Beggars and Choosers How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States

Rickie Solinger

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocates of legal abortion mostly used the term rights when describing their agenda. But after Roe v. Wade, their determination to develop a respectable, nonconfrontational movement encouraged many of them to use the word choice—an easier concept for people weary of various rights movements. At first the distinction in language didn't seem to make much difference—the law seemed to guarantee both. But in the years since, the change has become enormously important.

In Beggars and Choosers, Solinger shows how historical distinctions between women of color and white women, between poor and middle-class women, were used in new ways during the era of "choice." Politicians and policy makers began to exclude certain women from the class of "deserving mothers" by using the language of choice to create new public policies concerning everything from Medicaid funding for abortions to family tax credits, infertility treatments, international adoption, teen pregnancy, and welfare. Solinger argues that the class-and-race-inflected guarantee of "choice" is a shaky foundation on which to build our notions of reproductive freedom. Her impassioned argument is for reproductive rights as human rights—as a basis for full citizenship status for women.


Praise for Beggars and Choosers

"Solinger argues [in Beggars and Choosers] that framing issues like abortion as a matter of choice is a mistake—not because it affords women too much freedom, but because it does not guarantee them enough . . . [She] sheds light on several important disparities. For many poor women, she points out, access to abortions has been severely limited since 1976, when Congress first passed legislation barring Medicaid from paying for them . . . [She] concludes that motherhood itself has become a 'class privilege' in America, with poor women stigmatized as 'bad' choice-makers whose reproductive lives must be controlled. Solinger is on to something: if having an abortion is merely a matter of personal preference, the government is under no obligation to make it universally available (a policy that disproportionately impacts on the poor)."—Eyal Press, The New York Times Book Review

"Impassioned and important . . . A provocative and timely work of political relevance and impeccable scholarship."—Carole Jaffe, The Women's Review of Books

"With passion and verve, Rickie Solinger defends motherhood, no matter a woman's class, race, or marital status, against those who would limit feminism to the marketplace of choice. Her brilliant interweaving of the histories of adoption, abortion, and welfare since the 1960s is must reading for untangling today's politics of family, poverty, and women's rights."—Eileen Boris, University of California

"This thoroughly researched and searing indictment of the alarming treatment of poor single mothers is a must read for everyone who rightfully fears governments that decide who can and cannot mother."—Mimi Abramovitz, author of Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present

"A trenchant and persuasive critique of the rhetoric of choice in framing women's reproductive rights. Rickie Solinger reveals how the language of choice has turned motherhood into a class privilege and makes an eloquent case for framing the issue in terms of rights—entitlements that are due to all citizens irrespective of their resources."—Evelyn Nakano Glenn, editor of Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency

"Rickie Solinger continues to be a highly original and eloquent voice in the public debate on abortion, adoption, women, welfare and everything in between. Her social commentary on choice and consumerism is a direct hit, with significant implications for how we frame public policy addressing these issues. This is a book that will change the way you look at things you thought you understood—a real keeper."—Martha F. Davis, Legal Director, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, and author of Brutal Need: Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960-1973

"A brilliant and timely book on a near-timeless topic. Solinger cuts across the seemingly separate discussions of adoption, abortion and welfare to discuss the politics of motherhood itself. In this disturbing but essential book, she asks: In this increasingly harsh America, which women have the right to mother their children?"—Barbara Katz Rothman, author of Recreating Motherhood and The Book of Life

"In this thoroughly researched and richly detailed book, Rickie challenges conventional approaches that focus on the concept of choice, and convincingly argues that women can only achieve full citizenship when reproductive autonomy is defined as a right."—Jill Quadagno, author of The Color of Welfare

"This eloquent exposé of the politics of motherhood takes on feminists and liberals as well as conservatives; it is a courageous and important book."—Sonya Michel, author of Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights

"Once again, Rickie Solinger has applied her laser-like intelligence to understanding the dark undertow of the gains made in reproductive rights over the twentieth century, and how these are stratified by race, class, and privilege. This is a primer for anyone interested in how we might make it through the twenty-first."—Faye Ginsburg, author of Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community

"Solinger's analysis of the hidden aspects of reproductive policy as they are experienced in ordinary women's lives should make everyone take notice. She shows how abortion, adoption and welfare are inter-related systems that control women's childbearing and turn children into a consumer commodity. This is a very smart policy analysis."—Myra Marx Ferree, editor of Revisioning Gender

