What Choice Means to Childfree Women


Today marks the anniversary of the historic 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion—and yet, the future of that decision has never felt more uncertain.

Brett Kavanaugh, who in 2017 claimed “the government has permissible interests in favoring fetal life,” is now sitting on the Supreme Court, tilting the scales in favor of overturning the mandate. And legislation like Ohio Senate Bill 145, which in late 2018 made the most common abortion procedure illegal; and Indiana Senate Bill 203, which allows women to be prosecuted for the loss—through abortion or miscarriage—of a fetus at any stage of development; make the climate described in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale feel less like fiction.

We are a childfree filmmaker and a childfree writer who each have a personal stake in the right to choose—and we know that those who believe that women should be allowed to choose when, whether and how they become mothers need to share their stories and speak up, for both themselves and for those who don’t have the same opportunity to be heard, now more than ever. Countless women we have interviewed in the course of our work do just that, and stress that their lives would no longer feel like their own should their ability to decide when or whether to become mothers be taken from them.

a protest sign bears the image of a uterus raising a clenched fist.

(Marc Nozell / Creative Commons)

Women, children and communities thrive when parenthood is a choice that is made freely, and not forcibly. In the making of her film To Kid or Not To Kid, both mothers and non-mothers open up to Maxine about their reproductive journeys. Their stories make clear that access to abortion is a fundamental right needed for all women, mothers or not. Some of the women shared that they had abortions when they were not yet ready to become parents, but that they later became mothers when the timing was right; others knew that motherhood was never a role they wished to play, and valued their right to make that decision for themselves.

Retaining the right to abortion is essential, but it is just one part of the story when it comes to what’s needed for women to enjoy true reproductive freedom. To Kid or Not To Kid also explores the life of one millennial who is certain she doesn’t want children, and suffers serious side effects from various methods of birth control. She seeks a more permanent solution through tubal ligation, but is denied surgery time and again throughout the film.

In Amy’s interviews with childfree women for her book Childfree by Choice, she discovered that for many women, complete reproductive autonomy is more an ideal than reality. Some women have difficulty accessing any form of birth control; others describe doctors who refuse to provide access to permanent solutions like sterilization unless women have previously given birth. (The U.K.’s own National Health Service indicates that “you may be more likely to be accepted for the operation if you’re over 30 and have had children.”) This means that many childfree women who wish to remain so are out of luck, so far as the most effective birth control method is concerned.

“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said in her 1993 confirmation hearing. “It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.” Today, those words ring as true as ever.

Until women are trusted to know and make the choices that are right for them as individuals, women will never be completely free.

Maxine Trump has directed documentaries for TV networks from Discovery to Sundance, and is author of The Documentary Filmmaker’s Roadmap. Her film Musicwood was a New York Times Critics’ Pick; a free screening of her film To Kid or Not To Kid that is open to the public is scheduled for Friday, February 1 at the University of Maine.

Amy Blackstone is professor in Sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, where she studies the childfree choice, civic engagement and workplace harassment. She will serve on a panel discussion following the February screening of Maxine’s film. Her book Childfree by Choice comes out in June. 

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