Amber Tamblyn on a Woman’s Right to Choose… From More Than Just One Woman Candidate
"Even with all the women running for president, an air of sexism
still permeates the current political landscape."
A few months after handing in the final draft of my book to my editor at the end of 2018, a monumental historic event took place. One after another, an unprecedented number of women announced their candidacy for president of the United States in the 2020 presidential election. Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor from California, was the first to announce, followed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former law school professor, until a record six women had entered the race before a single male candidate had. This increase in representation ushered in one of the most powerful shifts in the cultural landscape—one that most men have taken for granted, and women (and other marginalized people) have largely been denied: the matter of choice.
One of America’s most sacred values is the privilege of having choices; whether selecting political candidates, educators, or physicians, we are given options to inform our decision-making. The problem is, those options are limited. Most men have always been able to see different versions of themselves represented in positions of power, which is why the argument “The best candidate should get the job, regardless of their gender” is problematic, because the measurement for what is considered “the best” has, up until recently, been reserved for those exclusive few. Cis men, especially cis white men, have always had the luxury of being able to choose or be chosen by other men just like them, and because of this foundational freedom, they often overlook the importance of what having choice might mean for other people who do not have it as freely. Because most men have never had to protect choice in the same way women have, they often don’t see it as something with a shelf life—as something that can be taken from them at any moment. That’s why the very act of these six highly qualified women running for president was a necessary reminder of the importance of choice, both personal and professional.
Now that we have a plurality of both men and women candidates running for president, their individual values and what they each bring to the table can be weighed fairly, instead of weighing a single woman candidate against a pack of advantaged male peers. Having women to choose from allows us to have discussions and make informed decisions about who really is the best candidate for the job. And while this is a start, we still need even more representation in future election cycles—trans women, women with disabilities, Native American women—to have a substantive debate about policy. When you have real representation, you have better results, because the choice you are making is one built on equality, and an equal playing field makes for an equal match. You wouldn’t want to watch a sports game where the outcome was rigged in favor of one team over the other, would you? The same logic should apply for the person who will be running our country.
Even with all the women running for president, an air of sexism still permeates the current political landscape, a by-product of the patriarchal spell that has been cast over us for far too long, begging to be broken. It is a spell that says: We love that so many women are running, but we don’t believe any of them can win. We love all the women candidates, but Kamala Harris is too tough and untrustworthy a stateswoman. (And Joe Biden is not?) We love all the women candidates, but Elizabeth Warren is too scolding and angry. (And Bernie Sanders is not?) We love all the women candidates, but who is Kirsten Gillibrand anyway, and why does she remind me of my mother-in-law? This narrative seems to play out in every kind of political election like clockwork: Of course we want a woman to be president someday, just not that woman. Or that one. That woman is also not quite right. She’s too emotional. No, sorry, she won’t do either. She’s irritating. Or her. She also won’t do. Or her. Nope. Sorry. No.
While we are seeing more diverse choices now as far as our political candidates are concerned, we have yet to overcome our national wariness to actually choose one of them—to elect a woman to be president. The American media doesn’t always help the fight to destigmatize women’s political legitimacy either, and they often end up writing think pieces or opinion articles that support such dangerous narratives about women politicians. So many major news outlets in 2019 shared similar sexist headlines that I found myself imagining how ridiculous the titles would sound had they been about the male opponents in the race. Imagine if this New York Times headline was about a man instead of a woman: “Asked If a Man Can Win, 2020 Candidates Offer an Easy Answer: ‘I Have.’” Or this one from NBC News: “Can a Man Beat Trump? Some Democrats Wonder If It’s Worth the Risk.” Risk. Uncertainty. Danger. These are all words used to describe women as liabilities rather than assets; as if women are professionally unworthy or incapable of being as invested as men always have been.
Rhetoric like this just adds fuel to the flames that have been burning down women’s credibility for generations. The media perpetuates this fear of choosing the wrong candidate by citing the only other example they have: Hillary Clinton. And herein lies the problem. When we haven’t had long-term representation, when we haven’t had different women to choose from for as long as men have had different men to choose from, we fall back on sexist, gendered clichés because we know no other route. Elizabeth Warren was often asked how she was going to escape being “Hillary’d” during her run, or if she thought a woman could actually win. But the fact remains, Hillary Clinton is absolutely nothing like the women running for president in the 2020 election, and they are nothing like her.
While we do have a few choices now as far as presidential candidates are concerned, our rights to personal choices as women are being rolled back cruelly and recklessly, most especially pertaining to women’s health care. In the middle of 2019, the state of Georgia introduced the Heartbeat Bill, which bans women from getting abortions and even goes so far as prosecuting them if they attempt to get the procedure done in another state. Subsequently, more than nine states introduced similarly oppressive laws, which left an overwhelming fear that Roe v. Wade might be next on the chopping block. Only in America can you see the groundbreaking advancement of choices for women in their professional lives followed by laws that ban the choices for women in their personal ones. We have always been a hypocritical nation, holding dear our personal freedoms while strangling the rights of others—none so much as the right of women to make decisions for their own bodies.
