Katherine O’Donovan and Jill Marshall


Debating the nature of autonomy is central to feminist theory. Taking control of one’s own life is a foundation of feminism, and, strategically, autonomy is important to feminism as it allows for agency, change and self-determination. Feminism proposes ways of knowing and being in which a self is developed – a self that is not produced entirely by socialisation.

Yet contests over autonomy continue. On the one hand, social constructionism creates a deterministic account of preferences and a denial of agency. On the other hand, concepts of autonomy have been said to assume a freedom which does not exist for many women, or which may not exist at all, for anyone. Conceptions of autonomy may themselves be constructed, and also gendered. As Jennifer Nedelsky reflects, feminist theory has to hold on to autonomy, whilst arguing for a contextually situated self: ‘The problem, of course is how to combine the claim of the constitutiveness of social relations with the value of self-determination.’[342] Holding both views simultaneously is the strategy that has been advocated by recent theorists,[343] and reconceiving autonomy is often stated to be the goal of such discussions.

Feminist theory entered a pessimistic period in the recent past. The attack on essentialism in the 1990s created difficulties in speaking generally about women.[344] Individual biographies are unique, it was said. Yet, as women, we do have com­mon concerns, including our potential for childbearing and mothering during a stage of life, with their attendant social meanings in the societies in which we live. In response, some writers proposed a return to norms, particularly those in the form of rights.[345] But, as has been observed,[346] it is far from clear that this is the answer. As contests take place over, and between, rights, the problem of essentialism seems merely to be shifted to another scene.

Yet, for some second wave feminists, children are still central to arguments about autonomy. Debates over issues such as abortion, extra-uterine birth, work – life balance, bodily integrity, and making a life plan are, at their core, arguments about autonomy. This chapter explores themes of autonomy in the context of reproductive decisions but focuses upon choices to take up mothering after giving birth. Like Sarah Ruddick, we wish to separate birthing labour from mothering. Honouring ‘both kinds of work and at the same time’ providing ‘the conceptual

and emotional space to raise questions about the relations between them’, Ruddick argues that these labours do not necessarily have to be performed by the same mother.[347] Maternal work, undertaken in both forms of labour, might continue by the same woman after birthing, or might be transferred to others.

The recent case in the Court of Appeal of a woman who attempted to have her child adopted, having concealed her pregnancy from her husband and family, will be used as a reference point for discussions of separating ‘mothering’ activities from the legal and cultural structures surrounding giving birth.

Part One analyses the portrayal of women’s choices in relation to bearing and rearing children in feminist literature. Although the literature is vast, the distinctions between pregnancy, childbirth and rearing children are often blurred and rarely made explicit. Part Two examines the decision to become a mother, drawing on ideas about autonomy and choice and the structural conditions within which such decisions are made. The distinction between deciding to continue a pregnancy, but not to take up mothering after giving birth, is important to this part. In Part Three, the legal position of women who wish to give birth anonym­ously or to place their infant for adoption in secret is examined. The recent decisions of the Court of Appeal on adoption of a child where pregnancy was concealed,[348] and of the European Court of Human Rights on anonymous birthing,[349] are explored.