Scholars and activists have warned that, in the words of Carol Joffe, the Trump Administration will usher in ‘the most difficult period the reproductive rights/reproductive justice movement has faced since the Roe decision in 1973’, when abortion was legalized in the first trimester of pregnancy. The administration clearly aimed to mark theirs from the beginning as a turning point in US reproductive politics.
Within a couple of weeks of taking office, Trump reinstated an extended version of the ‘global gag rule’, which prohibits US aid from funding NGOs involved in abortion or abortion counselling; the Congress passed a bill that would transform the Hyde Amendment of 1976, which bans the federal funding of abortion, into permanent law; and Trump nominated an anti-abortion appointment to the supreme court with the explicit goal of working towards overturning Roe v Wade.
Even more, advocates and academics fear the erosion of reproductive rights through several state and federal measures. These include: the scrapping of the Affordable Care Act, which would greatly reduce the quality of maternity services for poor women and revoke the law requiring most insurance plans to cover a variety of contraceptive measures; the defunding of planned parenthood; further legislative attacks on abortion access in state jurisdictions (there were 338 abortion restrictions enacted between 2011–2016); further federal bans on later abortions or certain methods of later abortions; and additional restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion, particularly public insurance. While the government did not make significant inroads into these areas in 2017, Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute cautions that this is merely because they ‘haven’t gotten their anti-abortion agenda on track yet’.
The increased politicisation of reproductive politics, particularly abortion politics, under Trump needs to be seen in the context of the intense politicisation of abortion in the US generally. In contrast to other countries that comprise the Anglophone West, abortion is a partisan political issue in the States; with few exceptions, Republican and Democratic officeholders since the Reagan Administration hold, respectively, anti-abortion and pro-choice positions. Thus a renewed focus on abortion politics is to be expected with a move from a Democratic to a Republican administration. This has occurred with every transition since Reagan, demonstrated most clearly in the Global Gag Rule, which Democrats have routinely rescinded and Republicans re-implemented since first enacted in 1984. Yet the attack on women’s reproductive rights under Trump has been particularly intense.
In order to address why this is the case, we need to turn attention to the position abortion occupies as a symbolic conductor upon which broader political and ideological battles are waged. What, we have to ask then, is abortion serving as an ideological conductor for in this particular historical moment? In Happy Abortions: Our Bodies in the Era of Choice I argue that the politics of abortion act, in part, as a form of racialized nation-building.
In order to make this argument I draw a connection between race-reproduction and nation. In condensed form, this connection is first established by considering the mutually constitutive concepts of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ – race forms the fictive unity around which notions of national belonging are communicated. Specifically, national ideas of belonging in the USA and elsewhere in the Anglophone West are formed through what Ghassan Hage terms a ‘White nation fantasy’. This is ‘a fantasy of a nation governed by White people, a fantasy of White supremacy’, where ‘the nation as a space is structured around White culture’, and White people are routinely positioned, and position themselves, as rightfully dominating demographically and controlling national space through, for example, their disproportionate representation in cultural mediums, parliaments and judicial systems.
Race is attached to reproduction because it is commonly supposed to be an ‘essence’ that is carried from one generation to the next. This perceived essence is biological, carried through markers such as skin colour, and also forms the cultural values (including religious) and patterns of behaviour that are said to pass down generations. In the US context, for example, Steven Martinot argues that criminality is commonly perceived to be a form of learnt behaviour transmitted inter-generationally within African American communities. In this way, African Americans are blamed for their own social marginalisation and broader structural inequities are made invisible. Black mothers are particular objects of blame. This is because the biological process of reproduction is gendered feminine, and women are also seen to bear primary responsibility for raising children and the inter-generational transmission of cultural values and social mores this entails.
As Kristen Phillips says, because the nation is conceived of as a ‘reproducible racial formation’, women’s reproductive labour is a national resource harnessed in the project of making, and remaking, racialised, national communities so that, as Martinot writes of the US context, ‘[t]he birth of American whiteness and national identity converge across and through the race-marked bodies of women’.
Women’s reproductive labour is managed through several interlocking means. In the USA, these have included: the removal of Indigenous children from their families from the early to mid-twentieth century and the subjection of Indigenous, Latina and African American women to practices such as coerced contraception, unsafe forms of contraception, and forced sterilisation. The state control of abortion, as actualised through the law, is another means of managing women’s reproductive potential for the purpose of nation-building.
As an important side note, we must remember here that the law is ineffectual when it comes to preventing abortion. Prohibitions on abortion make abortion less safe rather than less widely practiced (see the World Health Organisation report in 2012). Prohibitions on abortion are therefore a means of enacting a fantasy of state control over a procedure that has direct bearings on, amongst factors such as women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy, the size and constitution of the nation’s population.
It is no accident, therefore, that an intensified reproductive politics have coincided with an intensified racial politics in the States. The nationalist politics of abortion mean that anti-abortion statements – such as women should receive ‘some sort of punishment’ for abortion – and statements that lay claim to racialised nation-building – such as Mexican immigrants are ‘bringing drugs … crime. They’re rapists’ – share a pivotal logic: both lay claim to certain race and gender-bound visions for the future.
Abortion politics are, in part, future-oriented. The figure of the foetus/child that centres abortion politics (because of a convergence of socio-cultural and historical factors explained in Happy Abortions) contains what Berlant calls a ‘cluster of promises’ that displace anxieties about ‘whose subjectivity, whose forms of intimacy and interests, whose bodies and identifications, whose heroic narratives – will direct America’s future’. Several scholars have noted that the popularity of Trump amongst White Americans is due in part to a desire to re-establish a nostalgic fantasy of America’s past – a past imagined as white and dominated by the nuclear family ideal and its attendant gender roles.
Of course, not only white women have abortions; in fact, in the States, abortion rates are higher amongst African American and Latina women than amongst non-Hispanic white women (see for example Linda Beckman’s 2016 study). As Australian abortion scholar Barbara Baird reminds us, however, given the invisibility of whiteness, the frequent absence of racialising discourses in public debate over abortion construct the discursive figure of the ‘aborting woman’ in public debate as white. Her whiteness is further perceptible if we place debates over abortion in the aforementioned context of a history of state attempts to prevent the reproductive capacities of non-White women. Today, her whiteness is further accrued through comparison between the intense politicisation of abortion on one hand and, on the other, the lack of attention given to the horrendous rates of maternity mortality and morbidity amongst African American women. African American women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than white women; they also have higher rates of involuntary infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth. Racial disparities in infant mortality amongst African Americans have also been growing at unprecedented rates since the 1980s: today, black infants are more than twice as likely to die in their first year of life as compared to white infants.
More will be written about the gender-and-race bound politics that are being waged through Trump’s anti-abortion agenda. For now, it is important to remember that, in addition to having material effects on the health, wellbeing and reproductive autonomy of people with uteruses, abortion politics are never only about abortion. They are invested in certain normative visions of the future that are bound up with retaining interlocking structural privileges in the present. It is also important to remember that willing mothers and wanted babies are dying in the USA as political attention is focused on constructing embryos and foetuses as autonomous lives and undermining the reproductive intent of the unwillingly pregnant.
Race is the core factor determining the respective political visibility of those whose motherhood is thwarted, sometimes through death, and those whose ability to refuse motherhood is contested. Activists and scholars must then be attune to reproductive politics in its complexity, in order to understand and fight back against the attacks on reproductive rights that will be a prominent feature of US politics over the coming years.
Erica Millar is the author of Happy Abortions: Our Bodies in the Era of Choice, published December 2017, and a lecturer in Gender Studies and Sociology at The University of Adelaide.