Do women have a Right to Life?
It's not about whether a fetus is a person. It's about whether women are people- and what that's allowed to mean.
In light of the Supreme Court leak, I'm making the complete chapter on abortion and reproductive freedom from my new book 'Sexual Revolution' available here free of charge. Please feel free to share as widely as you like.
Are women people, or are they things?
Every year, in Great Britain, 10,000 people are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of giving birth, and tens of thousands more are injured in the process of delivery. One study found that several months after enduring labour, 29 per cent of women had fractures in their pubic bones and 41 per cent had tearing and severe damage to their pelvic floor muscles.2 For human beings, pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous, risky, exhausting, terrifying and painful. Even with modern medical advances, about one woman in 10,000 still dies in childbirth, and many more will be permanently and seriously injured.3 Women frequently emerge from pregnancy and childbirth with permanent nerve damage, lifelong pain or PTSD. In context, that’s about the same risk an American soldier takes on when he or she signs up for a tour of duty in a foreign war. Pregnancy and childbirth are brutal. And forcing them on anyone against their will is barbaric.
The question of reproduction, and the right to choose abortion, the heart of the sexual revolution. Without the absolute right to safely and legally terminate pregnancy, there can be no equality between the genders. Without abortion and birth control, women will never have sexual, social or economic freedom. That’s why the movement to confiscate abortion rights is the moral centre of the backlash against women’s freedom.
As the debate about a woman’s ‘right to choose’ to terminate pregnancy rages around the Global North, as sadistic restrictions on abortion access continue to be written into law by all-male committees around the world, the physical realities of pregnancy and birth are almost never discussed.
The public conversation around abortion still centres on the question of whether a fetus has human rights, whether a fetus can feel pain, whether a fetus is a person. The question of whether a foetus is a person is unanswerable by science. The question of whether a woman is a person, however, is not up for debate – and it is female personhood and female pain that ought to decide the issue. Sometimes, though, men get together in a room to decide otherwise.
In June 2019, twenty-five white men and preciely zero women made up the legislative team that effectively banned abortion in the state of Alabama. In the same month, draconian new anti-abortion measures also won wide margins of approval in Georgia, Ohio and Missouri. As I write, more such laws are being debated, right the way up to the highest courts of the world’s leading superpower, in a sadistic pan-American nationwide binge against women’s basic reproductive rights with the ultimate aim of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling upholding abortion access as a constitutional right in the United States.
These laws are not about the ‘right to life’. They are about enshrining maximalist control over women as a core principle of conservative rule. They are about owning women. They are about women as things.
Here’s what it comes down to. In that same month in 2019, in Ohio, an eleven-year-old child was abducted, raped and made pregnant. Under the state’s new abortion laws, that child would have been forced to give birth. It’s easy to see, by any sane moral measure, how a regime that coerces a child to carry that pregnancy to full term and give birth is monstrous, heartless and immoral. And it’s just as clear that a state that threatens to kill or imprison that child unless she bears that pregnancy to full term and gives birth is morally equivalent to the rapist – taking away that little girl’s agency, declaring that her pain is unimportant, that she has no right to decide who has access to her body.
But the crucial connective point, the point that gets shunted to the side in the culture-war rhetoric of abortion outrage, is this: it is equally monstrous to inflict the same punishment on a woman in her thirties who doesn’t want to be a mother just because the condom broke on a Tinder hook-up.
She, too, deserves bodily autonomy. She should not have to beg for it just because some religious extremists and Viagra-addled Republican lawmakers are frightened of women who fuck freely and without remorse. Seen in this light, forced-birth extremism is the logical extension of rape culture.
There is nothing ‘pro-life’ about the anti-abortion backlash. I refuse to dignify a movement that makes a mound of women’s bodies and calls it the moral high ground. Most of all, I reject the moniker ‘pro-life’. The forced-birth movement has far more interest in managing and controlling human lives than it does in saving them. ‘Abortion kills babies’ is, of course, a foundational belief among a global pro-choice movement, and the millions of voters who have grown up hearing nothing else are not lying when they say they believe life begins at conception. They are entitled to that belief, as long as they don’t weaponise it to punish strangers.
Arguing with facts against articles of faith is a waste of everyone’s time. No scientific study, no matter how sensibly explained, will ever convince a true believer that a foetus is not a human being with a soul. It is more useful by far to consider what else we know. Instead of asking whether abortion is ‘really’ killing, it is more productive – and more honest – to ask whether the violence of abortion is justified.
