An Attack on Abortion is Never Just About Abortion
How have we come to lose one of the crowning achievements of the 1970s women's liberation movement? How can we make sure that reproductive care is accessible to anyone who needs it, legal or not? How can we win reproductive freedom and justice for all?
A collaboration between acclaimed socialist feminist magazine Lux and Verso, We Organize to Change Everything examines the fight for abortion from the 1970s to the present, bringing together the voices of clinic defenders, health care providers, and the networks of feminist activists helping pregnant people obtain care from Mississippi to Mexico. Contributors consider the intimate connection of abortion rights to forced sterilization and structural racism, incarceration and criminalization, Indigenous people’s sovereignty, transgender rights, and the growing threat of a white supremacist far right. Looking outside of the US to the Americas, the collection shows how US activists can draw inspiration, lessons, and strategy from the dynamic feminist movement across Central and South America.
Most importantly, this collection describes what a fighting movement for reproductive justice could look like—one that fights for the right to parent as we wish or not parent at all, and rejects the criminalization of anyone’s body.
With contributions from: Jenny Brown, Naomi Braine, Verónica Cruz Sanchez of Las Libres, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Derenda Hancock and Kim Gibson of We Engage, Amelia Bonow of Shout Your Abortion, Barbara Winslow, Marian Jones, Jen Deerinwater, Raquel Reichard, Amy Littlefield and ReproJobs, Erin Matson and Shireen Rose Shakouri from Reproaction, Cheryl Rivera, Victoria Law, Marie Solis, Dr. Mary K. Bowman, Movimento di Lotta Femminile di Padova, Lizzie Presser, Arielle Swernoff, Mattie Lubchansky. Jessie Kindig's introduction reproduced below.
“I have realized,” the revolutionary poet Diane di Prima wrote in 1971, “that the stakes are myself / I have no other.” All we have “to break or barter” is our own flesh. This is scraping things down to the bone: there is nothing more fundamental to politics than the body.
What we are watching in the United States, as this book quickly came together in the spring of 2022, is the victory of a decades-long campaign to turn the bodies of everyone who can become pregnant into weapons used against us.
It’s worth recounting the misogyny at work here, in all its cruel precision. For example, the passage of Oklahoma’s House Bill 4327, the most restrictive in the country, bans abortion from fertilization onward and allows private citizens to sue providers and anyone who “aids or abets” a person seeking abortion care. Abortion will be legal for survivors of rape and incest, but only if they file a proper police report first.
Jen Deerinwater, who is from the same Oklahoma town now represented by the bill’s author, Rep. Wendi Stearman, quotes in hir essay this reported exchange between Stearman and Rep. Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City) as the state legislature debated the bill:
“Are you aware that girls, ages 11, 12 and 13, have the ability to become pregnant?” Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, asked Stearman. “Are you aware that children 11, 12 and 13 have been raped and assaulted, usually by a close family member or somebody close to them? Are you not interested in saving that child’s life?”
“There is nothing in this bill about taking that child’s life,” Stearman replied.
“No, it is in the bill,” Munson said. “Because if a young girl is raped by her uncle, she’s likely not going to go report to law enforcement. … She’s not allowed seek an abortion under your bill, as I understand it. And you’re OK with that?”
“I am OK with that,” said Stearman.
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We made this book because we are furious with the state of things, and because we have long been furious with the state of things.
One of the sad ironies of this moment is that should Roe fall, many things won’t change. We live in a country where nearly 11 million women live more than an hour’s drive from an abortion clinic (likely more than that now, given Oklahoma’s recent ban, and Texas’s), where roughly 1200 women have been arrested since 2005 for having miscarriages or pregnancy-related problems, and where the eugenic practice of forcibly sterilizing non-white and criminalized women continued, in California’s prison system, until 2011.
