The GOP Wants to Control Every Body
It's no coincidence that Republican-controlled states that criminalize abortion are also criminalizing gender-affirming care for trans people. And it's only the beginning of their pronatalist white supremacist agenda.
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Conservatives are out to revoke people’s established civil rights and in their absence, prosecute the most marginalized among us for having the audacity to exist. They’ve escalated their long-standing efforts to erase abortion access from the map. And now they’re digging deeper into their efforts to eradicate transgender people from public life.
These days, GOP-controlled state legislatures appear to be in competition for coming up with the most draconian policies. Abortion- and trans-hostile states don’t occupy two separate circles overlapping in the middle of a Venn diagram. They fill up the same space, one circle of relentless attacks on entire groups’ worth of people who can become pregnant and people who are transgender. If you’re fighting for abortion in the numbered days of Roe v. Wade, you’d better be fighting for trans people, too.
Consider Missouri’s attempt to “protect” unviable ectopic pregnancies, which can kill pregnant people if left untreated with the drug methotrexate, a surgical alternative that often preserves their fallopian tube and future fertility. Missouri Republicans tried to amend another bill to prevent pregnant people from leaving the state for abortion care elsewhere in the country. Though major news networks described the legislation as the first of its kind, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom traced its roots to the Fugitive Slave Act, once again “restricting interstate mobility based on one’s categorical identity.” And Missouri pediatricians would be subject to criminalization for providing the age-appropriate, life-saving, gender-affirming care that every major medical organization not only supports but also encourages for trans youth. That measure represents just one of the anti-trans bills introduced in the state legislature.
Texas is “ground zero” for targeting abortion and trans kids alike. Texans have been living for more than six months in a post-Roe reality unless they catch their pregnancies before approximately six weeks from their last menstrual periods, the arbitrary gestational cutoff for embryonic cardiac activity that Republicans falsely call a “heartbeat.” Forced by S.B. 8 later into their pregnancies, Texans must have or raise the money, schedule the time off work, and hire the childcare they need to leave the state; three out of four have traveled between 200–450 miles to abortion clinics in Oklahoma or New Mexico, according to March 2022 data from the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project. Others have traveled even farther. Then came February’s executive-level directive for a wide range of private citizens, from teachers to medical providers, to report trans kids as child abuse victims and for state officials to investigate gender-affirming parents as child abusers. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued the marching orders in a “legal opinion” that isn’t law but nevertheless carries the perception, and the fear, of law. Following multiple state-level temporary injunctions, Paxton appealed to the Texas Supreme Court for his scheme to continue.
State anti-abortion and anti-trans actions represent dual tracks under a single GOP agenda that dictates the terms of how to have and raise a family, or else. The “else” is criminalization. And the consequences are far from exclusive to people living in Missouri or Texas. Idaho’s governor just signed the first S.B. 8 copycat ban into law that doubles Texas’s $10,000 bounty—any person can file suit to collect on every person who “aids and abets” an abortion after about six weeks into a pregnancy. The Idaho law, effective April 22, greenlights an embryo’s potential family members to pursue a $20,000 bounty on abortion providers. Idaho’s Republican-majority state legislature pursued Texas-style prosecution of gender-affirming pediatric health care, but the Senate killed the House-passed bill only out of supposed concern for parental rights rather than any concern for trans children. Punitive state-level abortion and LGBTQ proposals, including those specifically targeting trans people, number in the hundreds.
CONNECTED MOVEMENTS UNDER CONSERVATIVE FIRE
How did we get here? Katelyn Burns, the first openly trans reporter on Capitol Hill, attributed the present situation to Roe v. Wade. The 1973 ruling legalized abortion nationwide at the expense of a new fetal “viability standard” that justified the state’s “compelling interest”—a fancy term for “intrusion”—into a person’s pregnancy. “A large portion of conservative attacks on gender-affirming care for young people stems from a similar place and extends the power of the government even further into our private lives,” she wrote for Mic.
