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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to end the constitutional right to abortion access, the resounding ballot victory in deep-red Kansas to keep abortion rights in the state constitution served as a striking reminder of the majoritarian support for abortion access.
In the face of a Christo-fascist minority seeking total abortion bans, ideologically diverse mass support for abortion rights is no bad thing. It would be foolish, however, to not reckon with the failures of the centrist liberal framing of abortion—as a matter of medical privacy, emergency, regret, and scarcity—to deliver reproductive rights, let alone robust reproductive justice. It is crucial that our struggle foreground a more full-throated, unabashedly pro-abortion approach.
Few theorists have taken up this task with the rigor and passion of feminist scholar Sophie Lewis. In her book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family, Lewis proposed that human gestation be understood as labor—often deadly and disabling—that requires profound support and solidarity beyond the privations of nuclear families and doctors’ offices. As she recently wrote, “The controversial part is that a key correlate of viewing gestating as labor is that forcing someone to gestate against their will is forced labor.” Lewis ruffled both conservative and liberal feathers by describing abortion as a form of killing that should be embraced as a good. Natasha Lennard spoke to Lewis about liberatory articulations of reproductive justice, the need to deprivatize care, and her new book, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation.
Natasha Lennard [NL]: You’ve been on the receiving end of deluges of right-wing abuse for arguing that we should frame and embrace abortion as a “form of killing”—that we cede something to the Right if we don’t take up this language. Why is that? We both very much agree that it was a failure by mealy-mouthed liberal leaders to frame abortions, rather than the unwanted pregnancies they end, as a bad thing that should be “rare.” Why does a full-throated support of abortion require it also be appreciated as an act of killing?
Sophie Lewis [SL]: For me, it’s less that we should always frame abortion as a form of killing, and more that we can. My point isn’t quite that we cede something to the enemy if we don’t take up this language. It’s that we cede something if we allow their accusation to become a kind of limbo bar under which we acrobatically crawl. I’m for the “healthcare” and “human rights” framings of abortion. The fact that they are now mainstream is a tremendous victory of socialist and Black feminism over the past two decades. But I also think we can go further; that we don’t need to be afraid.
As you indicate, liberal feminism has gone out of its way to say that the thing it is supposedly campaigning for—people having abortions—should be “rare,” which, as any campaign manager could tell you, is a total non-starter. If you want to raise the popularity of something, you have to be able, at minimum, to say that it is good. It may sound facetious, but at the simplest level, that is what I am proposing: hey guys, let’s actually be pro-abortion. Let’s look at what actually happens during this procedure, and vindicate it. And if we look, we see that what happens during an abortion, obviously, is that an organism dies. That’s the point. The purpose is to “terminate” the life of an embryo or fetus that would otherwise develop into a baby.
By the way, there can be no nonviolence in the terrain of human gestation. The human placenta rips into a pregnant person’s body and quite drastically endangers their life. Removing this foreign organ, the placenta—and killing the fetus—doesn’t have to be a big deal. For some people, it is a big deal. In any case, it’s what is required. It’s what happens. So, I am interested in collectively developing the level of political and ethical sophistication required to speak about it affirmatively. In my piece in Salvage Quarterly, I suggest that what we need (in this and other contexts) is a deeper commitment to non-nonviolence, paired with a revolutionary commitment to anti-violence. What would it mean to understand consensual pregnancy as a kind of dance with potentially quite serious internal violence? Would it make it easier for us to accept that abortions are necessarily violent, too?
NL: I wonder if this doesn’t just create a discursive regress. So we don’t cower when the Right says “you’re killers!” But we’re still making pretty starkly different ontological claims than our pro-natalist opponents: we draw distinctions between killing different things. The Right says: you’re killing babies! We say we’re killing clumps of cells, fetuses, proto-humans, what have you. Given that we’re talking about very different sorts of “killability” depending on what sorts of lives we believe to be in question, does embracing “abortion-as-killing” really do that much work for us?
I hear you! There may be limited usefulness in pointing out that, as members of this society, we are all of us inextricably tangled up in the systematic killing of both human and nonhuman life. In the first place, for our enemies, it doesn’t matter. They know, and they don’t care. For them, “killing” is supposed to refer to an act done to persons. (Hence, since chickens aren’t persons in their view, chickens aren’t killed, they’re slaughtered. Yemeni fisherwomen aren’t being killed when the U.S. drone bombs them: they occupy a less-than-human category. Black boys aren’t being murdered when the police shoot them, and so on.) Under the doctrine of fetal personhood—indeed, fetal patienthood—it’s theoretically no more permissible to kill a blastocyst than it is to kill an adult human being. Some on the Right say that they genuinely believe this—that aborting a fetus is morally equivalent to murdering a fifty-seven-year-old man. Brett Kavanaugh is 57 and, as a court justice, he has indicated that this is what he believes. But in 2007, he voted in favor of forcing two disabled women to have abortions. Suddenly, the fetus—because disabled—was killable, in his eyes! But there’s no point trying to “gotcha” these actors (much as I enjoy the chant “Pro-life, that’s a lie: you don’t care when women die…”). We are wasting our time attempting to have conversations with them, even just inside our heads.
