Le féminisme radical et l’accusation d’essentialisme.

My article Radical Feminism and the Accusation of Gender Essentialism has been translated into French. Thank you to TradFem for the translation.

(Première version d’un article qui a été publié dans la revue Feminist Times en avril 2014)

La critique la plus courante adressée à la théorie féministe radicale veut que nous soyons « essentialistes » parce que nous croyons que l’oppression des femmes, en tant que classe, se fonde sur les réalités biologiques de nos corps. L’hypothèse selon laquelle les féministes radicales seraient essentialistes est basée sur une incompréhension de la théorie féministe radicale, issue de la définition du mot « radicale » lui-même. Le terme « radicale » désigne la racine ou l’origine. Notre féminisme est radical dans la mesure où il situe la racine de l’oppression des femmes dans les réalités biologiques de nos corps (le sexe) et vise à libérer les femmes en éradiquant les structures sociales, les pratiques culturelles et les lois basées sur l’infériorité des femmes aux hommes. Le féminisme radical conteste toutes les relations de pouvoir qui existent dans le patriarcat, y compris le capitalisme, l’impérialisme, le racisme, l’oppression de classe, l’homophobie et même l’institution de la mode et de la beauté.

Les féministes radicales ne croient pas en l’existence de caractéristiques qui soient exclusivement masculines ou exclusivement féminines. Les femmes ne sont pas naturellement plus nourrissantes que les hommes, et eux ne sont pas meilleurs en mathématiques. Le genre n’est pas fonction de notre biologie. C’est une construction sociale créée pour maintenir des hiérarchies de pouvoir inégal. L’amalgame entre le sexe et le genre est un autre malentendu commun au sujet de la théorie féministe radicale. Le sexe est la réalité de votre corps sans qu’y soient liées des caractéristiques négatives ou positives. Le genre est une construction sociale qui privilégie les hommes/la masculinité en regard des femmes/de la féminité. Le féminisme radical est accusé d’essentialisme parce que nous reconnaissons ces hiérarchies de pouvoir et cherchons à les détruire. Nous ne croyons pas, comme on le suggère souvent, que ces hiérarchies sont naturelles. Il faut voir là une tactique de censure à notre égard. …

 

You can find the full text in French here. 

Reading through depression and anxiety

I have been very ill with depression and anxiety for the past 17 months. And on the bandwagon which is changing medication, unbearable side effects (gaining 2 stone when I have fibromyalgia which causes severe pain in my ankles and knees was quite unhelpful), and the limit of 6 group classes of CBT (with men), not to mention two incidents of triggered PTSD, has made me somewhat on the wrong side of struggling to work. In November, I decided to change tactics and stopped starring at my computer with fear (and writer’s block). Instead, I went for reading pretty much everything I possibly could whilst not worrying about work (getting PIP was a huge help here). I’m much better and on medication with less horrendous side effects (except dry mouth – my current resemblance to a cactus is also not the most helpful thing).

I’m not very good at the whole asking for help or for even mentioning how I am – my acting skills are far more in the area of pretending to be a manic pixy dream girl (or at least they are in my head) than being honest about my mental health. This article that I came across on FB is what I would say if I could.

So rather than break with tradition of hiding, I’ve made a list of the books that I’ve loved over the past 4 months (the rest are listed here):

 

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£4 BILLION – the current outstanding child maintenance bill

£4 billion.

This is the outstanding arrears of child maintenance owed in England and Wales. According to a report by the charity Gingerbread called Missing Maintenance, the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) estimates that only £467 million will ever be recovered.This leaves nearly one half of single parent families, the vast majority headed by women, living in poverty.

The current Conservative government is in the process of closing the Child Support Agency (CSA) to replace it with the Child Maintenance Service, which charges women £20 for the privilege of opening a file and then a sum each month if some semblance of the maintenance is actually paid. The new vaunted system has seen only 53% of the families registered receiving maintenance with 90 000 people having not paid during one three month period. There is already nearly £53 million in unpaid maintenance. Many of the families will receive only negligible amounts of money, as the DWP does not require the full maintenance to be paid in order for the account to be registered as compliant. Realistically, a father of 4 earning £70 000 a year can pay only £5 a month and still be included within the 53% statistic.