Since then, Republican policymakers everywhere have succeeded in shifting the Overton window of political acceptability. All abortion bans and restrictions on transgender people are bad, period. As proposals go from bad to worse, the bad starts to seem not so bad and the worst becomes possible. That perspective helps explain how conservatives started their war against trans people in the bathroom and escalated it to policing trans children in school sports and in their own homes. It’s how so-called “heartbeat” abortion bans became the new “20-week bans.” It’s why most “20-week bans” purposely count pregnancy from fertilization rather than the standard medical measurement from a person’s last menstrual period about two weeks earlier, making them 22-week gestational bans. Conservatives use the strategy to help establish “fetal personhood” at conception and earn extra credit for confusing abortion patients about how much time they actually have to obtain clinical care. Such deliberate political attrition will underpin the de facto or de jure demise of Roe by June when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Mississippi’s proposed 15-week gestational ban in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The Overton window gives air to a broader swath of extreme proposals that conservatives didn’t openly pursue before Donald Trump’s presidency emboldened them to say and do the things they’ve always wanted to say and do. In between their racist questions for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court, Senate Republicans Marsha Blackburn (TN) and Mike Braun (IN) expressed disapproval with landmark cases legalizing birth control for married couples and interracial marriage, respectively. Roe’s demise could undermine these precedents along with Obergefell v. Hodges’s 2015 marriage equality decision. Criminalization would flourish in the resulting civil rights vacuum.
“A Supreme Court that will overturn Roe will eat trans children alive,” said Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), a progressive Washington, D.C.-based gender justice group, and a transgender advocate.
Lawmakers and judges may have turned over by 2022, but the behind-the-scenes power brokers remain largely the same. The Judicial Crisis Network spent at least $10 million worth of dark money on each of the most recent SCOTUS appointments: Justices Neil Gorsuch—who delivered fellow conservatives an unexpected blow in the Bostock ruling—Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Journalist Melissa Gira Grant’s recent New Republic report focused on the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, two of the most established and powerful offenders.
In an interview, Branstetter brought up another organization: the World Congress of Families, which packages similar bigotry as values and exports it around the world, notably to Hungary. If abortion restrictions reliably predict “backsliding democracies” like the United States, they foretell trans attacks, too. Florida’s newly signed “Don’t Say Gay”—or trans—classroom muzzle on discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation contains echoes of Hungary’s 2021 ban on sharing LGBTQ content with minors and the World Congress of Families’ storied association with Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws.
Branstetter attributed the parallel worldviews to the same universe: pronatalist white supremacy. It’s the conservative legal movement’s response to the declining U.S. birth rate through state-mandated enforcement of traditional gender roles, the “breadwinner” lauded for his contributions to the economy and the “caregiver” devalued for hers in the home. Paxton’s disingenuous child abuse directive certainly builds off U.S. pronatalism, exposing loving families to criminalization and separation—consequences disproportionately familiar to migrant, Indigenous, and Black families, past and present.
“Bodily autonomy is a threat to it,” Branstetter said. Universal childcare and paid leave policies, in this context, are dangerous precisely because they encourage people to decide for themselves if, when, and how to have a family, rather than submit to a pronatalist binary.
TRANS JUSTICE NEEDS REPRODUCTIVE ALLIES
Bodily autonomy is a familiar tenet to trans- and abortion-affirming advocates. It’s the basis of reproductive justice, the Black women–created framework and movement to have or not have children through real access rather than abstract rights to contraception and abortion and to parent children in safe and healthy environments, free from carceral oppression under the police, the school-to-prison pipeline, and in Texas, Republicans’ trans “child abuse” scheme.
Reproductive justice drives Adri Pèrez and their cross-movement work. Pèrez, an LGBTQIA+ equality policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, co-founded the state’s first abortion fund that explicitly connects access to people of all genders. “It took having a lot of hard conversations with people that had been doing this work for much longer than me … to assert my humanity and my existence in those spaces,” they said in an interview.
Those conversations are worth having. “You have to make sure that there’s a seat at the table for everybody,” they said. “And if there isn’t, you’re going to be missing certain perspectives.”
Leo Valdes, a New York–based nonbinary and trans advocate, historian, and abortion patient, told DAME that people in reproductive and abortion circles can do a better job of showing up for trans people. They offered the recommendation to critique power, and how it’s wielded, rather than gender. “Is it really a battle against men, or is it a battle against patriarchy?” they asked, particularly when cis white women are central to upholding transphobia.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, have exported even more of their bigotry from the U.K. to the U.S. The calls are coming from inside the house every time avowed pro-choice feminists scoff at trans-inclusive pregnancy language with dog whistles as loud as any Republican’s public statements. To be merely “pro-choice” at this moment is to cling to an outdated reproductive-rights framework that prioritizes individuals with the various means to make a choice at the expense of entire communities that don’t. “My body, my choice”—an outdated slogan co-opted by vaccine and mask opponents—doesn’t square with the reproductive justice movement, which recognizes that people live and survive with each other’s help. It’s a wholly inadequate individual response to systemic crises, from the federal government’s ongoing lackluster COVID response to escalating state-level restrictions on abortion and attacks on trans children.
