Recently in The Feminist Wire, there was an opinion piece entitled, “A Woman’s Right to Choose: It’s Not Just about Abortion” by guest contributor Asha Goldweber. In the piece, Ms. Goldweber tells the story of her encounters with doctors who insisted on repeatedly performing the same painful tests even though they never found any evidence of serious illness.
Those of us who have had problematic experiences in medical contexts–experiences that discounted our own expertise about our own bodies while ignoring our suffering in favor of a textbook diagnosis unattached to our individuality or cultural contexts–feel her pain as she describes crying with her legs in stirrups. And while I affirm her broadening the conversation beyond abortion and agree with her explicit argument–that women’s health encounters are often plagued by a lack of cultural competence and compassion–I contend that, though framed in “choice” language her argument is more one for support of the reproductive justice framework than it is an illumination of more need for “choice.”
Yes, the author is arguing for her right to choose not to endure a procedure that experience has taught her will be very painful and will likely yield no results, but the work that needs to be done to achieve her right to “choose” is the work of culture shift around doctor/patient relations particularly regarding women of color. When the unique concerns of each woman are only described through choice language, there is a danger of reducing her situation to a matter of an individual doctor’s arrogance. But in order to see Ms. Goldweber’s situation clearly, one should use a more comprehensive lens–one that asks questions about other issues that may be impacting the doctor’s decisions both about how to treat her as a patient and about why they may or may not respect her own wishes.
While choice language affirms her right to make decisions about her treatment, an RJ lens would help us analyze the conditions that create barriers to her ability to choose. Gender, income/employment status, race, ability, locality, insurance status and yes, even a doctor’s faith tradition could lead to dangerous assumptions about a woman’s body and humanity or color the doctor/patient encounter in ways that encourage doctors to assume that it is acceptable or even necessary to exclude a woman’s own wishes from considerations of treatment.
SisterReach and other RJ organizations prioritize a woman’s lived experience and expertise and seek to remove all all barriers to her right to be self-determining and her ability to achieve optimal health for herself and for her family. This approach reminds us of the importance not just of choice in a medical encounter, but also the inherent value of attending to all of the intersections that might muddy the water and lead to the mishandling of patients.