Because the answer must be – yes. Yes, it is. The mere fact that an abortion is taking a life – if that is truly what you believe – is not, cannot be, a good enough reason to justify jailing a little girl for getting one. There are plenty of situations where American law permits one individual to take a life: home invasion, self- defence, membership in the armed forces. Now, I happen to believe, along with 58 per cent of Americans5 and most medical professionals, that terminating a pregnancy in its early stages is no more murderous than a biopsy. I happen to believe that a six- week-old foetus with a heartbeat but no limbic brain activity is less sentient than what most Republicans eat for breakfast in any of the constitutionally carnivorous states of the American South. But that doesn’t matter. Nobody’s personal feelings about the nature of life matter here. As the philosopher and legal scholar Judith Jarvis Thomson put it, what matters more – far more – is women’s freedom to control their own lives. She argues that pregnancy is consistently the only circumstance where anyone is legally obliged to sacrifice their health, against their will, for somebody else. ‘No person,’ Thomson argues, ‘is morally required to make large sacrifices to sustain the life of another who has no right to demand them.’
In other words: even if abortion ends a human life, forcing someone to give birth is worse. No state should be empowered to do so at the point of a gun, just as no state should be empowered to kidnap a person and drain off pints of their blood so that someone else can get a transfusion.
In the United States, the Trump regime was given the keys to the nation’s capital by white evangelicals mostly on the basis of a promise to criminalise abortion and confiscate basic human rights from pregnant people. I say ‘pregnant people’ here because, of course, trans men and non-binary people can also become pregnant – but to traditional conservatives, everyone who has a uterus is a woman, and therefore someone whose sexuality is by definition subject to state control.
Even after Trump left office, the anti-choice conservative feeding frenzy continued in the USA and elsewhere. In 2019, Tony Tinderholt, a Republican Texas state representative, sponsored a bill to make abortion a crime punishable by death. So much for ‘pro-life’. Tinderholt admitted that the point of his proposal was to ‘force’ women to be ‘more personally responsible’ in their sexual lives.7 The goal is – and remains – explicit state control over female reproduction.
The same thing is happening across the world – in Poland, in Austria, in Spain, in Brazil; in every polity where strongmen are elected by a population easily swayed by implicit promises to put women and people of colour in their proper place. They blanket their bloodlust in affected piety, soothe their base’s sentiments with concern-trolling about how all life is sacred – far too sacred to entrust to women.
Forced-birth extremists are not yet brave enough to make their position clear. So it’s up to the rest of us to say what we know to be true. To articulate what we believe, and how much it matters.
I believe there should be no legal restrictions on abortion whatsoever. None. Abortion should be easily and freely available to whoever wants one. I don’t believe any person, ever, should have to give a good reason – or any reason – for wanting to terminate a pregnancy. This should not be a controversial stance. There is nothing unreasonable about regulating abortion like any other medical procedure – if we work on the basis, again, that women are not things.
Criminalising abortion makes female sexual agency a crime. That is what it is designed to do. It is very much the point. Give the Tony Tinderholts of this world some credit for candor: they’ve openly said that what they care about isn’t protecting babies but punishing sluts who think they can just have sex without social consequences. Consequences that could well include dying alone and in pain after a botched home abortion, or feeling your flesh tear and your bones break as you shove out nine pounds of raw, screaming need, delivered at gunpoint in the shadow of the electric chair. If such measures weren’t about punishing women for sexual freedom, the rank hypocrisy of the few remaining ‘exceptions for rape and incest’ would be painfully clear.
We live in a culture that is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex.
This is why there are vast swathes of society that are comfortable giving vast executive and judicial power to men credibly accused of sexual assault – on the condition that those same men promise to confiscate women’s power to sexually self-determine.
Female sexual freedom is the moral outrage that unites the religious right with neo-conservatives who want to shrink the welfare state until it’s small enough to slip into a woman’s underwear. Modern conservatives centre the idea of personal freedom, and freedom from state interference, in their rhetoric – but that personal freedom was never supposed to apply to women. The appeal to the importance of ‘choice’ does not work on people to whom women’s freedom of choice is a fearful thing. A centrepiece of anti-abortion campaigning is the wickedness of women who choose to have abortions for ‘social reasons’ – i.e. because they simply don’t want to be pregnant. Those women are framed as irredeemably selfish.