Equally problematic is the fact that the Child Maintenances Service is actively writing to the primary caregivers to request they ‘forgive’ the debt owed by non-paying fathers – as though the primary caregivers of children, who are overwhelmingly women, can neglect to pay rent, council tax and the credit card debts they rack up buying groceries knowing these debts will be ‘forgiven’. As Polly Toynbee makes clear,

Some 90% of CSA cases have now been transferred over to the CMS, but only 13% of mothers affected have decided to pay the new fees and apply to the CMS: the DWP must be pleased, as it had publicly estimated that 63% would pursue their claims. All the pressure in official letters is to deter mothers. The £20 fee may be a mild block, along with charging fathers 4%, but the evidence suggests mothers just give up when prodded by these letters.

Charging mothers to use the Child Maintenance Service is simply a way for the government to abdicate responsibility. They are very clear that the sole purpose is to force more parents into dealing with child maintenance themselves. In doing so, they have refused to recognise the reason why men, and it is overwhelmingly men, refuse to pay maintenance: it is both a punishment and a form of control over their former partners. This is male entitlement writ large by men who do not care about the welfare of their children.

We need to start calling the refusal to pay maintenance what it really is: financial child abuse. Forcing your children to live in poverty because you cannot be bothered to support them or refusing to punish the mother are not the signs of ‘good fathers’. It is the hallmark of an abusive father.

It is not difficult to implement child maintenance policies that are effective and ensure that men cannot hide their assets. Placing the Child Maintenance Service under the heading of HM Revenue & Customs so that child maintenance is garnished directly from the salary of the non-resident parent. This coupled with actual punitive policies for those who refuse to pay, such as a fee for every missed payment, interest accrued on outstanding payments, and the use of enforcement agents (bailiffs) to confiscate personal property, and, potentially, criminal proceedings would see an immediate increase in the number of men who start to pay their maintenance. Canada’s maintenance enforcement program has the right to suspend the driver’s licenses and passports of men who are in arrears recognising that the legal obligation to pay maintenance being higher than the desire to vacation in Hawaii.

There is a quote bandied about in discussions of child contact and child maintenance that says ‘children aren’t pay per view’, as though children were nothing more than a possession to be passed about. As with Women’s Aid campaign, Child First: Safe Contact Saves Lives, we need to stop talking about children as possessions and start talking about children’s rights.[7] Children have the right to live free from violence. Children also have the right to live outwith poverty.

The erasure of men’s financial responsibility for their children, supported by government policy, is an absolute disgrace. It is, simply, state sanctioned child abuse.

 

Gingerbread’s Missing Maintenance Report

Child First: Safe Contact Saves Lives Petition

 

 

Frank Maloney is not a ‘butterfly’. He is a violent man.

Frank Maloney has a history of domestic violence. Quite a few people seem keen to forget this fact in their rush to deify him since transitioning. Today’s erasure of male violence comes from Polly Toynbee in her article ‘Here’s why feminism must embrace transpeople’:

there was also the jolt of a macho boxing promoter emerging like a butterfly as Kellie Maloney.

Granted, anyone who refers to political disagreements between women as ‘catfights’ isn’t exactly practising feminism, but completely erasing Maloney’s history of violence is inherently anti-woman. Transitioning does not magically make one a better person. And, it helps no one to pretend it does.

 

David Bowie was a musical genius. He was also involved in child sexual exploitation.

In the 1970s, David Bowie, along with Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger and others, were part of the ‘Baby Groupies’ scene in LA. The ‘Baby Groupies’ were 13 to 15 year old girls who were raped by male rock stars. The names of these girls are easily searchable online but I will not share them here as all victims of rape deserve anonymity.

