While the idea of autonomy has increased in importance in many areas of law, it has been subject to critique by many feminist theorists. Some have concluded that its meaning is, at worst, incomprehensible or, at best, of little value or use to feminism. At the same time, however, most agree that some idea of choice and freedom, autonomy if you like, is needed if women are to have any control over our own lives.
The idea of autonomy is most commonly associated with Immanuel Kant. In Kantian autonomy, a person is capable of rational choice through exercising his or her own moral judgments governed by moral law. Many feminists have been critical of such a conception, as it is said to privilege male norms: rationality and reason being historically and conceptually associated with male ways of knowing and being and defined by the exclusion of the feminine.
Other versions of autonomy see it as a way of being that is somehow independent of the context in which the individuals who exercise it are living. Accordingly, it has been presented as a quality of an independent, isolated, ‘atomistic’, ‘unencumbered’ individual. Marxist and communitarian theorists have criticised this view and feminist critics have also done so. Some have observed, for example, that this ‘atomistic’ view of persons necessarily excludes women who are pregnant: the foetus is connected to them. Also, if women as mothers have responsibilities as the carers of dependent children, particularly if they are the sole carer, it is difficult to see how we can be described as autonomous in this sense: surely we will be constrained by dependants’ reliance on us.
These observations mean either that pregnant women and mothers simply cannot be autonomous beings, or that the concept of autonomy must be revised to account for them. Indeed, more sophisticated versions of autonomy demonstrate that ‘atomism’ is unnecessary. In these versions, feminists have sought to reconceive autonomy, aiming to retain the indispensable notion to feminism that women should be free to make our own choices, while acknowledging the socially constructed quality of the choices people make. In particular, certain feminists have been keen to stress the importance of relationships and interdependence in developing the capacity for autonomy, and have questioned what it is that enables people to be autonomous, in the sense of being free to make our own choices in life. They answer that autonomy is not concerned with isolation but depends upon the existence of relationships that provide support and guidance: relatedness is not the antithesis of autonomy but its precondition.
So, autonomy is all about the ability to make choices and those choices are all about an individual’s connectedness with, rather than its isolation from, other autonomous beings. Autonomy can thus be conceived of as a quality that develops and exists because of the interdependency of persons and encouragement of supportive others. As such, pregnancy and child rearing are not in conflict with the autonomy of any particular woman involved in such situations. Decisions to become pregnant, remain pregnant, become a mother on birth or not must all be viewed as exercises of choice by the particular women involved in those decisions. A view that presents these as situations that happen to women without any decision on our part can be criticised for hindering women’s ability to live lives of our own choosing.
As much of the impetus for feminism and feminist politics arises from women claiming the space to choose who and what we are, to refuse to be defined, contained and dictated by notions of what society means by ‘woman’, some conception of capacity for choice needs to be retained. But how is this best done, particularly in the context of pregnancy and child care? Various feminist theorists have considered this issue. In the next three subsections, we investigate their work and interpret it in the context of women becoming mothers.