live in the fear that their children will be taken away - in other words, that their choice to become mothers will not be respected, which means they have little or no choice at all. The withdrawal of government support through the welfare reform of the 1990s has intensified this limitation of choice.

3. Although Solinger thinks that reproduction should be thought of in terms of rights and not of choice, what she really means is that these decisions should be framed in terms of rights so that all women can exercise a free choice. If we think of both motherhood and abortion as fundamental rights of women, then we will devise policies that make it possible for all women to choose their destiny freely and equally.

4. Since some women lack financial, social and political resources - thus rendering the choice paradigm unfair and inadequate - the government should provide the means to assist people in making their choices. This means federally subsidized abortions on one hand and welfare on the other. If a woman does not want to become a mother, and she lacks the money to pay for the abortion, the government should help level the playing field. Also, if a woman gets pregnant but lacks the conventional means of support associated with child-rearing (partner, family, income, etc.), welfare should be available to sustain her and the child. Otherwise, we will be either denying poor women the choice to ever become mothers, or we will be consigning these women and their children to incredible hardship that perpetuates inequality.

Solinger maps out the logic of this position effectively, despite the inclusion of unfortunate quotes like this one from Doris Bland, of Mothers for Adequate Welfare: “Ain’t no white man going to tell me how many babies I can have, ‘cause if I want a million of them, and I can have them, I’m going to have them. And ain’t nobody in the world going to tell me what to do with my bod, ‘cause this is mine and I treasure it.” One may doubt the likelihood of this statement to win over the hearts and minds of a skeptical public.

Groups like Mothers for Adequate Welfare and the National Welfare Rights Organization emerged in the 1960s to advocate the idea that women had a right to raise children with the support of the state. NWRO, for instance, formed in 1967 to seek increased levels of federal funding for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had been reduced in the 1950s, and to make welfare policies fairer. For instance, mothers who received funds would often have to endure a variety of humiliating invasions of their privacy by caseworkers, who could revoke their access to welfare. This group was focused on rights, and their ultimate dream was to provide a wage for stay-at-home moms. They wanted society to recognize that child-rearing was a serious occupation and that women should be able to raise children without having a man (or, more likely, husband) in their lives. They failed in this effort, although it's surprising how close they came. Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s expanded antipoverty programs, and Richard Nixon - a Republican - actually proposed a "guaranteed minimum income," which would have been a monthly government grant to each individual. Everyone would start with the same basic income. A key point, though, is that the GMI would replace all welfare programs - Nixon saw this as a way of getting "the blacks" and the NWRO and company off his case, and to settle the poverty question once and for all by just throwing money at it. The proposal wasn't a major priority to him, and the idea was tabled in the early 70s. (Piven & Cloward's Poor People's Movements includes a close study of this organization, in which the authors themselves were deeply involved.)

However, the idea of providing mothers with a wage is a cause that has a longer history. Even in the 1920s there was a movement in this direction, and it actually carried more weight then than later. Why? Because women were not expected to work back then, even though many already did. The ideal of the nonworking mother still prevailed, and most women had opportunities only for the lowest-paid, menial labor. The argument went like this: if a woman was married, lacked birth control, and was unable to stop her husband from forcing children on her, she could end up with seven kids and a drunken lout for a husband who abandons her. Doesn't this sound like a situation that insults the moral sensibilities of the public? How is the mother supposed to support seven children by herself, with no education, job experience, child support, etc.? "Using the model of military pensions, they argued that a mother deserved a government pension in exchange for her service to the state through child rearing," according to Joanne L. Goodwin. "Child welfare reformers, women's clubs, and juvenile court judges supported pensions as a vast improvement over existing options that sent families to the poorhouse, forced mothers to give up their children, or turned children into wage earners." Politicians toyed with the idea of mothers' pensions in the 1920s, as documented in Linda Gordon's book Pitied but Not Entitled, but most in that conservative era thought the idea smacked too much of socialism. Some states did implement their own versions of the plan, and mothers' pensions were resurrected in a new form in the 1935 Social Security Act's Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

The early twentieth century proposals were a mix of pity, recognition of the limited social options of women, and endorsement of the legitimate role of mothers as workers in society or servants of the state. Fundamental to this perspective, though, is the idea that the poor mothers had little in the way of choices. They and their children were stuck in a bad situation, and it prevailed upon the larger community to help. These notions have not held up as well in the late twentieth century, when the rhetoric of choice was all over the place. Women in recent decades have been seen as having many more opportunities for education and employment; marriage is not seen as a necessity to be achieved immediately; birth control is thought to be easily available; and the pro-choice movement has furnished the option of terminating any pregnancy that turns out to be infeasible despite all these options. Now, of course, every single assertion in the last sentence is more or less doubtful, depending on one's income, age, race, location and so on. Abortion may not be available, birth control may cost too much, and jobs and schooling may be well out of reach for many people.

