[CW: This essay contains discussions of sexual, reproductive, and state violence, as well as miscarriages]
The Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. In the leaked draft majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito declares, “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives.” But this is not about returning authority to regulate abortion to the people; it is only about giving more power and reproductive control to the nation-state.
Now that the Supreme Court is threatening to subject white people to the same reproductive injustices that BIPOC have endured for centuries, many have resorted to comparing the U.S. to The Handmaid’s Tale which seems to be the only frame of reference many have for understanding reproductive control and rights. The show and the original novel work by excavating the histories of sexual and reproductive violences against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and applying them to white women in a dystopian landscape, conceiving of the story as if it is merely a mere possibile future rather than a our true history. BIPOC in the U.S. have always lived in a dystopia.
White feminists love The Handmaid’s Tale as much as they fear it. But using Gilead to inform understandings of reproductive control is an incomplete framework because it does not include a racial or reproductive justice analysis—defined by the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” We not only deserve the right to make our own decisions concerning whether or not to have children, but we also deserve the ability to nurture any children we do have in safe communities, without the interference of the state, and without police killing, abusing, sexually assaulting, and terrorizing us.
The state has always exerted some power over how we live, die, and reproduce in order to serve its interests, but these violences only become visible to some when they are written onto cis white women.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought mass death, disabling, and grief. In the midst of immense loss, we have also watched as fascists have attempted to legislate transness out of existence and further institutionalize anti-Blackness through book bans and faux outrage against what they inaccurately call “critical race theory.” Simultaneously, some of the harshest abortion bans have taken hold in multiple states, all purportedly on the basis of the sanctity of life. This is not a coincidence. The conservative claim to be concerned with life is a transparent lie. What the state is more concerned with is necropolitics: social and political power over death, dictating who may live and who must die in service of the state. Addressing both reproductive rights and justice requires an understanding of governmentality and how capitalism, state violence, and reproductive control operate in tandem, as the most marginalized people are used as cannon fodder in the endeavor to create and maintain a white supremacist police state.
Despite pushes for more gender-inclusive language across the reproductive rights movement, the most popular and accepted argument within public discourse is that abortion bans are about “women’s bodies” and men’s desire to control them. International organizations like the United Nations still refer to anti-abortion regulations as issues pertaining to the reproductive autonomy of “women and girls.” We cannot allow that to be the totality of the response to attacks on reproductive rights, especially because non-white women have historically been excluded from the very definition of womanhood to uphold the myth of white superiority, and many of those ideologies remain.
It is true that most of the people voting to ban abortion are cis white men who have no understanding of how vaginas, uteruses, and the bodies they’re part of actually function. Cis white men dominate the U.S Senate, and the states passing the most restrictive abortion bans have the fewest women in positions of power. But cis white women have also been instrumental in challenging reproductive rights—from lobbying for one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans while leading an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group to sponsoring and signing into law a statute that would imprison those who seek out and perform abortions. These policies will disproportionately impact the lives of impoverished BIPOC, because abortion bans are inextricably linked with white supremacy and its violences. Responses to abortion bans absolutely must address race and class, and beyond. The fascist effort to take complete control of reproduction is a massive web that also helps to determine how we live and how we die. Bio-essentialism, transphobia, capitalism, the carceral system, rape culture, population control, and more all connect at various points within this web, as barriers to not just reproductive rights, but also reproductive justice.
Insisting that this is only about “women’s bodies” erases a whole host of other things that abortion rights are inherently about. We cannot reduce this conversation to a gendered one that reinforces rigid definitions of womanhood, erasing all others who need reproductive healthcare. Trans and non-binary people face discrimination and disproportionate barriers to reliable, safe treatment and necessary care, including care for their reproductive needs. It is a very real possibility that we will see a record number of anti-trans/non-binary bills passed in 2022, which will also impact intersex individuals. These bills will make it more difficult to access not only gender-affirming care, but also reproductive care.
Overall, members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to live in poverty than cis straight people, and queer and trans BIPOC are more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than our white counterparts. Many have to rely the same clinics that provide abortion for other health services as well, because they often offer them at lower cost. We have to state plainly that trans, non-binary, agender, and otherwise gender non-conforming people need abortion access and care. We must acknowledge how patriarchal systems, as much as they rely on outdated understandings of the cis gender binary, also touch the lives of those outside of it.