But I do think there’s value for us in opening up a conversation about killing. What if we suspended the question of “killability,” and put aside the question of whether killing is “okay” for a moment, in favor of asking when, and under what conditions, killing is part of something good? Because, despite the title of my article in The Nation (which I obviously did not choose), I am actually relatively uninterested in whether abortion is okay. There are very few things I’m 100 percent sure are “okay.” I’m not a bioethicist. What I am interested in is the fact that abortion, while obviously opposed to the sanctity of life itself, is good for life in particular. When we go and get an abortion, or give ourselves a self-managed one, we are ensuring that that embryo or fetus dies because (for whatever reason) we have decided against the existence of a baby. We have decided to discontinue the (very invasive) life-creating labor process of gestation. The decision might have been emotionally difficult to reach. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend that the tissue being extracted somehow wasn’t alive. If it wasn’t alive, then what was the point of the procedure? We don’t pretend that tapeworms aren’t alive when they’re being pulled from our gut. I don’t think it’s “okay” to kill tapeworms. I think we should strive to be responsible for the violence we do even to tapeworms.
The thing I want to hammer home is that, when people are able to reach abortion decisions and act on them—terminating the proto-human lives they have conceived inside their bodies—it is, demonstrably, really good for people and really good for communities, too. There are just mountains of data on that. Abortions produce feelings of relief and cared-for-ness in the short-term, and boost things like financial security and reported life satisfaction over the long-term. Given all this, why do we infantilize ourselves and others by avoiding the facts of the matter? Goddamnit, abortion is good. And what is abortion? Abortion is killing. Yes! I know! That sounds confusing! Like: How can that be? Well, we need to talk about it. Let’s ponder, philosophically, why, unlike the vast majority of forms of killing, abortion is a form of killing that contributes to the good life. The Argentinian feminist philosopher Laura Klein has a book, Fornicar Y Matar (Fornicating and Killing)—yet to be translated into English—in which she theorizes sexuality’s co-imbrication with necro- as well as bio-politics and affirms that abortion “involves bloodshed, no doubt about it,” while also exploring the violence involved in bringing someone to life. I hope it gets translated soon.
You have written at length and depth on gestational labor—gestation as labor—both paid (the work of paid surrogacy) and unpaid. What does it mean to think of gestators as workers, and, crucially, workers who must be able to go on strike?
It’s meant to provide a lever for opening up conversations about forced labor, which is something that isn’t, er, theoretically, meant to exist in a liberal democracy. It’s meant to help people understand that it is monstrous to expect, let alone force, someone to perform pregnancy for a second longer than they feel like it. It definitely isn’t meant as moral praise. We are so used to sentimentalizing and naturalizing “reproduction” as “nature”—i.e., specifically not labor—that it’s quite startling to most of us to encounter the idea of “gestational labor” for the first time. It sounds blasphemous: Surely pregnancy is too intimate, too loving, too sacred of a thing to talk about in that way? And yet pregnancy is clearly also a job, usually unpaid, that uses up a person’s body and mind in the process of manufacturing something concrete, namely, an infant human body. Tacitly our culture knows this, and there are references to the labor of “carrying” a baby embedded in our language (it’s called being “in labor,” after all). We live in a work society in which human lives are valued according to their economic usefulness. In such a society, if you call something “work” you’re always going to sound like you’re praising it, even when you’re coming at the thing from an anti-capitalist, anti-work standpoint.
It’s a risky strategy. But I do think the only way out of this integument is probably “through.” What I mean by this (following the tradition of autonomist Marxist-feminisms from the 70s) is that may be necessary to first assert the “work” character of certain activities precisely in order to then collectively refuse them and—by deprivatizing and redistributing them—abolish them qua work. This intermediary step becomes necessary because of… gender. Thanks to the ontological magic of the labor division we call “gender,” there is a gargantuan quantity of labor that is very conspicuously not legible as work. And this totally “valueless” sphere comprises things like knowing and holding one another, tending to one another, nurturing, etcetera. Those care labors are currently being ripped from us by being turned into work.