But it is the widely held impression of choice that made the welfare mother a less sympathetic figure in the eyes of many Americans in the late twentieth century. If she chose to have one kid, two kids, three kids, then shouldn't she be responsible and live with it? Why didn't she finish high school? Or if she did, why didn't she apply for a Pell Grant or Stafford Loan and go to college? She should have used protection. As Solinger might argue, the rhetoric of “choice” perpetuates the illusion that the liberated woman of the 21st century is unconstrained; she is free to choose her destiny and it is no one's but her own. If one of the characters from Sex and the City - archetypes of the educated, professional, sexually free woman - were to have an unexpected pregnancy, few Americans would agree that she should stay at home and raise the child with government support. Those on the left who are ideologically in sync with the NWRO might see the logic behind that position, but many Americans would say, "Take your maternity leave, then go back to your job, and use your big income to hire a nanny and don't expect the rest of us to pay for you raising your kid." Or, better still, "Get a husband and stay home with the kid."

Recall that the birth control pill came on the American market in 1960, providing a symbolic entry into the decade of the sexual revolution and counterculture. Due to changes in healthcare, education, public policy and so on, people could, in theory, exercise a greater degree of choice over the course their lives would take - how many sex partners to have, what careers to pursue, when to have kids, whether to carry a pregnancy to term, etc. If the range of options has opened during that period, and in some sense been "liberalized," it is interesting that the last thirty years have seen a conservative revival ("the New Right") that has emphasized "personal responsibility" and "accountability." One could see this as an effort to rein in the expansion of freedoms that emerged in the 1960s, or as a policy of holding people accountable for the choices they make. Abortion is an interesting example of this conflict – one side demands that people be able to exercise free choice, and the other says that people should take responsibility for their sexual choices and raise the child or put it up for adoption.

Solinger's most salient point is that this debate over choice ignores the fact that people have never been equally equipped to take advantage of the choices that are theoretically available to them. Human life is far too complex for people to make choices in a vacuum, since personal, social, religious, political or financial factors constrain their ability to get an abortion, or find adequate income to raise a child, or get access to birth control. Intriguingly, she suggests that, while the debate about choice has raged, the range of options has been subtly narrowed by policy changes. The federal government withdrew funding for abortions for the poor with the Hyde Amendment in the late 1970s. All sorts of limitations have been imposed on the right to an abortion, such as parental notification laws for minors. "Welfare reform" has withdrawn the option of a woman staying at home to raise a child, unless she is married or has some other source of support. What does it mean to talk about free "choice" in these circumstances?

Solinger points to an illuminating statement by President Carter in 1977 as a perfect example of the consumerist view of reproductive rights. Then a report for NBC News, Judy Woodruff asked, “Mr. President, how fair do you believe it is then, that women who can afford to get an abortion can go ahead and have one, and women who cannot afford to are precluded?” The answer? “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can't. But I don't believe that the Federal government should take action to try to make these opportunities exactly equal, particularly when there is a moral factor involved.” (Solinger, 19)

Although Solinger finds Carter's view to be an explicit denial of a woman's right to an abortion, his position is probably close to that of many Americans who are ambivalent about abortion but find the government's active "encouragement" of the practice through subsidies to be objectionable. From such a perspective, one might agree that people have a right to choose to smoke tobacco, but the government should not buy people cigarettes. Obviously, smoking and terminating a pregnancy are profoundly different practices, but if you already consider both to be questionable you are not going to want government money going to facilitate them. Solinger sees abortion rights as similar to the right to a free, appropriate public education (which is mandated by law), or, really, like voting. Anyone can choose to do it (vote), and the government will (theoretically) do what is necessary for you to be able to exercise that choice, to which you have a right. For Solinger, the rhetoric of choice undermines the idea that motherhood is a right that women may or may not exercise.


Sandra Patton-Imani, "Redefining the Ethics of Adoption, Race, Gender, and Class," Law & Society Review, Vol. 36, No. 4. (2002), pp. 813-862.

Rickie Solinger, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Affects Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the United States (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001)

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