A record number of restrictive abortion laws were passed in 2021, with 16 states actively creating barriers. Eight of those states have made it nearly impossible to secure abortion care. Some bans include potential jail time for abortion seekers and providers. A Texas law allows private citizens to bring lawsuits against abortion providers or anyone suspected of helping someone access abortion care. Oklahoma law dictates that any person who performs an abortion after a “heartbeat” is detected will be charged with homicide. And these anti-abortion attitudes also help to fuel the criminalization of miscarriage, which disproportionately impacts Black people, who experience miscarriages and stillbirths at higher rates.
The nation-state is vying for even more social and political power, bringing reproduction even further under political intervention, and using the carceral system as its enforcer. The U.S. has spent decades using policy and propaganda to construct poverty as a personal, moral failure rather than an integral part of its capitalist system. Likewise, abortion has been framed as a moral issue relatively recently in modern history, with those who need abortions framed as immoral and irresponsible. Since many of the people who seek out abortions are poor—almost half of cis women who have abortions live below the federal poverty line—they are seen as being deserving of punishment for being both poor and licentious. This is the justification for forcing them to carry out unwanted births and also for imprisoning them for terminating pregnancies. Not only are those in prison disproportionately from lower socioeconomic classes, largely because poverty and homelessness are both criminalized, but prisons also keep people, families, and communities in poverty. Mass incarceration helps widen the wealth gap, making it impossible for many people to escape poverty, effectively immobilizing them.
Prison is also a barrier to voting. Most states prohibit anyone convicted of a felony from voting while in prison, or on probation or parole. Some states disenfranchise them permanently. Moreover, inmates with misdemeanors who are allowed to vote are counted as voters from the areas where they are imprisoned rather than the urban areas they tend to hail from, but “[c]ounting prisoners as residents of their hometowns would, for the most part, boost the legislative representation of Democratic-leaning urban areas with large minority populations while diminishing the power of Republican, mostly white rural areas.” Alabama and Georgia both came under tremendous scrutiny for their transparently racialized voter suppression tactics which primarily worked to shut down Black voters in 2018, the outcome of which helped make the abortion bans in these states possible.
Reproductive rights and justice are matters that cannot be divorced from the carceral system, voting rights, state violence, over-policing, and economic inequality. The criminalization of abortion aligns with capitalist interests and is one of many tactics meant to help expand the state’s control over the bodies of predominantly poor BIPOC, an extension of the long history of racialized reproductive violence, coercion, and abuse—whether people have been forcibly sterilized, forced to reproduce, effectively killed, left to suffer and die, or put to death.
Abortion is a means of freedom that a white supremacist, capitalist state cannot allow, because controlling reproduction is key to controlling so much more. Abortion bans are meant to keep poor people trapped in poverty for generations. More births means more workers, more productivity, more cogs in the capitalist machine. More people living in poverty means more people to fight wars, more people to help maintain colonial and imperial rule. But criminalizing abortion is first and foremost about obedience, about creating docile people and bodies, and enshrining the ability to control people’s bodies as property of the state. For the state to have total power, it must control the production of state subjects. It’s physiological and psychological warfare, intended to hit the already most marginalized the hardest. The wealthy will always have access to safe abortions, just like they will have access to clean water, and healthy food, and safe neighborhoods, and healthcare, and ways to lessen the blow of climate change on their lives. Abortion bans are about maintaining that kind of power.
We have to contend with white supremacy and capitalism as our antagonists in this fight, not just patriarchy, if we hope to properly address how various systems work together to suppress reproductive rights and prevent reproductive justice. That means beginning from a place that de-centers whiteness and narratives like The Handmaid’s Tale and a cisnormative, bio-essentialist understanding of pregnancy. It means working towards prison abolition, economic justice, reparations, and Black liberation. It means looking both to our history and the harsh realities of our present, following the wisdom of those who have been deeply invested in the fight for reproductive justice for many years, especially Black people who know all too well what it means to have our bodies subjected to the will of the state. It means moving beyond a rallying cry about “women’s bodies” and expanding our understanding of reproductive rights and justice to fight back against a state hellbent on making us docile.