The ‘Baby Groupie‘ scene was about young girls being prepared for sexual exploitation (commonly refereed to as grooming) and then sexually assaulted and raped. Even articles which make it clear that the music industry ” ignor(ed), and worse enabl(ed), a culture that still allows powerful men to target young girls” celebrate that culture and minimise the choices of adult men to rape children and those who chose to look away. This is what male entitlement to sexual access to the bodies of female children and adults looks like. It is rape culture.

David Bowie is listed publicly as the man that one teenage girl ‘lost her virginity’ too.*

We need to be absolutely clear about this, adult men do not ‘have sex’ with 13 to 15 year old girls. It is rape. Children cannot consent to sex with adult men – even famous rock stars. Suggesting this is due to the ‘context’ of 70s LA culture is to wilfully ignore the history of children being sexually exploited by powerful men. The only difference to the context here was that the men were musicians and not politicians, religious leaders, or fathers.

Unlike the other musicians listed above, there is only one allegation about David Bowie. But one allegation is enough. There is no sliding scale of what is acceptable for child sexual exploitation.

Those who surrounded these musicians are equally guilty of failing to protect children. Many others actively participated in the sexual exploitation of children. Others knew and did nothing. Naming musicians is a start, but we also need to fundamentally change the music industry since child sexual exploitation and rape did not end on January 1, 1980 – as the allegations against Micheal Jackson, R. Kelly and the conviction of Ian Watkins make clear.

David Bowie was an incredible musician who inspired generations. He also participated in a culture where children were sexually exploited and raped. This is as much a part of his legacy as his music.

 

*Her age is listed as somewhere between 13-15 depending on the sources.

Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women

Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality was first published in 1995 and grew out of her work and activism following the publication of Female Sexual Slavery in 1979. The first half of the book, which is just theory, is brilliant. The second half felt outdated as it is based almost entirely on the research undertaken for Female Sexual Slavery. I would argue that the situation is actually worse now than it was even 10 years ago, particularly in relation to rape as an accepted tactic of war. I’d be interested to read an epilogue to the book which examines the reality of women’s experiences of sexual exploitation now and whether Barry thinks it is worse for women or if its just that I’ve become more aware of sexual exploitation.

I cannot recommend this book enough though. Barry’s theory on the global exploitation of women is incredibly important. She destroys the idea that prostitution can be consented to within a capitalist-patriarchy. She clearly proves that the sexualisation of human bodies renders women passive objects and men active participants. Barry challenges the heteronormative construction of pornography and prostitution and the hegemonic nature of capitalism which is built on the bodies of women.

I am adding this book to my list of Top Ten Feminist Theory Texts (in no particular order):

1. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse

2. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. 

3. Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women

4. Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

5. Susan Maushart’s Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

6. Sheila Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny

7. Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue

8. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics

9. Melinda Tankard Reist’s Big Porn Inc

10. Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women

Realm of the Goddess by Sabina Khan

I first heard of the Realm of the Goddess in a blog with author Sabina Khan on Women Writers, Women Books. As the mother of two daughters, it was this that got my interest:

Disappointed at this obvious lack of diversity to choose from, I decided that I would write one myself. I feel strongly about the need to expose our youth to the magical and colorful traditions that make up our world. I also want my daughters to read about characters like themselves, so that they are not always reading about “others”. Or feeling that they are always the “others”.

My children and others of their generation may or may not want to read about the immigrant experience. But they certainly want to see themselves reflected in the fiction of their time. They want to see characters like themselves battling evil, falling in love and fighting with their parents. They want to know that others like them are dealing with conflicts as diverse as arranged marriage, education, religion and all of the issues that plague young people, regardless of their ethnicity.

As a lover of the genre of fantasy in young adult fiction, I wanted to read a book that was outside the vampire/werewolf/witch theme. I was going to put the book on my Amazon wishlist (600 books long and growing), but it was free on kindle so I downloaded it. And, then couldn’t put it down. It is very difficult to build lego for your kid whilst trying to read a book at the same time and not to  be recommended.