We are left with a difficult, nigh-impossible discursive needle to thread. On the one hand, the (non)work presently known as “women’s work” isn’t to be romanticized: it makes both capitalism and proletarians live. It creates both comrades and sacrificial workers for capital to suck dry. But, like the authors of the anthology Revolutionary Mothering, I’m interested in how it can be further divested from and further turned against capitalism.
Mainstream discussions about abortion access sometimes use the terms “reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice” interchangeably. But these are not interchangeable concepts. How would you describe the distinction, and why does it matter?
The classic way of explaining the difference is to point to the history of a kind of middle-class, white-led pro-choice organizing that focused too much on a woman’s “right” to have an abortion, and failed to appreciate why a bigger priority for immigrant, Indigenous, Black, disabled and incarcerated women might be, rather, the right to not be forcibly sterilized, and the right to be recognized as a parent and bear and raise children at all. I think this story is really important, even though it has sometimes been a little bit overdone, to the point that it erases all the Black working-class feminist organizing that was at the forefront of the abortion access struggle historically! But, yeah, a blinkered focus on making pregnancy termination legal is basically “reproductive rights,” in this equation; and “reproductive justice” refers to the far more holistic framework pioneered by Black community organizers from the South such as Loretta Ross, co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, for whom, as Laura Briggs would say, “all politics are reproductive politics.”
The wonderful—dialectical!—formula that SisterSong is famous for is a vindication of the right to (1) make babies, (2) not make babies, and (3) care for babies that already exist in a safe and healthful environment. This stretches, in what I would argue is a utopian way, the conceptual limits of the term “rights.” It also takes our fight beyond the confines of the legal system, and it makes clear that “justice” is something that requires structural change; the worlding of entire environments that are conducive to flourishing for mothers (of all genders) currently structurally consigned to poverty and abjection. It also implies something I deeply believe, which is that to really give respect to gestational labor, it’s imperative to give equal respect to the decision not to partake in it.
Finally, I want to shout out to a third term in circulation, “reproductive freedom.” For me, thinking with the latter term potentially takes us still further than “reproductive justice,” encouraging us to imagine a redistribution and deprivatization of reproductive labor (aka “mothering”) sufficiently thoroughgoing that, to quote my friend M. E. O’Brien, “no one is bound together violently anymore.”
Your newest book, Abolish the Family, takes up a revolutionary demand, that—despite existing in leftist and feminist literature for centuries—continues to draw shock and horror. Abolish… the family! Readers might appreciate arguments made by philosophers like Kathi Weeks that, as you note, “the family’s most fundamental feature . . . is that it privatizes care: a process of enclosure in which all kinds of families unintentionally participate.” Yet the topic remains so taboo, and for some understandable reasons. To mention family abolition often feels like it requires starting from scratch in explaining what one means, that no one is carting off your beloved grandma. Can you touch upon what you think we lose if we don’t include family abolition in the struggle for reproductive justice?
That’s a great question. I’ll be brief, in the hopes that people will, you know, feel curious enough to get their hands on a copy of my little book. The call for “abolition of the family” began in the first years of the nineteenth century, at which time none other than the inventor of the word “feminism” laid out elaborate architectural and timetabling blueprints for how post-family, post-capitalist society was going to work. In the interim, it has taken many forms, including the Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai’s proposal that all children should eventually be mothered almost indiscriminately by all. Lesbians of color in the 1970s, in a surprisingly similar vein, sought to develop ways to do mothering that would destroy the property relation of patriarchal motherhood. All in all, I would say that family abolition brings a much-needed denaturalizing dimension to movements for reproductive justice. It’s an insistence that, even if all the people who currently “mother” in society were suddenly magically treated with respect by courts and medical doctors, left alone by cops and social workers, supported and assisted to become parents, and lavished with strings-free checks courtesy of the state, it would still be necessary to deprivatize care.
As long as we accept that care is something that young human beings, elderly ones, and queer or disabled ones, are forced to get exclusively from an arbitrary assignment of individuals (or even just one individual—or none!) within the framework of the private nuclear household, we lose an indispensable revolutionary horizon. The fact that care is neocolonially exported across the earth, with domestic workers from the global South invisibly providing the glue that holds the “family” together among the bourgeois classes of the North, is obviously a big aspect of reproductive injustice. Fighting for reproductive justice thus, logically, means fighting for an end to imperialism. It also means, I submit, fighting for all healthcare, education and housing to be decommodified, such that children and adults alike have real choices about how and with whom they want to live.
Natasha Lennard is a journalist and the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life. She teaches at The New School.
Sophie Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso Books, 2021) and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, forthcoming from Verso Books and Salvage Editions.