Most of these states and their bills are aimed toward stopping late-term abortion, a phrase that is more of a political construct than a real medical definition. In fact, any obstetrician would tell you the phrase was just an invention by pro-life activists meant to purposefully mislead by omitting real information about why, exactly, these types of abortions are taking place. The so-called pro-life movement makes no mention of fetuses that are so severely compromised by organ anomalies that they will very likely not survive a full pregnancy term. Anomalies such as anencephaly, which is the absence of the development of a major part of the fetus’s brain and skull, or hydrops, a sometimes fatal condition where large amounts of fluid build up in the fetal tissue, causing extreme swelling. These are just a few of the very real reasons why women must sometimes have an abortion further into a pregnancy than expected.
Recently, I spoke to 26-year veteran obstetrician Dr. Karen Kirsch about these new laws and what they mean in practical terms for women and their choices.
“The term partial-birth abortion is a fallacy,” Dr. Kirsch told me recently over the phone. “This is a procedure that does not exist. Late-term abortion is vague and unclear and allows the anti-abortion faction to detract from the greater truth and underlying problem: This is about class, predominantly affecting the poor. This is about women who do not have access or the financial means to obtain the adequate prenatal health they deserve in a timely fashion. This means, for example, women do not get to obtain early sonograms that can pick up severe fetal anomalies not compatible with life, such as anencephaly, so they seek terminations later in pregnancy. The same can be said for women who have a worsening serious underlying medical problem endangering their lives. I assume this is what is meant by late-term abortion.”
As far as a woman’s right to make decisions for herself when it comes to such personal matters, Dr. Kirsch said, “That’s the importance of the choice factor. A woman could carry to term with an abnormal fetus and deal with the aftermath at birth, or risk dying if she has a severe medical issue. But that has to remain her choice and no one else’s. The assault on choice, which is nothing new but sadly escalating, must be challenged.”
Indeed, phrases like partial-birth abortion and late-term abortion aim to make it the government’s business, focusing solely on the three terms of gestation during pregnancy, and therefore, the life of the fetus only, all but erasing the needs of the woman whose life will forever be impacted by the repercussions of that pregnancy. The phrase is born out of the folklore of anti-abortion extremists, invoking visions of cute little babies with thumping heartbeats getting “ripped from the mother’s womb before birth,” as President Donald Trump once said of late-term abortions at a rally. It is meant to make abortion sound like a simplified subject: death by murder. My question is: Who gets to define what death is in the first place? Or life, for that matter? Is it religion? Is it the government? Or is it doctors? Or women whose bodies are the subjects of such questions?
Most of what is understood about abortions and why women choose them is morbidly mythologized, painting the worst possible picture of arbitrary decisions on life and death. Even the language around people’s beliefs is aimed to fabricate truth: People who believe abortion is murder call themselves “pro-life,” even though for many women, having an abortion could actually save their lives. The idea of “saving lives” is reserved for the innocence of “unborn children” (a debatable and highly misleading phrase to use in this circumstance), but child immigrants currently locked up in concentration camps on our southern borders seemingly do not qualify. So what of the very real, very innocent, very young immigrant children who have died in American custody already in 2019? Where are the conservative men and women lawmakers and so-called pro-lifers who are outraged and pushing for a Heartbeat Bill for these young refugees?
The term pro-life assumes that the rest of us are simply pro-death. This notion that women are murdering their babies purposefully paints women as bad choice makers, as people incapable of knowing what’s right in the first place, and therefore, incapable of making any other choices either. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg once said of the debate on term limits for abortion, “I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on when you draw the line that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of who gets to draw the line. And I trust women to draw the line.” He went on to say that most women who have to have an abortion later on in their pregnancy usually have to make a very painful decision for medical reasons. “We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen the name, women who have purchased the crib, families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetimes, something about the health or the life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice. That decision [to have an abortion] is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.”
I have known many women—and I do mean many—who have had to make unthinkable yet very thought-out choices at every stage of a pregnancy. Many of us have also felt great relief from having the choice to do with our bodies what we feel—what we know—is right for us at that time. Expanding our choices and freeing us up to decide what is best for ourselves—for our bodies, our families, our futures—is something that will benefit all of us in the long run.
I look at women like Janet Mock who, in 2019, became the first trans woman to get an overall deal at a major studio (Netflix) and now has the freedom to choose which stories she wants to tell to enrich the intelligence and perspectives of television viewers. Her freedom to make new creative choices will only enrich us as a culture. Similarly, New York State passed an unprecedented and powerful bill, led by lawyer Roberta Kaplan for Time’s Up, called the New York Safety Agenda, which lifts the statute of limitations for people who want to report second-and third-degree rape. This new law gives people more time to choose when they are ready to report a sexual assault, instead of forcing them to do so simply because their story has an expiration date according to the justice system. It is precisely this expansion of choices for women and marginalized voices that will continue changing the trajectory of our country for the better.
I’ll end here, dear reader, by asking you to join me in taking action as we move into this new era of making choices and having choices. Look around at your community, at your family, at your friendships and partnerships, and ask yourself two questions: What does choice look like for you and what does it look like for other people? And what can you do to create choices for others where there are none? This isn’t about fighting to empower other people; we are already the arbiters of our own sorcery, each of us fueled by our own individual fires. So instead of fighting for empowerment, I will ask you to fight for freedom, and not just your own. The freedom to love. The freedom to vote. The freedom to live. The freedom to choose and be chosen.
Excerpted with permission from ERA OF IGNITION by Amber Tamblyn. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2020 by Amber Tamblyn.