On Reproductive Justice
Brit Bennett’s novel The Mothers (2016) begins with an abortion. For Nadia, a 17-year-old African American girl in Southern California, the difficulty lies not in having the procedure – ‘I didn’t want Nadia to be indecisive,’ Bennett said in an interview, ‘I really didn’t debate the “should she or shouldn’t she” question while I was writing. She just did’ – but in losing connections with her church. Some people in the community associate pregnancy termination with the history of the forced sterilisation of women of colour. But they overlook the history of enslaved Black women being forced to carry the children of enslavers who sexually assaulted them. Both are ways of dispossessing Black women of their bodily autonomy.
The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that threatens to overturn Roe v. Wade concerns the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, a 2018 Mississippi state law that bans abortions after the first fifteen weeks of pregnancy. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, then the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation – the last remaining abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi – will have to close its doors. Most of its patients are African American and working-class women.
More than twenty other states are also poised either to ban or to severely limit access to abortion. Oklahoma’s governor signed a law last week prohibiting abortions after six weeks. The highly restrictive Senate Bill 8 was passed in Texas last year. As Kali Holloway has pointed out, SB 8’s vigilantism – it promises $10,000 in ‘damages’ to private citizens who bring successful civil actions against anyone who ‘performs or induces an abortion’ or ‘aids and abets the performance or inducement’ – echoes 19th-century Fugitive Slave Acts.
According to the CDC, nearly 630,000 people in the US had an abortion in 2019. As Planned Parenthood puts it, one in four women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. Banning abortion doesn’t stop it. Reported cases in Texas may have decreased since SB 8 was passed, but that’s in part because people needing abortions have gone to other states to have them. Self-managed medication abortions, with people ordering pills online, have also increased since the passing of SB 8. Last month, a woman in Starr County was arrested and charged with murder after she miscarried in hospital, apparently telling staff that she had tried to induce an abortion.
African American women are almost five times as likely to have an abortion as white American women. They are also at greater risk of dying if they carry a birth to term, and have fewer resources to provide the care and support that they need. Loretta Ross and other Black women activists coined the term reproductive justice in 1994, arguing that reproductive rights are linked to broader issues of race, gender, class and freedom. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it,
their insights into the ways that poverty and other forms of oppression limited their life chances compelled them to demand reproductive justice – which also involved the right to raise children in healthy environments where their and their parents’ basic needs could be met.
Black feminists – past and present – have aimed to move beyond the platitudes of symbolic reform, advocating for comprehensive childcare and social services for all working-class people. While abortion policy splits along party lines, failures on reproductive justice are bipartisan. Ronald Reagan and the religious right may have vilified working-class Black single mothers as ‘welfare queens’, but it was Bill Clinton who removed America’s safety net.
As Alex DiBranco has written, ‘the anti-abortion movement in the United States has long been complicit with white supremacy.’ In Europe, too, anti-abortion groups evoke concerns about the ‘great replacement’ – the conspiracy theory that migrants from the Global South and people of colour will ‘replace’ white people.
Poland has imposed a near-total ban on abortion. In Germany, where I live, as in Britain, abortion is illegal but permitted under certain circumstances. Under Section 218 of the German Criminal Code, ‘whoever terminates a pregnancy incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or a fine’; exemptions are detailed in Section 218a. Section 219a forbids doctors from advertising, advising or informing patients about abortions. Pro-choice advocates call not only for the immediate abolition of articles 218 and 219a, but also for free contraception on demand. German anti-abortion laws are especially oppressive of working-class women or those who live in areas with fewer providers. Anti-abortion zealots do not confine themselves to their national borders: right-wing American organisations have spent millions on campaigning in Europe. Pro-choice activists, too, need to think about how to strategise and mobilise internationally against regressive laws restricting reproductive rights.
‘The value of a woman’s life,’ Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘would appear to be contingent on her being pregnant or newly delivered. Women who refuse to become mothers are not merely emotionally suspect, they are dangerous.’ So dangerous that a judge in Florida earlier this year saw fit to deny a pregnant teenager the right to an abortion in part because her grade point average was too low (a sign, supposedly, that she wasn’t mature enough to waive parental consent).
People are incensed by the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion and rapidly mobilising. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, there are limits to electoral politics:
Democrats hold Congress right now but – in part thanks to the undemocratic distribution of Senate seats granting extra power to smaller, conservative states, paired with the anti-majoritarian procedures of the filibuster – cannot pass federal legislation to ensure the right and access to abortion.
Once they have overturned Roe v. Wade, American conservatives will turn their sights on contraception, gay rights and equality in the workplace.
‘If abortion is always the end of a story,’ Fran Bigman wrote of Brit Bennett’s novel, ‘never the beginning, we are unable to see what abortion makes possible.’ The abortion story that conservatives want to tell, by contrast, is one full of shame, terror and regret. This is what they wanted. The cruelty is the point.