Realm of the Goddess does follow the pattern of vampire/ werewolf / witch books but with Hindu mythology. That alone makes it stand out from the crowd, but it is the richness of detail of Hindu mythology that makes this book so fabulous. The inclusion of the mythology is not forced or that dreadful Wikipedia-style history which made A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book so unbearable. As a history nerd, I do love historical youth fiction and ones which are correct are hard to find. Granted I knew only the basics of Hindu mythology, but reading this made me want to read more (all recommendations of books written by women gratefully received!).

The main character Callie was fabulously written with depth and intelligence. She also ate actual food with gusto – all kinds of food from the traditional dishes of her family to cheeseburgers and pizza. Her hair was never perfect standing straight up on end when she awoke to the frizz of humidity. Callie reminded me of the character of Claire Danvers in the Morganville Vampire books: intelligent, strong, loyal, and kind. The female characters in young adult fiction are frequently unbearable with their desperation to be with a man. Callie does have a love interest (and they do kiss) but the discussions of the relationship focus on what Callie believes is best for her. Realm of the Goddess joins the Morganville Vampires in being as close to feminist-friendly as can be written. This is why it will never get the publicity of Twilight, which reinforced the norms of our patriarchal culture. Callie not only challenges these norms, but also talks about the reality of male violence and rape. In fact, rape and other forms of male violence are integral to the plot and are clearly labelled as the sole impediment to women’s liberation and power.

This is the hallmark of a great book for me, strong female characters who are real. I want to read more by Khan as well as more books written about Hindu mythology.  I want to see Khan publish a fact book on Hindu mythology like Rick Riordan did for Greek mythology with his Percy Jackson books.

I’m also restraining myself from emailing daily to ask when she’s going to publish the second book.

“Deeply Romantic” : Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife

I received a free copy of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife via the Mumsnet Book of the Month Book Club. I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve received free copies of with the notable exception of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cakewhich bored me senseless and I gave it up after 50 pages. The Paris Wife, though, made me rage incandescently.

It started with the comment on the front from Sarah Blake who wrote The Postmistress : “As much about life and how we try to catch it as it is about love even as it vanishes …”. My first instinct was to bang my head off my desk. This is a book about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage; the Ernest Hemingway who isn’t precisely renown for his respect for women. I’ve not read Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress so I don’t know if this book represents her understanding of love but it sure as hell doesn’t meet mine.

The back cover is worse. It bears the quote “Deeply Romantic” from the Times Literary Supplement which is a publication I generally avoid because of, well, Rupert Murdoch. The less said about that man, the better. But, back to the point: “Deeply Romantic.” This is the story of an psychologically abusive man who belittles and isolates his wife Hadley at every opportunity whilst they live in Paris and then, in a grand gesture of romance, tries to get her to live in menage-a-trois with his mistress; one of Hadley’s only “friends.”

There is nothing ‘romantic’ about this relationship. Hadley is a lonely and isolated young woman who enters into a relationship with the first man she really manages to meet whilst living in a fairly suffocating family situation with a dying mother. Hadley may be several years older than Ernest but this isn’t a relationship of equals. She gives up everything for him and he tries to destroy her.Ernest used Hadley because he could but he had an escape route and she didn’t. This isn’t romance. It’s psychological abuse and it is utterly misogynistic to pretend otherwise. Ernest had sex with another woman in the same bed as Hadley. It doesn’t matter that this other woman becomes his second wife Pauline or that she instigated the encounter. The point is this is a self-destructive man destroying the women around him and burning through friendship after friendship with his narcissism. This isn’t romantic behaviour. It’s soul-destroying.

Whilst this is a fictional account and we can not know what happened during Hadley and Ernest’s marriage for certain, it is utterly irresponsible to peddle this kind of victim-blaming misogyny as “romance.” If this were advertised simply as a fictional/biographical account of their marriage, then it would be an incredible book because it is beautifully written and McLain has some lovely descriptions of the loneliness within marriage and the feelings of isolation from everything but it’s peddled as a “romance”. That is dangerous because it reinforces a cultural trope about “artistic” men which blames their victims for not being “understanding.” Roman Polanski has benefited quite well from this trope which has allowed him to take no responsibility for his very serious crime of child rape. And, get a standing ovation for his Oscar which was, frankly, one of the most appalling scenes of mass victim-blaming ever.