The strategy the mainstream abortion rights movement has followed since winning Roe has been timid and moderate, focused on lobbying and fundraising and legal cases—a strategy directly counter to the loud, visible, angry, community organizing of the women’s liberation movement that won the federal right in the first place—a vivid example of which is given here by Barbara Winslow. This is a strategy, Jenny Brown and Marian Jones argue, that tamed the movement, narrowed it to the question of choice rather than freedom, privacy rather than justice. In seeking to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare” (as the Clinton Democrats apologetically put it) mainstream feminism has gentrified the abortion rights movement—making it not just white and elite but also taking what had been won by a massive political community and turning it into the preserve of professionals.
This is by no means a new argument: Lux’s editorial board and generations of feminists and socialists before us have said as much. When we did, it usually resulted in us getting kicked out of events, laughed off or hushed by mainstream leaders, redbaited, or hassled by liberal women in “pro-choice” coalitions. It is cold comfort, though, to now be proven right. Calling in from the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, Derenda Hancock and Kim Gibson talk with Anne Rumberger about what giving up on loud, vibrant, clinic defense has cost us.
It seems quite clear: with the fall of Roe imminent and talk of an outright federal ban on abortion (and maybe contraception, and maybe LGBTQ rights): this strategy has cost us everything.
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It cost us everything because abortion is about everything: to control reproduction is to determine who is a criminal and who is not, who should parent and who should not, whose body is their own and whose is not. Another way to say this is: an attack on abortion is never just about abortion.
As Erin Matson and Shireen Rose Shakouri describe in detail, behind the anti-abortion movement is an ideology of white supremacy and the right’s terror of the so-called “Great Replacement,” the time when white people will be outnumbered by non-white people. This is not a fringe belief but an influential fascist ideology fueled by a well-funded, instutionalized network of think tanks, far-right politicians, extremist activists, and violent vigilantes in the US and around the world.
The flipside of protecting white babies is preventing the birth of non-white babies, and so the forced pregnancies of white women go hand in hand, ideologically speaking, with the long history of state-sanctioned forced sterilizations of Indigenous women, Puerto Rican women, and Black and brown women, as Raquel Reichard, Marian Jones, and a coalition of Native community groups describe here in detail. It is also about solidifying a strict regime of binary, immutable gender, and Mary Bowman reports on how the bans against abortion providers have been paralleled by attacks on gender-affirming health care for transgender people.
The abortion crisis is, Amy Littlefield writes “a labor crisis too,” one in which reproductive clinic workers and providers—such as Crystal and Luna, interviewed here—face ever-diminishing resources, greater restrictions, and mass unemployment.
The loss of abortion is also a potential loss of sovereignty for Indigenous communities: the abortion bans not only impact Native people at disproportionately higher rates but also threaten the legal basis for tribal sovereignty. As Cecilia Fire Thunder, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and the Native American Community Board argue in their amicus brief for the Dobbs case, this is part of a centuries-long campaign of diminishing Indigenous people’s autonomy, taking away their right to parent, and breaking treaty after treaty promising Native people the right to their own land and to self-government. What this ongoing crisis of reproductive and colonial violence has meant personally for Indigenous people is given intimate voice in Jen Deerinwater’s essay.
The criminalization of abortion also expands the purview of the carceral state. All women are now added to what Cheryl Rivera here calls “the criminal class,” the population of mostly poor, mostly Black and brown people whose labor has been ruthlessly exploited and whose bodies have long been subject to violent forms of control. The laboring body is also, of course, the body in labor—the birthing body, the pregnant body, the breast-feeding and child-rearing body—and this laboring body is now criminalized too. As Marie Solis describes at length, attacks on abortion have granted the fetus more rights than the person carrying it. In a survey of incarcerated women’s attempts to access reproductive care, Victoria Law finds an eerie mirroring between the carceral state and abortion bans. United States policies have long attempted to make one’s identity and perhaps even one’s own body—Blackness, queerness, and non-whiteness—into a criminal liability; now the possession of a womb is added, again, to that list.
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Luckily, there are many more places in the world than the United States, and the movement for reproductive freedom is a global one.
