Wrong Life and Abortion
June 25, 2022
There is no abortion debate in America, at least none free of media distortion and connected to the real concerns of ordinary people. In his recent Sublation Magazine article “Abortion, Capitalism, and Demographic Control,” Conrad Hamilton helpfully clears much of the haze that obscures the stakes of the abortion controversy in America today. In it, Hamilton skewers the progressives’ histrionics and conservatives’ paternalism on the issue. But what Hamilton’s article suggests this means for the Left is less satisfactory, especially as it ignores the history of leftist perspectives that warrants recovery. Hopefully, the juxtaposition of that leftist history with Hamilton’s perspective can shed light on the present impasse. Clarity is as needful now as ever given the landmark decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Hamilton argues that abortion cannot be understood without reference to its function within capitalism, within present-day society. The practice of artificially ending pregnancy is as old as pregnancy itself, but it takes on a specific character in modernity. If capitalism is a crisis within the social relations of labor, then abortion must be taken as a phenomenon within said crisis of producing and reproducing that labor. Abortions (and immigration in its own way, as Hamilton’s article notes) are used as pressure valves to control the flow of the population into a national workforce, as labor power shifts through time between more or less necessary. But, too often, the abortion issue — and, indeed, women’s rights, reproductive rights, the nurturance/socialization of children, the family form, etc. — are detached from politics (and thus from the critique of capitalist politics) and approached as a merely moral issue.
However, if Hamilton is right that abortion as well as childbirth serve capital, it is insufficient to explain abortion, as he does, as an attempt by “the Republican-controlled SCOTUS to illegalize abortion so as to increase the birth rate.” One should not put the cart before the horse. Even if, within capitalism, abortion is, among other things, an economic issue, as it is in Hamilton’s article, to be a true “class” issue its socio-political dynamics need addressing.
Manipulating the People
The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn 1973’s Roe v. Wade, unlikely as it may have seemed to reverse a fifty-year precedent, was announced June 24th, 2022. To many in the weeks leading up to the SCOTUS decision, the leaked Alito memo seemed a “conversation switcher” from the issues of inflation, gun control, and Russia designed to hook fence-sitting voters as the midterms approach. Or the leak might have been a trial balloon to determine how public opinion would react. It was noted that an unmistakable majority opinion on the Supreme Court was lacking, which was borne out by the slim 5-to-4 majority in the decision. However, the reason abortion rights are in the news has less to do with their vulnerability, and more to do with political expediency.
The public debate around abortion rights in America is often bitter and hypocritical, driven by Democrats and Republicans bent on frightening their respective constituencies into continued support. With good reason, it is argued that the Democrats let this decision happen. Contra Hamilton’s point that Republicans wanted the terms of abortion to be revised, columnist Michael Kinsley once wrote that,
The last thing in the world that Republican strategists want is repeal of Roe. If abortion becomes a legislative issue again, all those pro-choice women and men who have been voting Republican because abortion rights were secure would have to reconsider, and many would bolt. Meanwhile, the reversal of Roe would energize the left the way Roe itself energized the right. Who needs that?
For fifty years, abortion has been used by both sides as a threat to garner votes. This will continue under the recently changed circumstances. Both sides will continue to want their voters to fear what the other would do. Both sides will continue to benefit from demagoguery around this issue, but the obvious political upside to the impasse continuing indefinitely has now changed. Up till now, at least, both sides had been in tacit agreement that nothing should fundamentally change. The failure to codify or proscribe the right to an abortion — whether through state laws, Constitutional amendment, or some other means — was not the result of political impotence; it was a choice, a veiled political strategy to maintain the status quo. When one party occupies the spotlight, the other rushed in to provide “resistance” as the “lesser evil,” whether it was for the “right to life” or to “fight the right.” But the Supreme Court is tasked with operating outside of this political dog-and-pony show. Thus the delicate balancing act agreed upon by both major parties has been overturned. Now the immediate question is whether this overturning of Roe will benefit the otherwise ailing Democrats, at least in the short run. Now the real blackmail is against the Left. If leftists do not support the Democratic Party, it will be said, that is because they are anti-women.
