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Reproductive Control is About Far More Than "Women's Bodies"

Insisting that this is only about “women’s bodies” erases a whole host of other things that abortion rights are inherently about.

This essay contains mention on r/pe and some discussion of reproductive and state violences

Biopower and Biopolitics – social and political power over life, when biological factors become targets of political intervention

Necropolitics – social and political power over death, dictating who may live and who must die in service of the state

Governmentality – how the state exercises control or governance over its populace

Pronatalism – the policy or practice, particularly on the government/state level, of encouraging the birth of children

Reproductive Rights – the rights of individuals to decide whether or not to have children

Reproductive Justice – “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities

White feminists love “The Handmaid’s Tale” as much as they fear it. Gilead and the world in which it exists is a terrifying place, of course. Margaret Atwood conceived of it as a militarized, pronatalist state in which cis straight white Christian men are in complete control of the government and reproductive decisions—not much of a stretch. Women who cannot reproduce become known as “unwomen” and are sent away to die in toxic wastelands. Women who are still fertile become property and are forced to reproduce. Black people, who are called “Children of Ham,” are forced out and “relocated” to the Midwest. Anyone who is not in service to the white ethnostate is disposed of. It’s almost as terrifying as reality.

The show and the original novel work by excavating the histories of sexual and reproductive violences against Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and applying them to white women in a dystopian landscape, conceiving of the story as if it is a future of mere possibility rather than a our true history. BIPOC in the U.S. have always lived in a dystopia.

Atwood once said to the show’s star, Elisabeth Moss, “Everything I wrote in that book was happening at that time, or had already happened… It just wasn’t happening in America.” Her novel was first published in 1985. By that time in U.S. history, white colonizers had enacted genocide against Indigenous peoples, destroying their homes, lands, and cultures while also committing sexual and reproductive violences, both as a means of terrorism and in an attempt to “kill the Indian” by breeding them out of existence. The Transatlantic Slave Trade had led to the systematic enslavement of and sexual and reproductive violences against millions of Black people. The Eugenics Movement had targeted tens of thousands of Queer and Trans BIPOC, poor, disabled, and mentally ill citizens, inspiring the Nazis and their white supremacist death machine. The fact that Atwood doesn’t seem to acknowledge these things as substantial parts of the same history she draws on to imagine Gilead is revealing, to say the least.

The patriarchal violences that “The Handmaid’s Tale” holds record of are the kinds of violences that BIPOC have experienced systematically in the U.S.—the state has always exerted some power over how we live, die, and reproduce in order to serve its interests—but that only truly become visible to many when they are written on cis white women’s bodies. As such, the show seems to be the only frame of reference many have for understanding the fight for reproductive rights at this moment in history, but using Gilead to inform understandings of reproductive rights is an incomplete framework, especially because it does not also include reproductive justice. We not only deserve the right to make our own decisions concerning whether or not to have children, but we also deserve to be able to nurture any children we do have in safe communities, without the interference of the state, without police killing, abusing, sexually assaulting, and terrorizing members of the community. Addressing both reproductive rights and justice requires an understanding of governmentality and how the control of reproduction, capitalism, and state violence operate in tandem, with the most marginalized people used as cannon fodder, in the endeavor to create and maintain a police state.

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“Women’s Bodies”

We have watched this year as some of the harshest abortion bans have taken hold in multiple states, all on the basis of the sanctity of life, even as this same government continues to allow the murder of unarmed BlPOC by police, the abuse and death of immigrant children in cages and their placement with human traffickers, the high infant and parent mortality rate for Black people in childbirth, and many other forms of state violence and sanctioned deaths. The claim to be concerned with life is a transparent lie. What the state is more concerned with is death and who must live in closest proximity to it.

