Should we be doing more to link the issues in the struggle for reproductive justice?

by | 19 Feb 2016 | The Blog | 0 comments

Anti-Austerity Protests

Anti-Austerity Protests

The Labour Party last year assented to the Conservatives’ longstanding desire to cap child benefits at the white middle-class standard of two children. In desperation, a petition is currently calling on the government to at least abandon plans to force women to prove that their third (or fourth, fifth…) child is the product of rape, before they can get the corresponding benefits: “According to George Osborne’s budget, a woman who has a third child as the result of rape must justify her position in order to avoid losing tax credits … [She must somehow] prove she was raped to a government official. [Besides,] the whole plan to restrict child tax credits to 2 children is nothing short of social engineering… dictating to the public what sort of family life they should have.”

Well, quite. And this story implicitly speaks to a whole raft of disputes currently active around the governance of the uterus-bearing person. In this post I want to move towards linking the politics of gestation and non-gestation. No small task, nor is it a new one, since women-of-colour feminists from bell hooks to SisterSong have made the case for an integrated ‘reproductive justice’ politics for some time. Here I simply hope to update and remake the point that, precisely because of the opposing forces that differentially assist people’s biological reproduction and simultaneously “desist” others’ (as Sharmila Rudrappa puts it) along racial and class axes, these seemingly disparate types of issues should always fall under a united banner for reproductive justice rather than be seen as distinct problems.

It is thirty years since the ethnographer Shellee Cohen coined the term ‘stratified reproduction’; and nearly twenty since legal scholar Dorothy Roberts indicted the white-supremacist class structure of United States infertility care and ‘repro-genetic’ assistance, in Killing the Black Body (1997). As Roberts reiterated recently:

“At a time when wealthy white women have access to technologies that assist them in having children who not only are genetically related to them or their partners but have also been genetically screened, various laws and policies discourage women of color from having children at all.” (Roberts 2009:783)

The dizzying twist, of course, is that despite the high value placed on their procreation, the former group (wealthy white women) also enjoy access to the technologies that assist them in not having children; while the latter group (women of colour), despite the devaluation of their families, find themselves prevented from preventing their increase. It is a conundrum about which many decades of ink has already been spilt; a riddle generated by the sometimes (but not always) incompatible intertwinement of new and old ‘repro-normative’ and biopolitical logics brought by religion and the demands of capital accumulation.

As such the question before us seems to me to be this. Mindful of these deep and irreconcilable fissures internal to feminism – and of the imperative not to equate women with having a womb – what can we do to link struggles around technologies that spatially organise, enable or disable the uterus-bearing body? Such ‘technologies’, as I see it, include child benefits and universal welfare, DNA legislation, crèches, the home, the hospital, the abortion or family planning clinic, and the prison or detention centre qua maternity ward. Part of the answer might be to insist – politically but also practically, following the grassroots obstetric “GynePunk” labs of the Catalonian collective hackteria – on there being little difference between pro-creative and anti-creative manipulations of the human reproductive apparatus. From this perspective, whether the end-product of any given uterine activity is a cancer, a miscarriage, a termination or a live newborn infant, the very best of technological assistance should – clearly – be freely available to all.

There is much by way of everyday gynaecological self-care, mutual aid and solidarity that ordinary people can do or learn to do by themselves. However, there is also every reason to immediately seize, expropriate and/or demand – for everybody – the most cutting-edge means of safe, comfortable and prompt (non-)reproduction. Currently, in ways facilitated by the fragmentation and isolation of services related to reproduction, outrageous austerity policies offload vast swathes of social responsibility back into the ‘free’ domestic sphere. We see simultaneous attempts to privatize (in part) activities that have hitherto belonged almost exclusively to that sphere and to the public sphere: healthcare, contraception, abortion, and gestation itself. Subway ad campaigns lecture black teen mothers on their individual bodily and fiscal (ir)responsibility, at the same time as state-funded social aid for families, family planning, contraception and sex education are slashed. In the UK, as highlighted by Sisters Uncut, the near-total removal of domestic violence services makes a mockery of the government’s claims to prioritize ‘families’.