In 2017, a grassroots campaign against gender violence spread throughout Argentina, then South America, then the world, coalescing and massing with the feminist street protests in Poland after the 2016 abortion ban, and erupting into the global women’s strike in March 2018. Ni Una Menos, the movement was called—not one more person will we lose to gender violence! As the strike call argued,
The strength of our movement lies in the links we make with each other....
We organize to change everything.
Their cry is our cry. If abortion is everything, then we organize to change everything.
South America is, today, home to one of the most dynamic feminist movements in the world, one where activists are immediately recognizable, as Naomi Braine describes, by their trademark pañuelos verdes, their green bandanas. As the United States spent the past few decades instituting abortion restrictions and bans, our neighbors to the south have been adamantly doing the opposite. Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina have legalized abortion—and Chile may soon—while networks of feminist activists have made self-managed abortions more accessible and created new forms of solidarity in the process. Verónica Cruz Sanchez describes to Elizabeth Navarro what this looks like in her home state of Guanajuato, Mexico—and shows in practice what global solidarity looks like, as Mexican feminists in her organization, Las Libres, have begun to accompany American women through abortion procedures after Texas passed a near-total abortion ban in 2021.
As Braine notes, we in the United States have much to learn from the rest of the world, and can draw both strategy and inspiration from their example. “Feminists across the Global South,” she argues,
have developed strategies for supporting people with abortions in places where it is highly restricted or outright banned, have done so for years on the basis of solidarity rather than service, and have managed the potential legal risks involved.
As Lizzie Presser writes, an “abortion underground” has existed in the United States throughout the twentieth century, one that is now composed of midwives, nurses, and activists performing illegal or non-medical abortions themselves. With the rise of the abortifacient drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol—colloquially known as abortion pills—the ease of performing a safe, economical, and self-managed abortion, legal or not, has increased. As the example of Las Libres in Mexico shows, an entire movement can be built from the distribution of abortion pills, for it means not just emergency care but the possibility for direct action and political defiance, the building blocks of a movement fighting for what a truly supportive, legal, abortion provision could look like. Or as Amelia Bonow writes,
The ruling in Dobbs will be opposed by the vast majority of Americans, and the existence of abortion pills mean that a mass defiance of abortion bans is inevitable. This is the closest the judiciary has come to a legitimacy crisis in almost a century, and it is time for us to push.
So get yourself some pills and let’s push! Arielle Swernoff and Mattie Lubchansky offer an illustrated guide to how to give yourself an abortion at home, and our editors have put together a resource guide for how to access abortion funds in different regions and for different communities, how to order abortion pills and where to go for support and advice as you take them, how to help defend existing clinic and support providers, and how to share your story.
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It is our hope that this book will be one starting point for a revitalized, and socialist, feminist movement, and the beginning of much-needed discussions both political and strategic: does the urgent need for underground abortion care supersede fighting for decriminalization, or defending existing clinics? Do we focus on mutual aid in our communities or national and international battles? How do we build a true movement for reproductive justice not limited to personal choice but opposed to incarceration and forced sterilization, one that fights against the destruction of Indigenous sovereignty and the criminalization of trans people? How do we take care of all of us and fight for all of us too?
One answer is to be found in the words of Movimento di Lotta Femminile di Padova, part of the group of Italian socialist feminists in the 1970s. In their 1971 pamphlet on pregnancy and abortion, they called for an expansive goal—one similar to that of the Black feminists in the United States in the 1990s who coined the term reproductive justice. “We are changing,” the women of Movimento wrote, “the sign of this struggle.”
The problem is not abortion.
The problem is having the possibility to become mothers as often as we want to become mothers. Only when we want to, but whenever we want to.
Abortion is not just about abortion. It is about autonomy, justice, and democracy for us all. Abortion is the tolling bell that warns us, women and men, people of any and no gender, all of us of any race and ethnicity, poor and not-poor alike, of the state of our rights and the prospects for our future. As the women of Movimento put it, “only by measuring how much we enjoy this right can we measure the social wealth we enjoy.”
We want it all.
Jessie Kindig is an editor at Verso Books, a contributing editor to Lux magazine, and associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, as well as the editor of The Verso Book of Feminism.