Abortion and Bad Critique
July 11, 2022
On May 17, 2022, I wrote an article for Sublation Magazine, “Abortion, Capitalism and Demographic Control.” In it, I argued that — while the abortion debate is often framed moralistically, pitting advocates of “choice” against advocates of “life” — this obscures its economic function. The extensive regulation of reproduction is no older than capitalism; its origins can be traced back to attempts to augment the birth rate in the wake of the Black Death, so as to diminish the value of labor power. Later, in the industrial era, reproductive control was subject to a de facto loosening. While laws remained in place in Western Europe, abortion became increasingly normalized due to the ability of machines to generate (relative) surplus value as well as the related entry of women en masse into the workforce. Finally, I conclude by offering a summary of the twentieth century, in which the inexorable decline of the birth rate was staved off through recourse to either pro-natality programs (in the USSR, after 1953) or mass immigration (the U.S., after 1965). I then put forth a somewhat “delicate” thesis: that the decision of the Republican majority of the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade may be related to the dramatic decline of immigration to the U.S. under Trump, as well as the ability of newly-minted cyber-surveillance techniques to ensure that anti-abortion laws are not transgressed.
As this summary suffices to demonstrate, “Abortion, Capitalism, and Demographic Control” does quite a bit. In the span of 4,500 words, it attempts to trace the history of abortion within capitalism, shifting quickly from the late Middle Ages to industrial Western Europe to the Cold War, as well as to shed light on causes of the overturning of Roe. Given this, there are certainly plenty of criticisms of it one could make. I do not think, for instance, that a survey of abortion which restricts itself to elaborating capitalist imperatives cannot fully elucidate the issue in question. To understand the role religion plays in these debates, for instance, one has to also look at the history of religion, a history that sometimes abets and sometimes jostles uneasily against the demands of capital. Nor do I think an article that dwells upon the changes to reproductive cultures in the most economically advanced regions of the world can really purport to be a work of global history. Indeed, the article I wrote only touches passingly on the status of reproductive control as a world-system: the way that, if the birth rate has fallen in the Global North, this is supplemented by flows of labor from regions of the Global South in which, due to desperate conditions, the birth rate remains strikingly high.
The article I wrote, then, is not perfect. But I am still a little surprised by the uncharitable interpretation of it embraced by Ethan Linehan in his response piece for Sublation Magazine, “Wrong Life and Abortion.” While Linehan’s rejoinder is a bit scattershot, his critique of what I wrote can be boiled down to two essential points. First, that it is oversimplistic to see the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as a consequence as an attempt to raise the birth rate, so as to counteract reduced immigration. And second, that my call for policy changes to facilitate access to abortion as well as to reduce the cost of having children is tantamount to an unprincipled endorsement of the management of society by the “capitalist state.”
The Anti-Materialist Ideology of Judicial Independence
Linehan’s first point—about the complexity of the motives underlying the SCOTUS decision—is not wrong. Yet it also represents a questionable reading of my article. Though Linehan omits these passages from his précis of my position, I do not claim that one can draw a direct causal line between the decline of immigration in the U.S. under Trump and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Clearly, a number of contingencies are involved — the use of abortion as a means of galvanizing voters by the Republicans from the 1980s onward, as civil rights became de rigueur; the lowering of the threshold for Supreme Court confirmation in 2017 to a simple majority, so that more divisive judges could be appointed; the climate of relatively unvarnished reaction ushered in by the Trump presidency, etc., etc.