Nevertheless, “Babies, at least healthy white babies, are very precious products these days,” as Barbara Katz Rothman says. “Mothers, rather like South African diamond miners, are cheap, expendable, not-too-trustworthy labor necessary to produce the precious product”. [1. Katz Rothman, Barbara. 2000. Recreating Motherhood, p.39.] Indeed: the uneven local and transnational geographies of baby production under capitalism are becoming more and more stratified, being no exception to the emerging trends in social reproduction as a whole. Meanwhile, hi-tech eugenic once-futuristic horizons are materializing in the here and now: perhaps even ectogenesis is on the cards. [2. The still very much experimental science of ectogenesis refers, in effect, to the disembodied human incubators or machine-wombs that Shulamith Firestone declared necessary for human emancipation in 1970.] 2016 is predicted to be the year of the birth of the first baby who, as a result of private mtDNA ‘donation’, will have three genetic parents. Inherent excess, indulgence? On the contrary: demanding that laboratory-assisted forms of non-dual parentage be made available to the masses (in particular LGBTQ and non-monogamous families), while securing institutional recognition for its already existing social forms, is surely part and parcel of a reproductive justice politics that rejects austerity’s logic of scarcity.

The situation we’re in, though, is bleak. All over the world, a violent mix of legal policies and extra-legal, socio-economic constraints force people either to endure unwanted pregnancies, or regret wanted ones—turning these groups against one another, as well as against the small but ascendant group of people who gestate for cash. Forced sterilizations are an intimate and traumatic general legacy within Latinx North American communities, and remain a contemporary reality in prisons. Those suffering directly from this intolerable, hydra-headed situation are, of course, the people who lack the financial means, the mobility, and the impunity – afforded by privileged class/race positions – to access wanted (legal or illegal) medical interventions privately and without fear. Resisting impositions of unwanted (legal or illegal) interventions on the body is made especially difficult for low-income women of colour, requiring legalistic fluency and the standing to leverage discourses of individual human rights.

Sometimes corporeal control comes in the form of bureaucratically impenetrable campaigns of service deprivation. In the US, a new documentary, Trapped, rams home the imminent danger that the gains brought about by the abortion-legalizing decision Roe v. Wade in 1973 could succumb entirely to the right wing’s present strategy of “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers” (TRAP laws). Today, in former slave states like Mississippi and Alabama, where enslaved people’s reproductive capacities were once fully owned, abortion has been effectively TRAP-regulated out of existence across vast sections of (predominantly) Black low-income American life. With breathtaking cynicism, these anti-abortionists decry the fact of anti-blackness and Black death on their billboards, while pinning the responsibility for it on Black women who have abortions (all the while styling themselves as ‘pro-life’ even as they attack social welfare in all its forms).

It has long been predicted that American-style ‘fetal rights’ discourses shall spread across Europe. To take one example: the evangelical Franciscan group Helpers of God’s Precious Infants (founded in New York in 1989), set up shop in the UK in 2000 with its distinctive anti-abortion approach of prayer vigils and ‘pavement counsellors’. It manifests its presence outside Marie Stopes centres and abortion clinics. This clip documents and interviews the UK anticapitalist group Feminist Fightback during its excellently executed counter-blockade, as the Helpers marched under a standard of the Virgin Mary to attempt to morally dissuade people from entering an abortion clinic in Stratford, East London, in May 2015.

Vigilant, boisterous and upbeat class action like Feminist Fightback’s is likely to become more and more necessary as foreign funding for pro-life interference grows; there have been several ambivalent calls for protest-free buffer zones around clinics, intended to protect anyone seeking abortion care or advice services from harassment. Those struggling for reproductive rights in Ireland are doing so on different terrain: there, pro-life groups have a prominent (also US-funded) street presence, even though the total restrictions on abortion were never loosened as they were in the UK in 1967. Abortion remains, incredibly, completely illegal in Ireland – Irish women routinely have to find ways to travel to England to get terminations – and Irish feminists have been battling it out with church and state for more or less the past century: get your rosaries off our ovaries! This year in Belfast, a woman faces trial and up to life imprisonment for self-administering mifepristone and misoprostol. Many are organising in solidarity with her – even challenging the state to incarcerate them too for the same crime. But international outcries have not succeeded in freeing Purvi Patel, who has so far served more than nine months of jail time for an allegedly self-induced miscarriage in Indiana, USA.