The policy of Roe v. Wade inaugurated at the dawn of neoliberalism was overturned as the neoliberal era was being ushered off the stage. In the face of this prospect, Hamilton’s article argues that this overturning “must be opposed.” But opposed by whom? How? And towards what ends?
Hamilton’s article gives its marching orders to “the socialist [L]eft,” as the subject to whom a task falls. But today, as he points out, “conspicuously absent since news of the draft opinion has been any attempt by socialist-leaning outlets to push beyond platitudes.” These platitudes map onto the terms dictated by the established capitalist parties: pro-life and pro-choice. But moralizing the issue mystifies it. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly. Morality is a question of “doing the right thing,” but capitalism means choice between bad options. Abortion is an index of our unfreedom, of our lack of choice. It springs in part from the biological role women play in the reproduction of the species, but also from our inability to freely determine the course of our own lives in the spheres of production, reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children.
Working-class women very often get abortions because they cannot afford raising kids they would otherwise prefer to have, but not every abortion reduces to economic insecurity. Many women refuse to wholly embrace “the joys of motherhood.” Many do not think that raising children is the only worthwhile vocation available to them, or available to them at a particular life stage, and they refuse to carry a pregnancy against their will. Women of all demographics often prefer the social independence that comes from career success or simple independence, and so they choose the workforce rather than motherhood (though, one should ask if this need always be an either/or). Others elect for abortion because they understandably do not wish to suffer the inherent dangers and transformations of pregnancy. While most abortions are performed for unmarried women under the age of twenty-five who decide they are unprepared for motherhood, there is also a sizable number of abortions for older, longtime mothers whose health is at risk or who simply do not desire to increase their family size. The freedom to not continue a pregnancy is also exercised by women seeking to escape unhealthy relationships, where otherwise a new child might keep the mother tied to the father.
But the reasons cited by women for the exercise of their autonomy are very often mystified or ignored entirely by politicians and the media. Instead, the “pro-choice” side is reduced to the moral rightness of abortion against the heteronomy of forced pregnancy. The politicians who pose as the leaders speaking “on behalf of all women” frequently make a virtue of necessity. Too often, the moral valuation is simply inverted from bad (pro-life) to good (pro-choice). But there once was a position that eschewed that dichotomy. Historically, socialists stood for decriminalizing abortion, but without morally trivializing it or apologizing for it. They declined to engage in philosophical and religious arguments over “when human life begins” or what the definition of “personhood” is. In other words, they rejected the terms in which capitalist politics are content to keep the issue suspended forever. Socialists took at their word women electing for abortions without using them as political capital. Capitalism makes abortion necessary but regrettable; socialists stood for working through that necessity politically.
As is the case with the capitalist political “pro-choice” position, the media and the politicians frequently reduce the “pro-life” position to its most utopian and paternalistic aspects. Charitably understood, the pro-life position is a one-sided valuing of all that life could be if simply given the chance. Pro-lifers oppose abortion for denying that chance. This concern for the loss of the potential for human flourishing expresses a dim recognition of the fact that our own lives are disposable and can be treated without dignity. So, the pro-lifer clings to the hope that lives yet to be born will not be treated the same way as lives already living. But the community leaders of this perspective hide behind the unborn as political shields to dictate pregnant women’s fates.
In America, it is a Democratic Party canard to charge the Republicans with only caring about the dignity of life until the life is born. From the moment they are born to the moment they die, so the story goes, all bets are off (Hamilton himself flirts with this, when he asks whose lives are the Republicans trying to protect?). But today no politics ensures that lives matter after they are born. If the ideal is to safeguard human flourishing from the moment of conception to the moment of death, then no practices on Earth would pass muster. Innumerable people could die in a ditch today only to have other people hurriedly step over their corpses: Our livelihood is not promised but our vulnerability is. Today there exists no international Left by which this unfree reality could be critiqued and overcome, but this was not always so.