"You can always count on independent scholar Rickie Solinger to jolt privileged American feminists out of our complacency; her newest book is no exception. This time, she explodes the myth of reproductive freedom for all American women and points out the great irony that the much touted 'right to choose' becomes yet another example of race and class privilege in America."—Evelyn Hu-DeHart, author of Across the Pacific: Asian Americans and Globalization

"Solinger argues that feminists need to shift their strategy away from the concept of choice, which creates a marketplace notion of freedom, to rights, which are inalienable human entitlements. The emphasis on choice, she insists, was used by the federal government to absolve itself of responsibility to providing reproductive technology, access to abortion, or other important resources, especially to minorities and poor women."—Stacey Leaman, Conscience

"Beggars and Choosers is an incisive examination of gender, race, and class. It strikes at the core of one of the most pervasive and unquestioned beliefs in the United States today—the belief in the right to choose—in a forthright and compelling fashion. Solinger pushes us to rethink the politics of reproduction and to take a careful look at the privileges that many mothers take for granted."—Kamala Kempadoo, editor of Sun, Sex, and Gold

"This work considers the issues of abortion, adoption, and welfare since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Over the past 28 years, decisions on these issues have been increasingly framed not as rights but as choices, like consumer choices, which in theory can be limited. In addition, there has been consistent political pressure to shape and limit these choices. Solinger, the author of other works on reproductive politics (e.g., The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law), points out that abortion can be had by those who do not expect it to be covered like other medical procedures but have the resources to pay for it themselves. Mothers can stay home to raise children if they have the resources, and middle-class mothers are encouraged to adopt from the less-advantaged again, because they have the resources. Because contraceptives, abortion, and adoption are available, poorer women who become mothers are assumed to be poor choice makers. While there are many books on the concept of choice, particularly relating to abortion, the juxtaposition of choice and class when considering women's reproductive rights makes for insightful reading. Recommended for women's rights advocates and scholars and students of public policy."—Mary Jane Brustman, SUNY at Albany, Library Journal

"A distinctive look at the winners and losers in US abortion politics. Historian Solinger makes a dynamic argument that the concept of choice, as it was introduced into abortion-rights rhetoric shortly after Roe v. Wade
up0, has contributed to social stratification along economic and racial lines. By promoting abortion as a choice, rather than a right, advocates set the stage for the state to deny public funding to women, making abortion a choice only for those who can afford it. The impact of this language does not end with abortion, argues Solinger. The concept of choice fosters biases that have played into the national dialogue on abortion, adoption, and welfare over the past several decades. Choice imbues motherhood with consumer dynamics, where some people make what are perceived as bad choices and some good. Solinger stresses how the concept of choice produced 'scorn for poor, unwed mothers' in the 1970s, giving rise to the view of 'Welfare Queens' as 'illegitimate consumers.' 'Simple "choice" actually underlies the very popular (though much denied) idea that motherhood should be a class privilege in the United States,' she writes. Choice has shaped the nature of adoption, virtually punishing American and foreign women living in poverty, while creating a global baby supermarket for the more wealthy. This approach views the issue of choice through a broad lens, focusing on the social by-products of the abortion debate rather than the morals of reproductive rights. Solinger gives a strong sense of the environments—past and present—in which American women's 'choices' are made by blending personal and official testimony . . . A well-documented examination of the far-reaching effects of political rhetoric—and a strong reminder that choice and opportunity are not always bedfellows."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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Beggars and Choosers
1CHOICE IS A MOVING TARGETAlthough we strongly believe in the private and responsible nature of our own choices to have children, we simply do not see the choices of women in poverty in the same way.--Thomas Ross, Just Stories1 
January 22, 1973, was a remarkable day in United States history. That afternoon Lyndon Baines Johnson died. At nearly the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court announced one of its most ambitious decisions ever, Roe v. Wade. On the evening news, the former president's death eclipsed the announcement that abortion was now legal
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  • Rickie Solinger

  • Rickie Solinger, a historian and writer, is the author of three other books about reproductive rights: Wake Up Little Susie, Abortion Wars, and The Abortionist. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.