With an increasing number of states almost entirely banning abortion if the Supreme Court ends the Roe era, supporters of reproductive freedom and justice need to innovate politically and bring on board more religious people, who are often positively inclined but only tentatively engaged on repro matters. Breaking out of the pro-life/pro-choice polarization and addressing long-ignored moral qualms, however, will require transformational re-framing of the issues at hand. The following offers one way to catalyze fresh approaches by strongly challenging the Christian Right’s androcentric paradigm of reproduction and focusing on reproductive labor and its liberation. This shift places reproductive issues within the scope of moral concern of liberation movements more broadly and can perhaps embolden faith- and ethics-based activists to bring a more vociferous, righteous passion to their repro advocacy.
Briefly, though, why are we here? Why are we still haggling in the culture wars and potentially facing even greater legal oppression? There are many complicated reasons, but one is that the Christian Right appears to have, more or less, established a hegemonic moral frame that “life begins at conception,” therefore, “abortion is murder.” According to Pew Research, 48% of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong, and only 20% affirm that it’s morally acceptable.
Yet, 61% of Americans support abortion legality as part of their general commitment to liberal freedom. We’ve been hopelessly muddled in this ambivalent “morality gap” between legality and cultural acceptability, resulting in a conflicting patchwork of legislation and endless, exhausting, existential anxiety-provoking fights. As RBG noted, Roe in many ways left cultural and political processes suspended without resolution, and it’s time to embrace, rather than sidestep, work on those processes.
A recent New York Times episode of The Argument, facilitated by host Jane Coaston and featuring columnists Michelle Goldberg and Ross Douthat, constructively illuminated opportunities for moral intervention. Goldberg verges on some true breakthroughs deploying core values in the Constitution, which can be taken further by centering labor; while Douthat lays bare a conservative “personhood” premise in dire need of labor critique.
In my research on public discourse and moral framing around abortion, I’ve observed that feminists tend to circumvent, rather than directly refute, the “abortion is murder” frame. Instead, they move to highlight other moral concerns, such as the impoverishment or poor health an unwanted pregnancy can cause, or the human rights violation of forced pregnancy. Goldberg does the latter quite well in asserting that the 14th Amendment—which forbids state infringement on the right to life, liberty, and due process—means abortion bans are unconstitutional as a “tyrannical” imposition on (reproductively) female bodily “sovereignty.” Regardless of whether a fetus is a “person” or not, she says, it doesn’t have a right to “live in” another person “against their will.”
This is a much stronger argument than the dodge effected by a “right to privacy” because it draws upon more powerful constitutional justice principles and centers on the bodily reality of people who can become pregnant. But it’s not quite strong enough morally, because it still punts on personhood, which allows Douthat to maintain that abortion is the active killing of an existing “life,” which is wrong and, in the view of some on the Right, prohibited by the 14th Amendment.
No one would argue that it’s morally (or legally) acceptable, for example, for a mother to purposely kill a newborn baby in her care for the sake of her “sovereignty,” or any other reason; so fetal personhood must be tackled head-on. To that end, Douthat provides a crucial opening. He grants that “forced pregnancy,” due to absolute abortion bans, in the case of rape, is wrong because the pregnant person didn’t choose to have sex.
First of all, how does the consent to have sex, or not, determine the ontological reality of the personhood of the resulting zygote? If “life begins at conception,” then, logically, there should be no circumstance in which murder is acceptable, except maybe the mortal danger of the pregnant person. But second, and more importantly, there seems to be an underlying assumption that making one’s female sexuality available in sex somehow means that one’s capacity for reproduction has also been made available, just as it is with males. Except that there’s no equivalence in male and female reproductive capacity, which I’ll come back to below.
Douthat also contends that conservatives are probably wrong to insist upon abortion bans as long as they refuse to provide any social services that would support parents in their caretaking of unplanned children. In other words, he’s willing to make visible, and somehow consider compensating, the parenting labor that’s foisted upon the unwilling if abortion is illegal. This subsidy wouldn’t actually remotely justify forcing pregnancy, but it has a certain resonance with “social reproduction feminism,” which advocates for domestic/care labor justice. And that resonance serves to bring a new perspective into the “argument.”
Social reproduction feminists take the labor analysis all the way, as epitomized in Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. They’ve long realized that devaluation, oppression, and exploitation of domestic/care labor are linked with domination and control of female sexuality and capacity for biological reproduction—all in service to patriarchal ends and capitalist wealth. It’s useful, then, to closely examine, through this labor lens, exactly what Douthat is saying when claiming that “life begins at conception,” following a willing sexual engagement.
A “conception”—the joining of sperm and egg that sometimes results from the sexual act—is in many ways just that, a “concept,” somewhat analogous to an architect’s drawing for a house. The making—the re/production—of the actual baby or house or any other material reality that starts via a concept/ion involves a labor process with matter over time. (Yes, of course, there are vast differences between babies and houses, but the analogy is about process.) To say that a baby or house exists at the conception stage is to say the labor over time and material manifestation are not fundamental to the baby or house. In other words, to say “life begins at conception” is to say female gestation labor is not fundamental to the procreation of human “persons.”
Yet, not only are individual “persons” not viable outside a mother’s body until after considerable gestation labor, but that labor is not incidental. At least one study has found that the work of gestation is on par with that of an endurance athlete. This also means that other forms of work often require more effort while simultaneously engaged in gestation, not to mention while in birthing labor and recovery. Conversely, the ability to avoid gestation labor—via birth control or abortion—enables greater advances in education and waged work.
Three moral clarifications can emerge from this recognition that reproduction involves a great deal of work separate and apart from any sexuality involved at conception:
- No “person” exists at conception or before a baby is viable, so abortion is not murder, but is morally acceptable; (Later term abortion due to major fetal or maternal health problems is a different discussion.)
- Banning abortion is not just “forced pregnancy,” it’s forced labor, which is explicitly prohibited by both the 14th and the 13th Amendments to the Constitution and is generally condemned as wrong by all contemporary religious and ethical traditions; and
- Public support for equitable access to birth control, maternal healthcare, and abortion is essential to “justice for all,” as comprehensive reproductive services are necessary to address gender, racial, and economic inequalities.
The moral anguish and confusion so many people feel about abortion is likely at least somewhat due to the Christian Right effectively proclaiming that a) “personhood” exists at the moment of male fertilization, prior to female gestational labor, and b) female gestational labor should be taken for granted as a given with female sexuality. It’s time to forcefully and wholeheartedly denounce these inaccurate, nakedly patriarchal proclamations and usher in a new era of unambivalent moral advocacy for reproductive labor liberation, in which a diversity of reproductive actions is empowered both culturally and politically.