Democrats are not absolved of the Right’s sins. They campaign on LGBTQ protections and for “reproductive rights” or “women’s health care,” the latter while avoiding the more direct word “abortion.” President Joe Biden specified “abortion” just once in more than a year in office, in a White House statement addressing Texas’ S.B. 8, despite Roe’s expected imminent demise. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) brought the nebulously named Women’s Health Protection Act to a symbolic vote that was doomed to fail, thanks to the chamber’s Jim Crow–era filibuster rule that Biden recommended lifting only for his voting rights bill. Biden failed to use the next day’s State of the Union speech as an opportunity to namecheck the legislation, let alone “abortion,” on a nationwide scale. So far, the Senate hasn’t bothered to take even a symbolic vote on the House-passed Equality Act to enshrine LGBTQ protections into federal civil rights law.
To the Biden administration’s credit, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas over S.B. 8, though the Supreme Court ruled that DOJ lacks the standing to challenge the law. The Biden-era U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, arguably the Trump-era’s most dedicated anti-LGBTQ bastion, is taking explicit actions to protect trans youth in Texas. “Transgender children bring fulfillment to their parents, joy to their friends, and are made in the image of God,” Biden said in a White House statement. And in his first year in office, Biden’s judicial confirmation record outpaced even Trump’s in the same timeframe. “More than sheer numbers, though, the diversity of Biden’s nominees is a huge departure from the prototypical white, male corporate lawyers almost always tapped for lifetime federal judgeships,” HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery wrote. “This president’s court picks have included public defenders, voting rights lawyers and union organizers, in addition to historic firsts with Native Americans, Black women, LGBTQ nominees and Muslim Americans.”
But failing to recognize the thread of bodily autonomy connecting abortion and transgender people is neither an encouraging nor winning strategy for Democrats. And it doesn’t help every time journalists and headlines reduce their life-or-death consequences to so-called culture wars. “No longer is this an issue about access to life-saving health care; legislation that focuses on trans Americans is a ‘wedge issue’ that reflects America’s polarization,” trans journalist Sydney Bauer wrote for NBCU Academy, a professional development program for aspiring college journalists. The same applies to abortion.
In reproductive-focused movements, there are encouraging signs of solidarity with trans people. More than 100 women’s rights and reproductive rights, health, and justice organizations signed onto an NWLC-led letter against Texas Republicans’ “lawless attempts to criminalize evidence-based health care for transgender youth and to threaten their families, providers, and other supportive adults.”
On Twitter, The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant and fellow journalist Steven Thrasher discussed the need to bolster trans justice beyond traditional civil rights-based organizations. “You can’t just meet these attacks with civil litigation. That’s why these emergency funds are critical,” Gira Grant tweeted. Pèrez is familiar with both worlds through their work with the ACLU of Texas and West Fund. Trans people have always supported each other’s basic needs, they told DAME. It’s time to expand statewide and nationwide, despite valid hesitancies over the nonprofit industrial complex.
“In a moment when funders are looking to pour a lot of money and resources into a cause, because they see the effects and the harm of the failure to do that throughout the past seven years since we won marriage equality, I think right now is a really powerful moment where we could use some of that money to build up that infrastructure,” Pèrez said.
They ticked through the benefits. “A network would centralize the process in a way that would maximize the potential to raise funds instead of it being these one-off things reliant on people’s personal networks that can often leave people on the margins even more on the margins,” they said. Crowdfunding campaigns, while necessary in a country’s worth of disparities, often exacerbate those disparities. And a robust trans justice infrastructure, they added, would “give us a greater understanding of the needs of our community in Texas if we were able to build that network together.”
Abortion funds offer a model, if not the precise blueprint for replicating that infrastructure. The National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) operates as a clearinghouse for local grassroots funds, and advocates are starting newer funds like the Texas-based Buckle Bunnies, too. As Pèrez pointed out, trans people’s cost-prohibitive needs typically extend beyond paying for one abortion procedure and its potential associated costs, like transportation and shelter, or one-off immigration bonds or bail fees with networks of their own. Transgender-focused infrastructure may require “a case worker of sorts,” they said. The work may be more complicated, but it’s no less vital.
People who consider themselves advocates for the full spectrum of reproductive health care, including abortion, have a moral responsibility to trans people and children. There is no wrong way to be a person, unless you’re a bigot. Abortion advocates should be ready to die on this hill, so our trans friends and families won’t die at all. That’s the bare minimum. Trans people and all people who can become pregnant should be able to live reproductive justice’s promise of full, happy, healthy, self-determined lives.
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