Wrong Life and Abortion

Ethan Linehan

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?