Controlling the Means of Reproduction
On forced motherhood in America
Since 2007, the birth rate in America has been steadily declining. For women in their twenties, the birth rate has fallen by almost 30%.
Women have cited the cost of childcare and housing, as well as debt, as reasons for not wanting children. One study conducted across ten countries showed that over 80% of respondents were worried about climate change, with many feeling betrayed by their governments.
Birth rates, in other words, don’t just fall accidentally, in some cultural and political vortex. Neither do attacks on reproductive rights.
I was already going to write about birth strikes this week, but now the context has made the subject more urgent. Since the pandemic, birth rates have only declined more sharply, as a wave of parental burnout crested and never really came down. The continued fight for paid leave, affordable childcare, and policies that support the mental and physical health of birthing people, all to little avail, has only made having babies look less attractive.
In 2020, one woman wrote about her decision to have an abortion because she didn’t have access to paid leave:
At the time, my husband was earning less than a living wage at a grocery store. His job was stable, but like 83% of all civilian workers in America, he did not have paid family leave. Not only did my employer provide health benefits we both relied on, my position paid slightly higher than his and had a six-week paid parental leave policy. I soon learned, however, that in keeping with federal mandates, this was only available to staff who had been employed for one year. Due to my employment of just 33 days at the moment I learned of my pregnancy, I was ineligible.
These are the kinds of decisions people in America have to make every day.
All this only restates the obvious: the world is falling apart around us. Under such conditions, is it really any surprise more people are refusing to have children? Might the declining birth rate, in fact, be an intentional, if disorganized, rebellion?
Yesterday, as you probably know, Politico obtained a draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. Justice John Roberts then issued a statement, which didn’t even mention the issue of women’s bodily autonomy or their right to exist as full citizens under the law, but instead criticized the leak as a “breach of trust.” As though the information contained in the leak is not itself a breach of any trust in the American government people with uteruses may have had left.
Cited in Alito’s draft opinion is the Constitution, which Alito argues “makes no reference to abortion.” The draft also states the right to abortion is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Here is where the draft, perhaps, gets something right: the protection of bodies that are not white, cis, hetero, and male is not foundational to American life. But it should be.
The effort to overturn Roe, however, is an effort to further alienate women from the means of reproduction—that is, from their bodies—and part of a larger effort to keep women working in the home for free.
Activist and organizer Jenny Brown writes in her book Birth Strike that attacks on reproductive freedom are a direct response to declining birth rates and an effort to increase the free and cheap labor men get from women. Preventing people with uteruses from accessing birth control and abortion and forcing them into American motherhood, Brown argues, “is about the labor of bearing and rearing children: who will do it and who will pay for it.”
It’s no surprise, therefore—even though it feels to many of us unconscionable and horrifying—to see these efforts ramp up as women are being pushed out of the workforce and deeper into the home. This is right where men want us. And not only because they think women belong in the home and nowhere near public life, but because the entire system rests on our free labor.
Politicians and think tanks worry about birth rates all the time. They know women control the means of reproduction and produce the possibility of an economy by birthing and raising future workers. In 2012, Ross Douthat asked women, via The New York Times, to please have more babies. “Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs,” he wrote. Just last year, Douthat wrote another op-ed outlining his case against abortion.
In 2017, at a press briefing, Paul Ryan said the best way to boost the economy was for Americans to have more children, so there would be “more people” to put to work.
Let’s just note that both of these people are white men. As are these guys:
Once the babies are born though, in America, you’re on your own. Senator Ron Johnson has said, to this end, it isn’t “society's responsibility to take care of other people’s children” and that people should consider the cost of childcare when they become parents.
But people are considering the cost of childcare, as well as the ecological destruction, the motherhood penalty, the economy, the rampant inequality. People are seizing the means of reproduction by striking against their working conditions and refusing to have children. So these men in power are doubling-down from all angles, coercing and pressuring people with uteruses into having children.
“The standard explanation for anti-abortion politics in the United states is that politicians are appealing to conservative ‘values voters,’” Brown writes. But most Americans support access to contraception (59% also support legalizing abortion), and as even contraception comes under greater attack, many have pointed out the contradiction. E.g. if you don’t want people to get abortions, let’s do free contraception.
“But it's only a contradiction if the goal is to reduce abortions,” Brown writes. “If the goal is to increase childbearing, both abortion and contraception would be targets, along with accurate sex education.”
This, of course, is exactly what we are witnessing. Birth control coverage and access is under attack. Sex education is under attack. Less than half of American high schools teach basic pregnancy prevention.
The thing about misogyny is it’s about much more than hating women. It’s about what men think women owe them. And men in power in this country think women (as they assume all people with uteruses to be) owe them reproduction, domestic work, emotional labor, and the stability of the nuclear family. And they want all this, because it serves them: women working for free in the home, acting as America’s social safety net, keeps taxes low and keeps men comfortably propped up in positions of public power.
Patriarchal capitalism rests on the exploitation of women’s unpaid labor in the home. This means it also rests on the entrenchment of the gender binary. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida, which outlaws discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, is an effort to control children’s exposure to a world beyond that narrow understanding of sex and gender. It’s also an effort to prevent teachers from talking about different types of families beyond the hetero-nuclear version and to cover over the fact that gender is an ideological lever used to keep white cis hetero men in power. Even attacks on trans kids have been explicitly linked, by right-wing politicians, to reproductive control.
People without the means to travel will be most affected by an end to Roe, as will Black and brown women, immigrants, and trans people. But this will affect us all.
Today would have been my great-grandmother’s 139th birthday. My great-grandmother, a white, relatively wealthy woman living in Chicago in the 1930s, died from complications caused by the numerous abortions she had to give herself to avoid the labor one more child would require. She was 48 when she died. Family lore says she used hangers, but no one really knows. When abortion was illegal, women died all the time.
Because I took a break from writing a book in large part about the subject to write this piece, I will not even go down the road of how forced motherhood in America connects to what is “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition”: sexual assault and coercion, even in marriage. But: nearly 60% of abortions are sought by those who are already mothers.
The question we’re facing now, nearly a century after my great-grandmother’s death, is how to rebuild an economy that has been upended by a pandemic: by “returning” to a false, nostalgic vision of a forgotten America where, in truth, even well-off women lived their lives in fear; or by rethinking our most foundational institutions so that they serve all bodies, rather than just a few.