In response to the abortion bans, many have suggested an ordinance to make vasectomies mandatory for all men of a certain age. Not only is this cisnormative thinking, with far-reaching implications for trans, non-binary, and agender folks with external genitalia, but it is also an invitation for the government to have even further reproductive control over us. This “solution” would almost certainly devolve into yet another tool of eugenics, yet another tool of genocide and ethno-nationalism, especially since scientific racism is experiencing a resurgence. It would not bode well for poor people, or physically and intellectually disabled people, or mentally ill people, or queer and trans folks, or other marginalized genders, or any BIPOC. If you know the history of reproductive violences at the hands of the state in the U.S. and how they have always been informed by white supremacy and colonialism, then you understand just how bad it could get. Others have suggested a women’s sex strike. This assumptive and heteronormative proposal won’t help us either. The fight for reproductive rights and justice reaches significantly beyond the sexual choices and availability of cis straight women, especially when we know that, for far too many people of various genders and sexualities, becoming pregnant has been due to sexual violence, coercion, stealthing, or some other form of abuse or violation of boundaries. A sex strike does nothing to protect us from a culture that readily forgives sexual predators and blames their victims.

The most popular and accepted argument is that this is about “women’s bodies” and men’s desire to control them, but we cannot allow that to be the totality of the response to these pointed attacks on our rights—especially because, historically, non-white women have often been dehumanized through exclusion from the definition of womanhood as means of upholding the myth of white superiority and humanity, and many of those ideologies still remain.

It is true that most of the people who are voting to ban abortion are cis white men who have no understanding of how vaginas, uteruses, and the bodies they’re a part of actually function, because cis white men dominate the senate and the states passing the most restrictive abortion bans have the fewest women in positions of power. But cis white women have also been instrumental in challenging reproductive rights, from lobbying for one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans while leading an anti-LGBTQ hate group to sponsoring and signing into law a statute that would punish those who seek out and perform abortions with prison sentences. Yes, cis white women have been and still are working hard to overturn Roe v. Wade, a maneuver that will disproportionately impact the lives of those in poverty, especially Black people, because abortion bans are inextricably linked with white supremacy and its violences. Alabama and Georgia, where the recent harsh and punitive abortion bans have been passed, both have high populations of poor Black people and some of the highest mortality rates for Black people during childbirth. Our response to these bans absolutely must address both race and class.

It is also true that the vast majority of conservative “pro-life” people’s arguments against abortion and understanding of pregnancy and childbirth are absolutely rooted in misogyny, patriarchy, paternalism, and puritanical Christian values, all informed by cisnormativity and bio-essentialism. But we cannot limit ourselves to viewing reproduction and abortion through their eyes, nor can we only focus on cis women’s need for abortion access, because that prevents us from seeing the totality of their violences, how they fit together, and how they inform one another. The fascist effort to take complete control over how we reproduce is a massive web that also helps to determine how we live and how we die, and when we take a step back we can see how transphobia, and capitalism, and the carceral system, and rape culture, and population control, and more all connect at various points within this web as barriers to not just reproductive rights, but also reproductive justice.

Insisting that this is only about “women’s bodies” erases a whole host of other things that abortion rights are inherently about. We cannot reduce this conversation to a gendered one that reinforces rigid definitions of womanhood that rely on the ability to be pregnant, erasing all others who need reproductive healthcare. Not long after the egregious abortion bans became a fixture in the news, the Trump administration released a plan to roll back healthcare protections for trans people, effectively allowing providers to refuse to treat trans patients. Trans people already face discrimination and disproportionate barriers to reliable, safe treatment and necessary care, including reproductive needs. Overall, members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to live in poverty than cis straight people, QTBIPOC are more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than our white counterparts. Many have to rely the same clinics that provide abortion for other health services as well, because they often offer them at lower cost.

In any case, we have to state plainly that trans, non-binary, agender, and otherwise gender non-conforming people need abortion access, too. It’s true that when we talk about lack of comprehensive and honest sex education, the unfair regulation of birth control, how doctors often refuse requests for tubal ligation without prior children and/or a husband’s permission, how social and cultural understandings of both consensual sex and sexual violations always benefit cis men over all others, and how rapists have more rights and control over any resulting pregnancy than rape survivor, it is absolutely an indictment of patriarchy and how it operates on male supremacy and misogyny. But we must acknowledge how these systems, as much as they rely on outdated understandings of the cis male-female gender binary, also touch the lives of those outside of it.