And yes, some of them are selfish, if ‘selfish’ means actively choosing to prioritise your own needs and desires above those of a potential child. Selflessness should not be a legal duty imposed on women on pain of death or jail. Choosing to have a baby you don’t want to raise might make you a nice person, but nobody should be sent to jail for not being nice.
The biggest lies about women’s rights are told by people who are trying to take them away. In anxious, violent times, when oppression is enacted under a deafening barrage of propaganda, it’s important to listen out for the silences. It’s vital, in other words, to listen to what’s not being said by those who are making the most noise. The cacophony of outrage shapes itself around a painful silence, one that prevents us from pronouncing the actual stakes at play.
The plain fact is that there are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to force pregnancy on a woman against her will. But somehow regimes of male supremacists and religious extremists around the world are now in agreement that a six-week-old clot of cells is more of a person than any adult woman. After all, that clot of cells might be the next Mozart, the next Mandela. The idea that a pregnant woman might be the next Mozart or the next Mandela, of course, does not seem to feature in their calculations.
This mind-bending determination to bring women’s bodies under maximum control helps explain why the North American abortion backlash has been so coordinated, swift and brutal. In 2018, after Alabama’s all-male Senate majority voted to force women to give birth against their will, their counterparts in Georgiawent further still, arranging to institute effective life sentences for abortion providers.8 In 2020 Texas used the Covid-19 crisis to effectively shut down every abortion clinic in the state – even as conservative voters organised protests against ‘social distancing’, on the basis that Americans have a constitutional right to freely assemble. Again, only men’s constitutional freedoms are recognised as worth defending. The vision of ‘freedom’ that matters to Neo-conservatives around the world is mandatory white Christian fertile heterosexual marriage where fathers have absolute authority and women are obedient, submissive and economically dependent. That’s what modern oligarchs mean when they talk about reinstating traditional family values. That’s what modern religious extremists want, and what they have their convinced themselves their God wants. And to get it, they are perfectly prepared to wallow in women’s blood and call it a baptism.
The anti-choice movement is also, fundamentally, about white supremacy. And what’s more, it always has been.
Controlling abortion and contraception has always been part of a racist, xenophobic logic that seeks to reshape the species by force – to decide whose bodies are protected and whose are not. It was anti-choice evangelicals in 2018 who – together with some carefully timed voter suppression – gave Georgia governor Brian Kemp his razor-thin, contested victory over Stacey Abrams, his Black, female Democratic opponent. Kemp simply delivered on the promise he made to white evangelicals – and former President Donald Trump, who made manic mouth-sounds about babies being executed at birth on his campaign trail, did the same. Across America and Europe, conservatives have been happy to trade away women’s freedom for a chance at power.
But it wasn’t always this way.
As is so often the case in the murky, smudged understanding of women’s history, many of us assume that before the 1960s abortion and contraception had always been tightly controlled – that the age of Roe v. Wade and the loosening of restrictions around the pill that brought unprecedented liberalism was a historical aberration, as women were briefly, graciously allowed to make a few of their own choices for a few decades.
Most of us imagine that abortion is now more legal than it has ever been. In fact, the opposite is true.
Today, abortion laws are more restrictive than they have ever been. Right now, states have an unprecedented amount of control over women’s reproductive choices. This is because until relatively recently it was not technologically possible to identify a pregnancy before the second trimester. Nor could pregnant people be forced into having trans-vaginal ultrasounds, as is still mandatory in several American states for all of those seeking abortion. Sadistic, state- sponsored surveillance of female sexuality has not existed before on this scale in human history.
Before the 1920s, accurate medical testing for pregnancy was largely unavailable. Even doctors had to rely on educated guesses. As such, where legal restrictions on abortion existed, they usually cut off at the time of ‘quickening’ – the stage at which a woman could feel the fetus moving inside her, a stage that many religions agreed on as the time at which the unborn child was ‘ensouled’. This could be anything from sixteen weeks to six months or more – but it relied on the pregnant person to define her own experience of what was happening in her body, and women seeking termination were often allowed a good deal of leeway.
In the United States, before the Civil War era, abortion and folk contraception methods were largely unregulated and tacitly accepted – for free white women. In fact, the earliest case law regarding abortion was not designed to protect fetuses, but to protect women from shady doctors operating without licences or a working knowledge of germ theory. Unsurprisingly, there have always been different standards in play for control of white women’s reproductive choices and those of Black, brown and migrant women. Enslaved women were forbidden to terminate pregnancy9 and often punished if it was suspected that they might be attempting to avoid it, as their white slave owners were anxious that new slaves kept on being produced – especially after the end of the North Atlantic slave trade, when the production of Black bodies for servitude became more pressing.