In many ways, in one of its characteristic contradictions, capitalism can be said to want babies, but not mothers. Obviously, however, it depends on mothers. It is hard to imagine a more seismic insurrection than a global motherhood strike. By way of disciplining this power, our society both demonizes and idealizes mothers: bringing all possible futures under the totalitarian aegis of the white baby’s face, on the one hand, while materially – by means of what Rob Nixon calls slow violence, as well as through directly lethal policing – de-funding Black babies, killing ‘surplus’ youths, and blaming poor women for these deaths.

Pregnancy itself, in the racialized or migrant body, is increasingly penalized and coerced (e.g. the NHS charges introduced by the UK Immigration Act 2014 include childbirth). In January 2016, following years of passionate mass campaigning to close the detention centre Yarl’s Wood altogether (years marked by abuses, miscarriages and suicide attempts) an independent report finally recommended to the UK government that pregnant asylum-seekers should not be detained under any circumstances. A high-profile surrogacy case in 2014 illustrated the two-tier reproductive system as it now applies, potentially, to gestation itself: that of Baby Gammy, who was created via commercial contract with a low-income hired surrogate, then abandoned on account of his Down’s syndrome. Gammy, whose healthy twin was, unlike him, taken “home” by the buyers (genetic parents) to Western Australia, represented the product of a competitively priced surrogacy clinic in Bangkok. He remained with the gestator, Pattharamon Chanbua, who willingly (indeed, defiantly) became and remains the provider of his care. Until a new regime banned surrogacy in the aftermath of the international outcry for Gammy, Thailand’s surrogacy served the same middle class white clientele, all across the Pacific, as its sex work industry still does. [3. The Mexican state of Tabasco, and the government of India, both hitherto hubs of ‘gestational outsourcing’ in the twenty-first century, banned surrogacy services for foreigners late in 2015. Additionally, during the catastrophic earthquake, Nepal’s surrogacy industry made the news when its pregnant migrant labour force – working overwhelmingly for Israeli biotech agencies and gay Israeli couples – could not initially be airlifted to safety in Israel. The location of the world’s most competitive ‘surrogacy destination’ now shifts swiftly as national legislatures shut down medical tourism. California may establish a global monopoly on the controversial practice.]

How will the many kinds of reproducers on earth  struggle together? A reproductive politics is required that links surrogates, abortion patients, migrant au pairs, maligned ‘birth tourists’, poor or incarcerated or sterilized parents, pregnant asylum-seekers, and mothers (of whatever gender, or genetic status). In the end, struggles for the techno-uterus are a radical collective demand for an environment worth living in. And we should not shy from politicizing the terrain of ‘literal’, biological, reproduction when we address anti-capitalist struggles around social reproduction. A utopian perspective on procreation needs to reject any ideology of ‘natural’ birth or childrearing (which often sees technology and experiment as bad) and hi-tech neoliberal natalism (which makes us solely responsible for our reproductive success or ‘failure’). Both these perspectives masquerade as progressive reproductive politics but over-valorize the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ of human reproduction. They sentimentally pursue the production of new human life in a way that abstracts us from the conditions of that production as a process. Surely the actual quality of our shared term on earth needs to be compelling enough for life to deserve to be passed on. Governments (as ventriloquized via The Telegraph and Forbes, for example) act surprised when birth-rates fall, despite ample evidence that what they’re doing destroys lives, and makes life barely worth living. Do they want people to cooperate in making fetuses – which includes sometimes unmaking them – and in raising them? Or don’t they? Well then. Do they owe us a living? As Crass pointed out in 1978: “of course they do, of course they do, of course they fucking do.”

N.B. The author of this post will be presenting a modified version of this post at the 2016 ENTITLE conference in Stockholm and at the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco. It shall be extended into a published article.


Katz Rothman, Barbara. 2000. Recreating Motherhood. New York: Norton.

Roberts, Dorothy (2009) ‘Race, Gender, and Genetic Technologies: A New Reproductive Dystopia?’ Signs 34(4) 783-804.



Sophie LewisSophie Lewis

Sophie Lewis is a third-year PhD researcher in Human Geography at SEED, working with Noel Castree and Erik Swyngedouw on her thesis – by publication – on gestation-as-labour in the contemporary reproductive technology industry. Her most recent article surveys the limits of antisurrogacy and technophobic feminisms.