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Pro-choice abortion metaphors like Jameela Jamil’s can do more harm for the cause than you realise

To truly serve people, discussions on reproductive rights need to be understandable, to the point and less focused on sassy ‘landlord’ comparisons 

Bethany Dawson
Sunday 15 December 2019 13:40 GMT
The English-born star of ‘The Good Place’ received criticism after posting a landlord metaphor for reproductive rights on Instagram
The English-born star of ‘The Good Place’ received criticism after posting a landlord metaphor for reproductive rights on Instagram (Getty/IMDb)

Jameela Jamil, famed body-positive feminist activist, recently made a statement in support of pro-choice ethics: “The choice is the Landlord’s, not the tenants, nor the neighbours. Your uterus, your choice,” read the text on Instagram. Her point being that, regardless of the opinions of others, one should have full bodily autonomy, including the right to the choice of how to deal with pregnancy, should the situation arise.

While the pro-choice sentiment is unequivocally necessary, what Jamil failed to do was to deliver the message correctly.

Her rent-themed metaphor touched a nerve in the time of a housing crisis wherein landlords can – and often do – issue no-fault evictions, where homeless deaths have risen by 22 per cent, and where “sex-for-rent” deals continue to exist. Though well intentioned, Jamil’s comment is cause for concern in itself.

The comment is part of a wider issue of the use of metaphors within the discussion of abortion within the field of medical ethics. Yes, they can cause people to relate or sympathise with the topic more, especially if a person does not feel as though the topic affects them in any way. However, the use of metaphors often command a significant amount of intellectual and academic engagement and thus are not consistently accessible to a diverse population in need of pro-choice structures.

Metaphors have been used to further the pro-choice cause for decades, with one of the most prominent and well-used examples being Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist analogy from her 1971 paper “A Defence of Abortion”. The analogy acts as a thought experiment, wherein one has to imagine waking up one morning medically attached to a violinist. The rude awakening comes with two options; either disconnect oneself from the violinist – causing their existence to cease – or stay attached for nine months, ergo altering every inch of your life in order to accommodate the needs of the virtuoso. Thompson posits that, because the entanglement with the violinist occurred without your consent, without adjustments being made in order to manage sustaining another organism for nine months, it is, of course, reasonable to decide to snip the cord between you and the violinist.

It is safe to suggest that Jamil’s own metaphor – thrown together for the purpose of an Instagram story – is less complicated and abstract than Thompson’s. Both examples, and other uncountable examples of additional pro-choice metaphors, simultaneously overcomplicate the issue, and are highly reductionist.

On the one hand, the intricate analogies can act as roadblocks to fully understanding the situation. They can stop people with no prior knowledge of the discourse that surrounds abortions from learning the core facts, figures, and data proving as to why they are so necessary to so many people. Additionally, the use of metaphors that are unrelated to the topic of abortion – like Jamil’s landlord example – or ones that are overly complex and longwinded – like Thompson’s violinist analogy – take the focus away from the experiences of the people who are in dire need of free, accessible, abortions with no stigma.

The stories of people who are victims of assault, of trauma, from homes wherein a new life could not be supported, are not sassy landlords or confused violin watchers. To truly serve the needs of these people and to bring services forward to help them, the discussions on abortion need to be understandable, clear, and to the point: people deserve bodily autonomy.

With complex metaphors clearly being at the forefront of discourse on why pro-choice politics are necessary, we should look at what can be done to open up the discussion. At the highest level, there needs to be a political force against the criminalisation of abortions. While abortions are legally carried out in the UK – with over 200,000 legal terminations in England and Wales in 2018 – they are still technically considered a criminal offence under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act.

W​​ith the results of the general election still spinning through the public’s minds, it’s worth noting that the Conservative Party manifesto did not discuss any form of amendment to the act – nor did it touch on any part of the subject of reproductive rights. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats stated within their manifestos that they would decriminalise abortion, if they were elected.

In short, the discourse on abortion has been far flung from the clear messages that are necessary to further the cause. The pro-choice movement – which simply wants the resources available for people to have full bodily autonomy – is not assisted by complicated and often intellectually elitist metaphors.

In your own discussions on abortion, it is not necessary to completely ignore the use of metaphors. As aforementioned, they can cause people to sympathise with the cause. However, ensure that your discussions are accessible, are clear, and consider the wide range of people who do need abortions, and create a dialogue that is inclusive of these people.

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