Based on a meme I saw today, you probably don’t want actress Jameela Jamil as a landlord. The meme includes a picture of The Good Place star lounging backward in a white pant suit with the words. “The Choice is the Landlord’s, not the tenant’s, not the Neighbor’s. Your Uterus. Your Choice.” Jamil has been provocative on this issue lately with her Twitter feed. She seems to seek to be a glamorous social media voice for choice proudly and often obscenely declaring her passion for abortion rights and lack of patience with pro-lifers. She shared she had an abortion some seven years ago and, in response to criticism, she tweeted, “Receiving THOUSANDS of messages about how I made a mistake having an abortion 7 years ago and how I must be a miserable person… I am a happy, thriving multi-millionaire, madly in love, with free time, good sleep and wonderful career and life. But thanks for checking.” She added, “”No ifs. No buts. No guilt. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad for doing what is best for your physical/mental health or life.”
It is easy to see why abortion supporters would be excited about a woman like Jamil becoming yet another fashionable champion for their view. The problem is, no matter how breathlessly excited some may get over her boldness, the meme demonstrates her lack of understanding of both what abortion is and how rental agreements work. In short, it is weak rhetoric.
First, abortion is not merely the removal of a tenant from housing. Nor is it merely the forcible removal of a tenant from housing. Abortion is the intentional destruction of a completely innocent human life. Does Jamil imagine a landlord, tired of a particular tenant, could simply go to the house and dismember the renter? Of course not. In eviction, we require a living human being to find another place of residence. In abortion, we require another human being to die in order to satisfy our wish to be free from of them.
Second, landlords are not real lords completely unconcerned with the rights of their tenants. I checked on this. I called a friend who is a landlord and ran this by him. It turns out (now Jameela, you might want to sit down and listen here) landlords can’t simply run roughshod over the rights of their tenants. In fact, there are all sorts of contract laws that govern the mutual relationship entered into by landlords and tenants. The laws change from state to state, but the most progressive states are the most protective of the tenants. They make it very hard for a landlord to expel tenants even when the tenant isn’t paying their rent. Why? Because the tenant is considered the WEAKER party. The law limits the power of the landlord to arbitrarily cast out those tenants they deem undesirable on a whim. Man, Jamil picked a bad analogy.
The group New Wave Feminists pointed out in a social media response, abusive landlords who take advantage of weaker parties lacking legal protection from the government do exist. They draw a comparison to migrant populations abused by landlords looking to profit from the inability of those tenants to appeal to authorities for help. But no one sees these landlords as the good guys practicing their understandable autonomy over their housing spaces. They are the bad guys abusing their power over the powerless.
Third, neighbors absolutely have a role to play in protecting the people in their community from abuse. Appeals like Jamil’s to autonomy can’t be universally honored if another human is being unjustly destroyed. Pro-choice philosopher Kate Greasley wrote in her excellent book Arguments About Abortion that the question of the humanity of the fetus cannot be ignored. If they are one of us, then abortion is unavoidably homicide under the law. It isn’t suicide, accidental death, or natural death, so homicide is the only option left. Autonomy is admittedly important, but Greasley, a pro-choice lecturer of the law, argues it doesn’t reach the high bar set to justify homicide. Assume that just as the tenant in her analogy is one of us, the unborn fetus which parallels it is one of us. Let’s see if we can think of a few things that do not justify something as serious as destroying one of us: to be happy afterward, to be a multi-millionaire, to be madly in love, to have free time, to be well rested.
So, IF a landlord is abusing a neighbor’s rights THEN standing up for the rights of your neighbor seems the moral thing to do. Wouldn’t we all prefer neighbors that look after our well-being, or minimally our right to continue to live, rather than simply look the other way?
Jamil’s meme doesn’t address the central question in abortion. It doesn’t argue at all. The meme declares that having the uterus empowers the choice. This is an assertion wrapped in a terrible analogy. The only thing it demonstrates for certain is Jamil would be even worse at being a landlord than she is at justifying abortion rights through memes.
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