If Hadley were my friend, I would be phoning Women’s Aid on her behalf. The trope of abuse as romance is destructive and violent. It starts when we tell little girls that the boy in their class who pulls their hair and calls them smelly “loves” them. We teach our daughters that men don’t know how to communicate love effectively so have to resort to crass bullying and violence. Good men don’t need to have their egos stroked daily nor do they get upset if you have friends. Good men don’t treat their wives as appendages to be discarded when they get “old” or have the temerity to give birth and change the shape of their body.

Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy this book. It is beautifully written and McLean’s descriptions of their marriage are equally sad and moving but this isn’t romance. It isn’t love. It also isn’t actually about Hadley; mostly Hadley serves as a tool for defining Ernest. Depressingly, the book is really all about him. Hadley is just there, in the background, serving no purpose except as “sweet little wife” to big, important author. It would have been more interesting if it had been about Hadley. We spend far too much time celebrating “Great Men” and not enough time simply acknowledging women. The thing which would improve this book is to have advertised it as ” The Real Woman’s Guide to Spotting an Emotionally Abusive Fuckwit,” then Hadley wouldn’t be insignificant in her own story.

As long as we keep peddling these relationships as “romantic,” we will continue to institutionalise Intimate Partner Violence as normal. The Paris Wife might be representative of Hadley and Ernest’s marriage but it most certainly should NOT be representative of marriage.

I call this The Norman Mailer Rule. If you meet a man who says Mailer is romantic, don’t date them. Life is too short and love too precious to waste on these relationships.

These are the signs of Intimate Partner Violence as outlined by Women’s Aid:• Destructive criticism and verbal abuse: shouting/mocking/accusing/name calling/verbally threatening

• Pressure tactics: sulking, threatening to withhold money, disconnect the telephone, take the car away, commit suicide, take the children away, report you to welfare agencies unless you comply with his demands regarding bringing up the children, lying to your friends and family about you, telling you that you have no choice in any decisions.

• Disrespect: persistently putting you down in front of other people, not listening or responding when you talk, interrupting your telephone calls, taking money from your purse without asking, refusing to help with childcare or housework.

• Breaking trust: lying to you, withholding information from you, being jealous, having other relationships, breaking promises and shared agreements.

• Isolation: monitoring or blocking your telephone calls, telling you where you can and cannot go, preventing you from seeing friends and relatives.

• Harassment: following you, checking up on you, opening your mail, repeatedly checking to see who has telephoned you, embarrassing you in public.

• Threats: making angry gestures, using physical size to intimidate, shouting you down, destroying your possessions, breaking things, punching walls, wielding a knife or a gun, threatening to kill or harm you and the children.

• Sexual violence: using force, threats or intimidation to make you perform sexual acts, having sex with you when you don’t want to have sex, any degrading treatment based on your sexual orientation.

• Physical violence: punching, slapping, hitting, biting, pinching, kicking, pulling hair out, pushing, shoving, burning, strangling.

• Denial: saying the abuse doesn’t happen, saying you caused the abusive behaviour, being publicly gentle and patient, crying and begging for forgiveness, saying it will never happen again.

Denise Thompson’s Radical Feminism Today

I loved this book. I was quite relieved though when I discovered that the title wasn’t the one Denise Thompson intended though. The book was based on Thompson’s PhD entitled: Against the Dismantling of Feminism: A Study in the Politics of Meaning which is a much better title considering the book is about defining feminism and not about the state of radical feminism today (or as it was in 2001). Why the publisher thought the title Radical Feminism Today was an appropriate title for a book on defining feminism is, frankly, boggling.

Thompson is a radical feminist and her definition of feminism is about male domination. In this she critiques a wide variety of feminist  and non-feminist writing which use terms like patriarchy, gender and sex without referencing biology or the reality of male domination and male supremacy. A feminism which does not recognise this reality is not, in fact, feminism.