White male slave owners, meanwhile, had absolute right to the bodies of Black women, who were routinely raped by slaveholders and forbidden to prevent pregnancy.10 Any child born to a slave, after all, was a valued capital asset, the uncontested property of the mother’s ‘master’. All of that changed after abolition, when white Americans suddenly began to panic about being outbred by non-white people. Suddenly the great concern was that free Black women were having too many babies – and that white women, by not having enough, might be committing ‘race suicide’, a phrase that resurfaces among the far right and racist factions of the mainstream throughout the industrial age.
The mid- to late nineteenth century was the period when abortion restrictions began to be formalised across the developed world, placing women’s health choices in the hands of the state – along with experimental eugenics programmes designed to keep the non-white population down through the early twentieth century.
Laws regulating abortion and contraception – especially for white women – were instituted, along with programmes of mass, enforced sterilisation of Black and immigrant women. Eugenics is now a term that conjures instant outrage – and rightly so. But it is easy to forget that before the Second World War, eugenics was considered a reputable scientific and political practice in many nominally liberal democracies. Early birth-control campaigners like Margaret Sanger famously resorted to eugenic language to persuade the white men in power that making birth control widely available was the only way to guarantee a healthy, strong – and white – citizen ‘stock’. And one of the first public figures to use the term ‘race suicide’ in this context was Theodore Roosevelt.
Since the early days of colonial expansion, the history of abortion and birth-control policies have been associated with racist ideas about nationhood and demographic control. Far-right movements have always been obsessed with sexually controlling ‘their’ women. One of the few common ideological refrains among almost all repressive regimes is the insistence that women’s bodies are the property of the state, and that reproductive choice is not a right but a luxury that women should willingly sacrifice for the good of the nation – or else.
The same demographic panic has metastasised across Europe and America today. In the modern age the phrase ‘white genocide’ has become current, incubating in the cesspools of online hate speech, where it is used to mean, simply, ‘not enough white babies being born’.
‘The US subtracts from its population a million of our babies in the form of abortion,’ Republican representative Steve King told a far-right Austrian magazine. ‘We add to our population approximately 1.8 million of “somebody else’s babies” who are raised in another culture before they get to us. We are replacing our American culture two to one every year.’
Again, there is little moral difference between a man forcing a woman to have sex against her will and the state – or a controlling partner – forcing her to be pregnant against her will. At least rape apologists are slightly more honest about it. And this level of state control is a new and historically unprecedented attack on women’s bodily autonomy.
Ideas of race, nation and territory have always been embedded in the anti-choice movement – as has a pernicious double standard about whose lives matter. The state of Alabama, for example, cares so much about life that it executes more prisoners per capita than almost any other state; it had an execution scheduled for the day after Governor Kay Ivey signed the state’s abortion ban into law. And that’s not the only thing about the forced-birth movement that seems, at first, to stink of hypocrisy.
People who believe that motherhood is precious do not rip toddlers away from their parents and keep them in sweltering cages at the borders. People who are concerned with the sanctity of life do not advocate for lethal firearms to be sold at every strip mall. People who care about the unborn do not torpedo legislation designed to ensure that the planet those kids inherit is not wholly on fire.
But here’s what’s really chilling: despite all of these crushing moral contradictions, forced-birth extremists are not hypocrites.
On the contrary. Underlying all of the pious disingenuous cant of the modern anti-abortion crusade is a terrifying logical consistency. A common thread that cinches together border paranoia, military fetishism and obsessive state control of women’s bodies.
It is chauvinism on nightmare mode: a dark story told by frightened child-men about the right of strong fathers and stern paternal leaders to protect public resources. And in that story, women’s bodies are a public resource, one that men should be able to access freely. Women should not have the right to refuse men sex, or to abort the baby a man put inside her.
Women are not supposed to get angry when they talk about abortion. An angry woman, more or less by definition, is a crazy woman and a crazy woman can’t be trusted with bodily autonomy, although apparently she can be trusted with a baby. What we’re supposed to do instead is quietly and politely explain, even to the fanatics hijacking the agenda of world governments, that banning abortion takes away autonomy – as if they didn’t know.
Of course banning abortion takes away women’s autonomy. That is the point of banning abortion. That’s the whole point.
Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it from happening. Conservatives know that full well. In nations where abortion access is restricted, they don’t have fewer dead babies – but they have a lot more dead women. Around the world, 5 to 13 per cent of maternal mortality results from unsafe abortion.15 The point is to send a clear message that uppity hussies have been having their own way for far too long, and that there should be consequences. The point has never been that babies matter. The point is that women don’t.
And good women are meant to accept this. Nice girls are supposed to smile and be polite while their basic humanity is stripped away by men who think little girls should be forced to bear children in pain and terror. If you want to survive patriarchy, you mustn’t talk about how much it hurts to survive patriarchy. If you must speak of it, you speak softly. You don’t talk about anger. And you definitely aren’t supposed to talk about pain. Women’s pain, particularly Black and brown women’s pain, is invisible by design.
The strategy of patriarchal revisionists, especially on the politically influential evangelical Christian right, has long been to rob women and girls of dignity and force them to bear children with or without their consent in the name of religious obedience. Obedience to religious authority – to the father as head of the family, to God and to the state – is the very essence of evangelical thought, and in all of these models of obedience women are obliged to accept suffering as part of their natural lot. Even in non-religious contexts, women are expected to put up with pain – particularly women of colour, whose pain is routinely dismissed by medical authorities around the Global North, and this has serious consequences – including for maternal health.
In the United States, Black women are three times as likely as white women to die in childbirth, and Black children are twice as likely as white children to die in their first year of life.16 Part of the reason for that, as Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, is that Black women are not considered reliable narrators of their own experience. When McMillan Cottom was in labour, she was ignored by team after team of medical staff, until:
‘After several days of labor pains that no one ever diagnosed, because the pain was in my butt and not my back, I could not hold off labor anymore ... I begged for an epidural. After three eternities an anesthesiologist arrived. He glared at me and said that if I wasn’t quiet he would leave and I would not get any pain relief. [...]'
When I awoke I was pushing and then my daughter was here. She died shortly after her first breath. The nurse wheeled me out of the operating room to take me back to recovery. I held my baby the whole way, because apparently that is what is done. After making plans for how we would handle her remains, the nurse turned to me and said, ‘Just so you know, there was nothing we could have done, because you did not tell us you were in labor.’
Black women ... are superheroes when we conform to others’ expectations of us or serve someone or something else ... when we perform some existential service to men, to capital, to political power, to white women ... we are fulfilling our purpose in the natural order of things.’
Black and brown women are obliged to tolerate reproductive injustice that puts their lives and the lives of their children in danger, just as women of all backgrounds are obliged to keep their silence about the ugly, upsetting details of reproduction: the pain, the blood, the tearing, the exhaustion, the insecurity, the poverty. We’re not supposed to talk about all the bitter, degrading things that go along with pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood in an economy designed and run by men.
When I was younger, I believed what I was told by teachers and adults – that although childbirth was very painful for a little while, women quickly ‘forgot about all that’. This remains a common delusion – that there’s some sort of natural amnesiac that means that the agony and trauma of even a straightforward pregnancy and labour are somehow erased from the psychological record. I understood that there were some things you just didn’t talk about, things that should remain mysteries, things to do with labour, pregnancy, abortion and, especially, miscarriage.
Between 10 and 20 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. The experience of miscarriage can be profoundly traumatic for the person who loses a pregnancy – and yet there is still a social taboo around discussing miscarriage or even mentioning a pregnancy before the second trimester, when the risk of miscarriage drops dramatically. This taboo is supposed to protect the feelings of women and girls who lose wanted pregnancies – but the actual effect is to isolate people who experience miscarriage, protecting everyone around them from the discomfort of actually acknowledging the everyday tragedies of human reproduction.
The taboos associated with talking about pregnancy are not designed to protect women – they are designed to protect society from having to think about women’s suffering. People who go through pregnancy are meant to stay quiet about the pain, the trauma and the fear associated with pregnancy and labour. They’re supposed to meekly wipe up the blood and the shit and spend months sweating in the gym to ‘get back’ their ‘pre- pregnancy bodies’. If they miscarry, they must not mention it – best not to make a fuss. If they commit the cardinal sin of having a pregnancy terminated, they are supposed to be ashamed, to whisper it, to make a show of shame – just as they are supposed to be ashamed of consensual sex, just as they are supposed to be ashamed of surviving rape.
But women’s personhood is not conditional, and female sexuality is not shameful. The only shameful thing, the only thing that no citizen who believes even fractionally in freedom should tolerate, the future we have fight like hell to prevent - is a world where women are treated like things.