Anti-abortion laws have never been concerned with different opinions on “personhood”; they’re all about upholding white supremacy through racial and gender oppression.
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On May 15, Alabama’s governor Kay Ivey signed the cruelly named Alabama Human Life Protection Act, a vicious anti-abortion ban that doesn’t just ban the procedure in almost all cases—doctors who break the law by performing the procedure face up to 99 years in prison. To add insult to injury, she marked the moment by posting a photo on Twitter, tweeting: “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.”
The problem is that we know that Gov. Ivey and her “pro-life” comrades’ walk don’t match the talk. The governor has personally signed off on execution orders. Three in five pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, yet Alabama is home to some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world.
I could keep listing the different ways that Ivey—and the pro-life political movement at large—are a bunch of hypocrites, but facts don’t matter to them. It’s time to stop taking these politicians and activists words at face value. These pro-life laws aren’t about different opinions on “fetal personhood”; they’re about upholding white supremacy through racial and gender oppression.
As more people realize that, yes, conservatives actually do want to completely ban abortion, it’s more important now than ever to see and name the movement and policies for what they are. American anti-abortion policy has always been about controlling (white) women and pushing them into their “proper” place: being subservient and making more babies.
Abortion was frequently practiced in the U.S., and during much of the 1800s, providers were able to offer abortion care openly and without legal intervention. Since the procedure was largely unregulated, it became a competitive business for many providers. One provider called Madame Restell, for example, was so successful that she could afford to spend $60,000 a year (more than a $1 million in today’s dollars) on advertising alone.
But white men were not happy that the women in their lives were practicing their reproductive rights so freely and easily. And the fact that a woman could become a successful businessperson from providing abortions added fuel to the fire. Restell, for example, was mocked in the press, called the “Wickest Woman in New York,” and routine harassed by police and arrested multiple times. She ultimately died by suicide in 1878, her last words were said to have been: “Why do they persecute me so? I have done nothing to harm anyone.” The way she was treated reminds us that the pro-life culture of harassment and disseminating lies is one of the many ways they put women whom they believe have stepped out of line back in their places.
In the late 1800s, xenophobia and racist anxieties arose as the Anglo-Saxon birth rate declined and people became increasingly worried about protecting their culture (whatever that means). The anti-feminist backlash against women practicing bodily autonomy coupled with racist fears created a perfect cultural storm to push for anti-abortion legislation that’d acquiesce these fears.
The people behind the first successful push to outlaw abortion are white doctors. In the mid-1800s, the newly formed American Medical Association made outlawing abortion one of its first major achievements, under the leadership of obstetrician Horatio Storer, also known as “the father of gynecology.” Under the guise of “safety,” they pushed for governmental regulation, stating that providers like Restell didn’t have the medical training necessary to provide safe abortion care in spite of the fact that there were no new medical breakthroughs justifying that argument. By 1880, they successfully outlawed most abortions. The rare exceptions—when the pregnant person’s life was in danger—put the decision solely in the hands of racist, sexist doctors.
Dr. Storer believed a woman’s place was in the home. “The true wife,” didn’t pursue “undue power in public life … undue control in domestic affairs … [or] privileges not her own.” He believed in expressed fear of Mexican, Chinese, Black, Indian, and Catholic babies dominating the spread of “civilization.” “Shall” these regions, he asked, “be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? “This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends on the future destiny of the nation.”
During this time, men pushed the idea that abortion was unwomanly and unpatriotic. It’s impossible to separate the white supremacist and patriarchal ideologies that drove the criminalization of abortion—and forced millions of people to use dangerous methods to terminate their pregnancies. All in the name of keeping white men in their rightful place in society.
It’s hard to not see the parallels between white cultural fears today and the ones that drove the first abortion bans. The racist cocktail of gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, targeted disinformation campaigns, and individual racist voters brought us our first white president. Donald Trump hired known white supremacists Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. He called murderous Nazis “very fine people.” And thanks to white evangelical support, Trump has been full steam ahead to deliver what their leaders have schemed to get for decades: control by minority rule to legislate into existence their white patriarchal utopia.
In spite of the vitriol that drove the 19th-century wave of anti-abortion laws, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision didn’t receive immediate widespread condemnation from conservatives. In fact, the Southern Baptist Church adopted resolutions in 1974 and 1976 that were largely in agreement in Roe.
The modern pro-life movement’s origins aren’t grassroots reactionary outrage; it’s a calculated power grab by white evangelical men like Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. They teamed up with activist Paul Weyrich, who had long sought to “start a new conservative movement using evangelicals as foot soldiers.” He believed politicizing abortion could spark the passion needed to mobilize white evangelicals into a loyal voting bloc.
Teaming up against fellow (but not racist) evangelical Christian president Jimmy Carter during his reelection campaign solidified the modern alliance between Republicans and the Religious Right. The president refused to add a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion while the Republican Party’s officially made it a part of its platform.
White evangelical support of Ronald Reagan looks paradoxical at first glance. As California governor, he signed law expanding abortion access. However, it’s the sexism of the party (the GOP opposed the Equal Rights Amendment) and the racist beliefs of Reagan, who popularized the misogynoir myth of the welfare queen and received KKK endorsements, that made them a match made in heaven.
The Reagan victory set the stage for today’s alliance between Trump and the white evangelicals, who largely remain loyal to him. While he, too, was previously pro-choice, Trump’s racism and misogyny made him a suitable vehicle for the white supremacist pursuit of power. Jerry Falwell Jr., the current president of Liberty University, has followed in his father’s footsteps—and Trump has delivered. His successful election brought back a conservative majority to the Supreme Court and 100 (and counting!) judicial confirmations.
White supremacists don’t care how they achieve and maintain power. All that matters is that it happens—even it means working with a politically inexperienced, Twitter-loving, pussy-grabbing liar.
Reproductive control is as American as apple pie; any analysis of the laws without historical context is incomplete and to our detriment. “Intersectionality” has become a buzzword often used improperly, but in this case, it is sorely needed. The most vulnerable populations—the poor, people of color, trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people—have long endured the brunt of reproductive control; they have and always will be hit the hardest by regulation and criminalization.
Instead of looking at the Right’s claimed intent, we need to look at impact. Anti-abortion policy is structural violence, where “persons are socially and culturally marginalized in ways that deny them the opportunity for emotional and physical well-being, or expose them to assault or rape, or subject them to hazards that can cause sickness and death.” If they truly cared about the sanctity of life they wouldn’t depend on gaslighting, manipulation, and control through the corrupt so-called criminal justice system.
To literally save lives in light of the recent ramping up in right-wing attacks on abortion rights, we have to take the Right’s hypocrisy to task. Remember when they claimed to be for small government and fiscal responsibility? Those values are torn apart as they continue to ignore the growing body of reputable research showing that comprehensive sex ed and better access to birth control reduced unplanned pregnancy—thus reducing abortion rates. Yet the Right has steadily opposed these measures. Why? Because they promote autonomy and empowerment among the people they want to control.
Being pro-choice isn’t enough. We need to follow the lead of trans* people, indigenous and women of color and talk about reproductive justice. Criminalizing abortion is just one piece of the white supremacist, patriarchal pie. That’s why the Right doesn’t care about police brutality, the high maternal death rate, sexual assault and abuse, or poor health care; they’re all forms of violence that systemically reinforce gender and racial hierarchies that will become only more oppressive if we don’t call them out for what they truly are.
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