Thompson deals with the issues of gender, race and class by insisting on the primacy of male domination and supremacy: women all suffer from the effects of the Patriarchy which is historically and culturally contextually whilst acknowledging the importance of multiple oppressions in how women experience Patriarchy. A major theme throughout the text is that we simply are not working with defined terms; instead we allow them meanings which do not have biological realities (gender). In order to do feminism, we must define what it is we mean by feminism and cannot simply be by women for women otherwise it is reduced to the idea that everything a woman does is feminist because a woman does it. Feminism has to recognise male supremacy and domination or it is simply irrelevant.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

The sense in which feminist theory is universal does not entail that feminism is as a matter of fact all-inclusive, either of women or the human race, but that it is open and non-exclusionary. Feminism has universal relevance because it addresses itself to the human condition.

Radical feminism, in theory, has always been all-inclusive. It has been the individual failings of women to understand the multiple oppressions of other women which have resulted in the continuing marginalisation of women of colour. It is not the theory which is problematic but how we use it.

There are parts where I disagree. I do think she is unnecessarily defensive of criticisms of white feminism, particularly in relation to Audre Lorde’s letter to Mary Daly. Both examples given by Thompson as a reason to object to Daly’s racism are incredibly important and I did not realise just how badly Daly had missed the issue of racism in her own writing. I find Daly’s text more problematic having read Thompson’s book, yet, I find Thompson’s criticisms of Lorde odd. Lorde published an open letter to Daly having waited 4 months for a response to private communication. It was also an open letter, not a peer-reviewed article with footnotes. Lorde didn’t give a detailed breakdown of the racist undertones of Daly’s work because she wasn’t writing a book review for a major academic journal. Criticising Lorde for not writing a peer reviewed article with footnotes seems a bit, well, petty.

It’s a great book on how feminism is undermined and erased through the use of sloppy language and ill-defined terms. I highly recommend it!

I’ve storified a selection of quotes from the text here which are definitely worth reading.

Abortion on demand is a mandatory requirement for women’s liberation

Whilst abortion is legal in the UK, it is not available on demand.* Abortion can only be carried out in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy if two doctors agree that “abortion would cause less damage to a woman’s physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy”. That’s only if you’re lucky enough to live on the mainland. Abortion isn’t available in Northern Ireland. There are some obvious exceptions to the 24 week rule involving saving the life of the mother or preventing grave or serious injury to her; as well as the more difficult issue of aborting a fetus due to disability.**

I find any limits on abortion problematic. I think all women should have access to abortion when they want it without having to faff about finding two doctors who agree to the procedure. Having to find two doctors just extends the unwanted pregnancy unnecessarily causing added stress. The right to decide what does and does not happen to one’s own body is a fundamental issue of self-determination. I believe that women have the right to abortion at any point in their pregnancy; after all 91% of abortions in 2011 were before 13 weeks. There are very, very few abortions after the 24 week point and, no, the Sarah Catt case isn’t representative of anything. She was denied an abortion and therefore chose to self-abort. Catt was also not convicted under the abortion laws; instead she was found guilty of an archaic law from the mid 19th century. Women are perfectly capable of deciding if and when they need an abortion without having to discuss it with two doctors; doctors who may or may not be anti-choicers.

The language around accessing abortion itself infantilises women. We can only have an abortion if someone else tells us we can. Not because we want one. Not because we need one. But, because someone else deems it medically necessary. Abortion should be available to women at any point in the pregnancy because the woman deems it necessary and not because someone else gave her permission to do so. I also dislike the rhetoric around “good” abortions for victims of rape versus “bad” abortions for women who have had the temerity to have consensual sex without wanting to get pregnant. Any attempts to create a hierarchy of acceptable reasons for women to have abortions just limits women’s choices. It is the heart of woman-hating. This is without getting into the fact that many women have to access abortions for financial reasons. It’s hardly a choice if you are having an abortion because you can not afford to feed a child. That is why we have a welfare state [or did before the ConDems destroyed it]. Limiting access to abortion gives others rights over women’s bodies. It serves only as a punishment for the crime of being born with a vagina.