Protest for legal abortion in Rosario (Santa Fe), Argentina, in 2019. Image credit: Lucia Goni / Shutterstock.com
What kind of reproductive justice is possible in this new, darker incarnation of the United States, with its misogynist, racist, anti-trans and queer, anti-democratic tendencies on full display, and without constitutionally protected abortion rights? And how can feminism, as a movement, address the precarious life conditions—poverty, racism, and dangerous, even deadly intimate partner violence—that lead people to need abortions in the first place?
On the face of it, Republican extremism is not good for national birth rates. After a 30-year decline, the Trump years saw a 2% increase in abortion rates and a 6% decrease in births overall. In other words, fewer people got pregnant, and more of those who did had abortions. A recent report attributed the increase in abortions to Republican limitations on Title X birth control funding between 2017 and 2020 that made many Planned Parenthood clinics ineligible because they did abortions. This is consistent with research showing that another Trump policy, the “global gag rule,” which limited United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funding for any international agency that advocated abortion care, increased the overall number of abortions, as well as maternal and child death rates.
In other words, the rise of the extremist right-wing and its abortion limitation policies are not only terrible for child and maternal well-being, but they have the paradoxical effect of increasing the number of abortions. And just as paradoxically, those of us who support abortion rights should also be working to make them less necessary, while simultaneously advocating for kids and parents.
Don’t get me wrong; there will always be a need for, and there should always be a right to, abortion. Clinton-esque arguments characterizing abortion as a tragedy, something that should be “safe, legal, and rare,” is part of what got us to this place. Such rhetoric stigmatizes abortion, shaming women, trans and nonbinary folks with uteruses who don’t want, or can’t afford, to be pregnant. Perhaps the best thing about this anxious interregnum, during which we knew from Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision that SCOTUS was going to throw out Roe v. Wade but not exactly when or how, was the number of people who started talking about their abortions. These stories taught us what forced pregnancy has to do with sexual freedom, bodily autonomy, citizenship rights, employment, and the education of people who can get pregnant.
So, a free and just society needs abortion. The money being sent to abortion funds and the practical work to ensure access to medical abortion and abortion-related travel throughout the U.S. (and Native tribal nations, US territories and possessions, and the District of Columbia) are crucial to that.
However, the one thing I am certain about in these terrible times is that we also need a broad-based feminist movement that doesn’t treat abortion as an isolated issue. The right to abortion can’t be separated from other rights, those things that make the procedure necessary for so many people who might want a child (or another child) but can’t afford it; can’t have a child with an abusive partner, or any of the other reasons that make it impossible for people to continue a pregnancy.
These arguments exist and can be activated. For decades, socialist feminists and feminists of color have been calling out the mainstream abortion rights movement for its tepid defense of what it calls “choice,” its unwillingness to stand firm against forced sterilization, or its weak defense of federal funding for abortion in the Medicaid program or the U.S. military.
As these activists point out, there’s a lot that goes into raising children and guaranteeing that they will thrive. While scholars and abortion rights organizations regularly speak of their project as “reproductive justice,” only rarely do we hear them fight for or even name it as a platform that includes decent wages, worker protections, unions, freedom for queer and trans people, immigration policies not rooted in terrorizing and exploiting migrants, ending police violence, supporting safe housing, food security, addressing the climate crisis, protection from a racist family regulation (or foster care) system, good schools, and so much else.
You may be wondering: Don’t we have enough problems just trying to ensure minimal rights to abortion, without trying to also ensure a just economy and human rights for kids, women, and others? But insisting that another world is possible is the point of political activism, and our fight for abortion must articulate what that world looks like. People don’t fall in love with social movements because they open the way to a narrow, limited path to rights. Dreaming bigger and naming what we really want can bring more people into a fight. Black Lives Matter didn’t own the streets in the summer of 2020 and doesn’t continue to roil the status quo because its members called for an end to prone restraints or police reform in Minneapolis. They called for defunding the police, intersectional feminism, prison abolition, and ending racism wherever it is found.
By the same token, demanding comprehensive reproductive justice, as activists like Loretta Ross have done, is a way of not accepting abortion or sterilization as the only response to life circumstances that lead people to say: “I just didn’t feel like I could afford another child right now.” According to the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of people who seek abortions are poor or low-income, a percentage that is rising. That’s as much a wages problem as it is an abortion care one, and it’s too high.
We need to look to other movements, in other places, to learn how they won the right to abortion. Feminists in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico—who were certainly in a worse position than those of us in the US even a few years ago—all won the right to safe and legal abortion in 2022. They did it by mobilizing millions of women in strikes and street demonstrations. They sought abortion rights, to be sure, but it was part of a much broader movement. Their fundamental demand was an end to femicide—the killing of women by their intimate partners, the police, those suppressing unionization and other political organizing, and those in the informal or black-market economy.
Latin and Central American women organized under the hashtag #NiUnaMenos: “Not One (woman or trans person) Less.” Abortion rights were just part of the right they demanded, which was to live. In Argentina, we’ve seen mobilizations against economies rooted in predatory debt organized in the name of women, lesbians, and trans people. A leading Latin American feminist, when asked about their political project, said that it was “to change everything”—from neoliberal economics to extractivist disregard for natural worlds and societies to domestic labor.
The successful fight for reproductive freedom in Latin America involved radically reimagining the conditions under which humans, and hence children and parents, could thrive. Abortion rights were one part of that.
It’s a model for what a reproductive justice movement in the United States might look like if it linked abortion to the kinds of violence that make bearing children a hazard. Let’s begin with femicide: 1000 women (including trans women) are killed by their partners every year, while #SayHerName reminds us that the police kill Black women and girls as well as men and boys. Growing economic inequality, inflation that the wealthy want to fight by driving down wages, and the brutalization of female-headed households make issues of compensation, union protections, the gig economy, and predatory debt an emergency.
This violence is endemic to the United States immigration system as well. Despite a labor shortage, those seeking asylum on the southern border—mostly women and children who are often trying to reunite with family in the U.S.—have been driven from their homes and into Mexico with bull’s eyes on their back from the cartels that dominate their home countries.
Violence and precarity pervade Americans’ domestic lives too. By many accounts, intimate partner violence increased during the pandemic, while anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Asian, and anti-queer and -trans violence is at staggering levels. Right-wing, white nationalist, and other anti-democratic movements are on the rise. The planet is on fire, largely because of the actions of the wealthiest among us. Growing rates of poverty are undoubtedly playing a role in decreasing pregnancy rates and increasing abortion rates.
For all these reasons and many others, we need a feminist movement that will stand up for conditions that facilitate life and well-being for all of us, because the situation of women, queer, and trans people—especially those of color—is a crisis that makes abortion necessary.
Fortunately, a comprehensive and inclusive feminist movement is not far away, particularly if we look to women of color. Black feminists, for example, have long defined abortion rights as part of a comprehensive movement for community and household survival. Black Lives Matter is the most effective feminist movement we have in the U.S., and the National Domestic Workers Alliance continues to demand decent wages for female- and immigrant-dominated labor, while Fight for $15 has made an end to sexual harassment and rape in the workplace a key demand. Pandemic relief funding has shown us that something on the scale necessary to achieve decarbonization and climate justice is possible, as the Sunrise Movement has long contended.
These are the faces of the feminist movement that any serious call for reproductive justice needs to get behind.
Laura Briggs is a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico, and Taking Children: A History of American Terror.