Hamilton’s article recalls some of this history. Socialists historically supported reproductive freedom, which means freedom to reproduce as well as not to reproduce. They did not endorse abortion as a positive good but recognized its necessity within a world of constrained choices. From the socialist point of view, the pro-lifers too often denied this constraint, while the pro-choicers too often reified this constraint. On the one hand, those opposed to abortion (millions of women among them) too often are out of touch with the concerns of women facing unwanted pregnancies. On the other hand, against the intentions of well-meaning liberal women’s rights advocates, the function of abortion in society is too often that of an austerity measure because surplus life is unsupportable, and the repeated insistence on the right to abortions threatens to become an ahistorical attempt to justify a capitalist necessity. Especially over the past fifty years of neoliberal capitalism driving down the standard of living of the working class, reproduction, family life, perhaps even sexuality itself have become increasingly unaffordable luxuries for those who want them. This should not be accepted, let alone naturalized. With procreative liberty, those who do not want children should not be forced to bear them against their will; those who want children should not be forced to give them up due to desperation.
For working class women, children come into this world stamped with a price tag. Many economic demands were made by socialists of old to address this. But today with the drying up of prospects for even minimal reforms for increased sexual education, available contraception, and childcare, too many advocates for birth reduction revert to the neoliberal “blame the victim” ideology with the anti-natalist attack on children as things that oppress women, or even oppress the entire planet. It is not children that are oppressive, but the rotten social conditions which turn what could be a fulfilling experience into a burden.
One could be for abortion rights while also being for the right to societal aid in raising children. It is possible to think that abortion should be legal and accessible without thinking that it is morally neutral or “good.” You can disagree with the choice to do something while respecting the right to do it. A socialist politics would need to make the distinction between what is morally permissible and what is legally allowed. The goal would be a society in which abortion is rare, not because it is illegal, but because birth control is accessible, sex education is widespread, and raising children is not a matter of money. Pro-life Catholics, for example, support some variation of this. Pope John Paul II said in 1993 that those who do not provide for the opportunities to start a family are morally culpable in perpetuating the crisis of abortion, when he declared, “the family urgently needs to be helped and supported. Communities and States must guarantee all the support, including economic support, which families need [to] meet their problems in a truly human way.” In other words, not providing alternatives to abortion is what he called a “social” and “structural” problem. If expectant mothers feel as though abortion is their only affordable option, then the Pope said we should expect abortions to continue. Although the Pope is noticeably silent regarding women who simply decline to be pregnant for reasons other than finances (there still exists a stigma around such “alternative lifestyles”), a resurgent socialist politics would find plenty of pro-life people willing to fight in solidarity to build a social safety net.
But Hamilton’s article does not point the way towards this kind of support exactly. Rather, he speaks of “policies” and “measures” that one must assume are instituted by the capitalist state, based on the way he refers to “present-day paradises of women’s rights.” Hamilton echoes Karina Garcia’s recent request that, “the government put the massive amounts of resources” into social services, and that “the ruling class…spend trillions of dollars” on a new goal of “improving people’s lives.” It is hard to imagine any alternative to this in the bureaucratically administered world in which we live. The Left’s recent cheerleading for the international statist COVID regime attests to the lack of imagination pervasive among socialists for anything other than top-down policies in accordance with capitalist exigencies.
Historically, socialists did not ask for the coffers of the capitalist state to pour out public money to fund abortions or sex education (which would further divide the taxpayers over moral issues). Instead, the socialists did it themselves. They provided contraceptive aid and education to those seeking to prevent pregnancy, as well as aid for those facing pressures to end a pregnancy they would rather continue. One could imagine today that socialists would make common cause with pro-lifers to provide resources for those wishing to keep their child; they would reconstitute the eviscerated civil society networks and make a safety net that is not reliant on the capitalist state.
In this new alliance, it would not matter if anti-abortion activists were opposed to abortion morally if they respected the legal right to abortion. People can have qualms about abortion without thinking that the state has the right to criminalize it (e.g., the late ex-Marxist Christopher Hitchens). Furthermore, socialists used to organize independently, providing safe and affordable abortions whether or not the law allowed them to do so, and whether or not there was public funding for such things. This kind of civil disobedience was a means to the end of wresting control of society away from the ruling class. Hamilton and Garcia settle for asking the ruling class to run society better.
