Beyond Reproductive Rights

Ben Ray Luján, U.S. Representative from New Mexico, has his work cut out for him. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Luján is responsible for coming up with a strategy that will enable the Democratic Party to take back control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans in 2018. On Monday, he announced one part of his plan: the DCCC would be willing to offer financial support to candidates who oppose abortion rights. In an interview with The Hill, he rationalized this stance by pointing to the electoral map. “There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” he stated. “As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.”

Like many lifelong Democratic voters, I found Luján’s position disappointing. But I did not find it surprising. After all, Rahm Emanuel, the former DCCC chairman, adopted the same approach in 2006. For decades, even Democrats who support abortion rights have framed those rights in terms that leave them highly vulnerable to political expediency, enabled by using the language of privacy and personal choice, along with the stigmatizing language of the tragic necessity. In this narrative, the refrain goes that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”

Since last November, mainstream Democrats have continued to pursue the “moderate” center of Midwestern retirees, suburban moms, and Sunshine Belt churchgoers. This worked in the 1990s, when they succeeded by appealing to their “Third Way” vision of America. But the 1990s were a long time ago — Bill Clinton’s 1992 election is closer in time to the Apollo moon landing than it is today — and in 2017, America is a polarized landscape where the constituencies courted by the Clintonians in the 1990s wound up propelling Trump into power. Today, the center no longer exists.

It is cowardly to abandon principles like abortion rights in the name of pragmatism. In the current environment, it also seems politically misguided. The Democratic Party is not going to win over Trump voters by abandoning women who have consistently supported it. To win, they need to offer redistribution and robust social programs that make the lives of all women better. These must include decent healthcare, which includes access to a form of care that one in three women will need at least once in her lifetime: abortion.

The Limitations of Rights

Since the 1970s, two terms have tended to dominate the conversation around contraception and abortion. The first is privacy, made famous by the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, that the right to an abortion was based on a fundamental right to privacy between a woman and her doctor. The other term is choice. Under the traditional framework, an individual must be free to make choices about her body because her body is private property that belongs to her. Many popular slogans emphasize this logic: My body my choice, take your laws off my body, and so on.

When we use these terms, we are talking about negative rights — that is, rights to remain free from something. When we talk about contraception and abortion in this country, we usually talk about freedom from unwanted pregnancy or childbearing. We rarely talk about the freedom to exercise fundamental human capacities — like the capacity for pleasure, or the capacity that some bodies have to 3D-print new people.

This is by design. Liberal feminists, trying to preserve the right to abortion when a series of state-level referenda challenged the Roe v. Wade ruling, came up with this language through focus-group testing. They hoped that they could convince conservatives to accept abortion if they framed it as a matter of not letting the government butt into family life. Historically, liberal feminists have also tended to emphasize the reproductive rights of one particular kind of person. The person who needs freedom from unwanted pregnancy they typically described as college-educated (or going to be), middle-class, and, probably, white.

To be clear, this framing isn’t wrong. College-educated white women do need contraception and abortion. But it’s limiting to talk this way. Why? For one thing, it does not very accurately describe the profile of women who get abortions in the United States, 75% of whom are poor or low income, and 60% of whom already have at least one child. When we close our eyes and picture the woman who needs an abortion, we shouldn’t only picture the Stanford student who needs to be able to start her job at Facebook next year. We have to think of the single mom working at Walmart who can’t afford another kid. Or the woman whose untreated diabetes is so bad that being pregnant could pose fatal health risks.

But the biggest political failing of the reproductive-rights framework that liberal feminists developed, the one based on privacy and choice, is that it hasn’t worked. As William Saletan showed in his study, Bearing Right, in state after state, anti-choice activists have successfully managed to work around the right to privacy. They’ve done it through parental notification laws. Through community-standards laws about clinic architecture. By imposing mandatory waiting periods and ultrasounds. And so we come to the crux of the matter: the liberal language of reproductive rights as rights only to be free from government interference has not sufficed to protect the interests and autonomy of women. Feminist legal scholars, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have argued that the decision to ground the right to an abortion in the right to privacy was a mistake: it should have been grounded in equality. Freedom from is a fragile kind of freedom.