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“Docile Bodies”

Conservatives intend to not only punish abortion providers, like the proposed prison sentences of up to 99 years in Alabama, but also incarcerate those who seek them out. Georgia’s “heartbeat bill” makes it possible to prosecute people who seek out abortions after six weeks, an abortion after eight weeks is now punishable by up to 15 years in Missouri, and Texas has proposed a bill that would allow people to be charged with homicide for terminating a pregnancy, a charge that carries the death penalty. The state is vying for even more social and political power over life and death, dictating who may live and who must die by way of bringing biological factors even further under political intervention, and using the carceral system as its enforcer.  

The U.S. has spent decades using policy and propaganda to construct poverty as a personal, moral failure rather than an integral part of its capitalist system. Likewise, abortion has been framed as a moral issue relatively recently in modern history, with those who need abortions framed as immoral and irresponsible. Since many of the people who seek out abortions are poor—almost half of cis women who have abortions live below the federal poverty line—they are seen as being deserving of punishment for being both poor and licentious. This is the justification for forcing them carry out an unwanted pregnancy and also for imprisoning or possibly even executing them for terminating it. Not only are those in prison disproportionately lower-class, largely because poverty and homelessness are both criminalized, but prisons also keep people, families, and communities in poverty. Mass incarceration helps to widen the wealth gap, making it impossible for many people to escape poverty, effectively immobilizing them.

Prison is also a barrier to voting. Most states prohibit anyone convicted of a felony from voting while in prison, or on probation or parole. Some states disenfranchise them permanently. Moreover, inmates with misdemeanors who are allowed to vote are counted as voters from the areas where they are imprisoned rather than the urban areas they tend to hail from, but “[c]ounting prisoners as residents of their hometowns would, for the most part, boost the legislative representation of Democratic-leaning urban areas with large minority populations while diminishing the power of Republican, mostly white rural areas.” Alabama and Georgia both came under tremendous scrutiny for their transparently racialized voter suppression tactics which primarily worked to shut down Black voters in 2018, the outcome of which made the abortion bans in these states possible.

This means that reproductive rights and justice are matters that cannot be divorced from the carceral system, voting rights, state violence, over-policing, and economic inequality. When all of these things are taken into account, it becomes clear that the criminalization of abortion aligns with capitalist interests and is one of many tactics meant to help expand the state’s control over the bodies of predominantly poor BIPOC, an extension of the long history of often racialized reproductive violence, coercion, and abuse in the U.S., whether people have been forcibly sterilized, forced to reproduce, effectively killed, left to suffer and die, or put to death.

Abortion is a means of freedom that a white supremacist, capitalist state cannot allow, because controlling reproduction is key to controlling so much more. More births presumably means more workers, more productivity, more people to fight wars, more people to help maintain U.S. colonial and imperial rule. But criminalizing abortion is first and foremost about obedience, about creating docile people and bodies, the ability to control people’s bodies as property of the state. In order for the state to have total power, it must control the production of state subjects. It’s physiological and psychological warfare, intended to hit the already most marginalized the hardest. The wealthy will always have access to safe abortion, just like they will have access to clean water, and healthy food, and safe neighborhoods, and healthcare, and ways to lessen the blow of climate change on their lives. Abortion bans are about maintaining that kind of power.

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We have to contend with white supremacy and capitalism as our antagonists in this fight, not just patriarchy, if we hope to properly address how various systems work together to suppress reproductive rights and prevent reproductive justice. That means beginning from a place that de-centers whiteness and narratives like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the cisnormative, bio-essentialist understanding of womanhood, childbirth, and family. It means working towards prison abolition, economic justice, reparations, and Black liberation. It means looking to both our history and the harsh realities of our present, following the wisdom of those who have been deeply invested in the fight for reproductive justice for many years, especially Black people who know all too well what it means to have our bodies subjected to the will of the state. It means moving beyond a rallying cry about “women’s bodies” and expanding our understanding of reproductive rights and justice to fight back against a state hellbent on making us docile.

Recommended Readings:

Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang

—see an excerpt from Wang here

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton

—find an illuminating interview with Hinton here

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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