A New Problem
But there will still be those unsatisfied without the federal guarantee, who still, like Hamilton’s article represents, will be “insisting that the rights of women be juridically enshrined.” Hamilton’s article relies on the well-established fact that criminalizing an act does not stop the act, it only pushes it underground into less safe channels. Innumerable examples of prohibition attest to that. Nevertheless, since the federal right to abortion has been overturned and states are now at liberty to individually re-criminalized it, the socialists willing to rise to the occasion are tasked with making extralegal healthcare as safe and accessible as possible. Even while abortion was still legal in every state under Roe, abortions were not readily available on-demand. There were still major problems of accessibility because of the extremely high costs of healthcare. This will not change now Roe v. Wade is overturned. Some women seeking abortions will obtain them in other ways, including traveling to a state where abortion is legal or purchasing pills online from a foreign source. But this already happened, and data suggests the numbers will not vary greatly. The legal right safeguarded by Roe was to some degree already hollow without the ability to exercise it affordably.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade does raise the specter of constitutional law and the meaning of federalism. The ruling decided it is inappropriate for the federal government to guarantee a national right to abortion, save a new amendment. Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.” By American law, states determine their own stances on medical care (physician-assisted suicide, sex reassignment, organ sales, etc.) through their elected legislatures.
It is possible that returning the issue to the states makes the political situation less, not more, fractious. The states’ electorates will have more consensus on what their communities should allow. More importantly, it will also allow for a politicization (and thus potential clarification) of the issue, a politicization that would be staged in an estimated twenty-eight states that attempt to significantly restrict the right to an abortion. The situation could fundamentally change state politics that seem unchangeable presently. If, say, in Mississippi the right to an abortion were really up to the Mississippi assembly, then politics in Mississippi may change. The citizens have never genuinely debated the right to abortion in Mississippi. That right, being handled at the federal level, has never required that the people of Mississippi debate the issue. Only SCOTUS debated it, and Mississippians debated how to organize the results. But if the conversation shifted from protesters shutting down abortion clinics (because they viewed the clinics as forced upon them by a national majoritarian policy) to the state legislature demanding that young women travel out-of-state to get an abortion, then new possibilities to make the case for reproductive liberty would open which have not appeared in the present impasse. The present moment could be the push that resets in motion the momentum for meaningful legislative change that former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed Roe prematurely arrested.
Most importantly, if “the socialist [L]eft” that Hamilton calls for emerged as a genuine participant in these politics, it would completely alter the landscape. The positions and behavior of the capitalist parties would transform if a mass socialist party bent on organizing civil society for the seizure of power entered their orbit. The topical issues would not remain as insoluble and static as they do now.
Now that the (il)legality of abortion devolves to the state level, the Left is still tasked with addressing the issue politically and socially. It is in principle possible to organize and agitate for the decriminalization of abortion in all fifty states — if this possibility is denied, it is because the Left, i.e. the Democratic Party, is willing to write off half the country. Perhaps there just are states that do not want abortions taking place. Even so, the Left would still need to mobilize those citizens for socialism. In any case, from an international perspective it is unclear why the fight to decriminalize abortion in all fifty states should preclude struggling to decriminalize abortion for the working mothers in Latin America or Africa. That is, the socialist fight for women would be internationalist.
To the Bitter End
Exclusive preoccupation with the juridical right to abortion ignores the social condition for the exercise of that right. In another context, the Left would be caught arguing whether or not there should be a federally enforced speed limit, without ever questioning why people speed in the first place and without organizing to take power to overcome the need to speed. The agitation for the right to abortion is also a means to an end, not only an end in itself.
Women’s reproductive rights, just like racism, environmental degradation, and much else, is a perennial political hot potato. From an older socialist perspective (such as one seldom finds articulated today), these flashpoints were understood as cudgels used by the capitalist political machine to protect against the growth of socialism. In what could be an opportunity for socialists to educate and organize for an independent politics outside of the scaremongering by the capitalist political machine, the overturning of Roe v. Wade will likely mobilize socialists to keep Democrats in power federally and locally because of the ever-present threat of Republicans doing worse. But socialists should not allow themselves to be blackmailed and to lose sight of their world-historical task of world transformation. The Left has uncritically received its categories from the capitalist politicians and the media. Must we accept these terms and carve out the most favorable position within them? Must we concede as a given that only bad options exist forever and always? Is our current framework unchangeable, or are the terms up for negotiation?