Toward Reproductive Justice

A socialist approach to reproduction calls us to recognize that pregnancy and childbirth are not just private issues. Biological reproduction is a crucial part of social reproduction — of all the unpaid work that makes the world go on. Having children adds to GDP in concrete, measurable ways. So does raising them to be members of society who can go to school and hold down jobs. Hopefully we all know that love is love. Socialist feminism also says that labor, as we call childbirth, is labor.

As reproduction is a key part of the economy, reproductive choices also respond directly to economic conditions. Right now, birthrates across the United States are plummeting because an entire generation sees that we can’t afford to have kids. I recently heard a graduate student say that she would like to become a mother someday but did not think she would; she said that she felt “sterilized by student debt.”

If socialists recognize that reproduction is not just a private matter, we also recognize that a choice is not a choice unless there are at least two decent options. It’s really important to be able to choose not to have a kid if you don’t want to. But if you can’t possibly afford to have and raise one, that’s not a choice either. This is the fundamental insight of the movement for something beyond reproductive rights: reproductive justice.

This movement was begun by a collective of indigenous and African American women in the south called SisterSong. They wanted to push back against the classist and racist undertones of the mainstream reproductive-rights movement. There’s a long, troubling history of alliances between advocates of birth control and eugenicists; it that goes all the way back to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, who in 1921 wrote that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” It includes the clinical trials for the birth control pill, which scientists held in Puerto Rico in the 1950s because they knew that there was a possibility of dangerous side effects and they knew that they could conduct tests on Puerto Rican women, who had long suffered under laws that allowed doctors to sterilize them without their consent, without disclosing the risks. Activists in working class communities and communities of color remember this.

SisterSong argued that reproductive justice doesn’t just mean access to contraception and abortion. It has to mean access to common goods and social services. If you do want to 3D-bioprint a new human, and you want it to be healthy, you’re going to need nutritious food and clean water. You’re going to need prenatal care. A recent study showed that rates of maternal death — women dying in and around childbirth, usually from preventable complications — are three times higher in the U.S. than in Canada, and six times higher here than in Scandinavia: both countries with socialized medicine.

Of course, once a healthy new human gets bioprinted it needs more things. Things like child care and public schooling and healthcare of its very own. It needs the cops in its neighborhood not to kill it for playing in the street. SisterSong showed that the reproductive rights to access contraception and abortion are just two parts of a much broader program for social justice — for individuals to be able to choose to not have children, or to have them and to parent with dignity.

No Justice, No Compromises

We see that mainstream Democrats will not even defend the limited set of reproductive rights that the liberal framework exalts. Following in Nancy Pelosi’s footsteps by yielding on abortion, Ben Luján shows that the Democratic Party believes that these rights are not even rights. Yet whatever Luján says, whatever Pelosi says, abortion is not a niche “cultural” issue. One in three American women will have an abortion at some point in her life. Every single one of you has had an abortion or loves or knows or works with someone who has.

As socialists, we can appeal to diverse constituents and claim moral ground by acknowledging this fact and setting it in the broad frame of justice. Marx wrote that what makes us human is our labor — our ability to purposefully shape the world. And there is no more fundamental way that we shape the world than in performing our reproductive labor. Contraception and abortion are two of many preconditions that enable us to perform it freely and with dignity.

It will be a long fight, but it’s crucial to reframe the narrative and the language that we use. It has been a huge tactical victory for the right to be able to focus the conversations on reproduction on abstract ideas about the rights of fetuses — fetuses they don’t care about the instant they are born, or when they might need a tetanus shot or a school lunch. We can win by refocusing this conversation on what the issue is actually about — the fundamental human right to determine how we make and remake our world.

In the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America, we have begun to do this by roundly condemning any compromises on reproductive justice. Doing so is completely consistent with our goals for universal single-payer healthcare and other social programs, and it’s democratizing. When we take this strong, liberating stance, we see at once that reproduction is not just a women’s thing. It concerns trans men; it concerns anyone who has sex with anyone whose body could make a baby. But it’s bigger than even that. Really, it’s about everyone who was ever born.

Moira Weigel is a writer, academic, a cofounder of Logic magazine, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating comes out in paperback this month. This article is adapted from a talk she gave at the July 2017 SF DSA general meeting.