For decades, we’ve been told that abortion is merely a wedge issue used by Republicans to split working-class Catholics from the Democratic Party and excite a Protestant evangelical base. “Starting in the 1970s,” feminist law professor Joan C. Williams writes, “Republicans have offered support for working-class anti-abortion views in exchange for working-class support for pro-business positions.”
According to this view, politicians and the one percent really don’t care one way or the other about abortion — they’re just using the issue to get votes. This reading of US politics is so common that if you ask a group of feminists today why abortion is under attack, someone will explain that it is a political ploy to capture the support of conservative “values” voters. Thomas Frank even argues that banning abortion would be against the interests of these political forces because they would lose an issue to mobilize around.
But this explanation has frayed as abortion restrictions have proliferated, with several states now down to one abortion clinic and repressive regulations making abortion difficult to obtain for many and impossible for some. Even “blue” states like Minnesota throw up obstacles to those who want abortions. Several states have banned abortion outright, racing to be the one whose law overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized most abortions. Birth control, too, has come under attack, revealing that the stated goal of reducing abortions is a ruse.
While other “cultural issues,” such as same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization have been making progress, we have gone backward on abortion. This is because abortion is wrongly classified as a cultural issue. In fact, the production of children — and who will pay for it — is a key economic battlefront.
The Elite Panic Over the Birth Rate
Politicians and pundits are in a froth because the US birth rate is the lowest it has ever been: 1.72 children per woman. They fret that the decline in births will create a sluggish economy.
Conservative commenter Patrice Lee Onwuka tweeted in May that “sustained low birth rates can be disastrous for our economy and financial future.” She added that as a new mom, “I did my part to add to the 3.8 mil new babies born last year.” In 2017, then–House Speaker Paul Ryan made headlines for saying, “We need to have higher birth rates in this country,” as he prepared to attack Social Security. But he was just saying what establishment think tanks and policy analysts have been urging for decades. In 2012, conservative columnist Ross Douthat pleaded for “more babies please,” in the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal regularly warns that if birth rates continue to slide, the result will be economic stagnation and national decline.
Racist versions have been bursting through, too. Iowa congressperson Steve King, a vigorous opponent of abortion and immigration, tweeted in 2017: “Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t rebuild our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” while Florida Republican state senator Dennis Baxley suggested that Alabama’s abortion ban was good because it would encourage white births.
Even some liberal feminists are convinced that low birth rates demand austerity. In her 2009 book, feminist and now–New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg warns of the “grave threats” represented by increasing longevity and falling birth rates: “There will be fewer young workers to support this expanding elderly population,” and “to maintain pension systems, taxes will have to be raised or benefits cut, or both.”
The fact that fewer people are willing to have children isn’t surprising given the undermining of everything that makes working-class life viable. But it does put the establishment in a bind. If they want to increase the birth rate voluntarily, they will have to put resources into universal childcare, healthcare, paid parental leave, and livable wages and working hours. Naturally, they’d prefer to take away reproductive liberties because it’s a much cheaper way to boost the birth rate. In Texas, where restrictions and regulations closed eighty-two family planning clinics after 2011, birth control use dropped and childbearing rose 27 percent compared to areas that still had birth control access.
While around 70 percent of the US public supports Roe, there’s big money behind the anti-abortion cause. The Texas restrictions, and anti-abortion laws around the country, have been pushed by the pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council and by Koch brothers–created PACs. The Kochs claim to be libertarians, so we might expect them to defend individual liberty in such matters. But while elite men may want their own girlfriends to get abortions, they’re all business when it comes to the rest of us. They want babies produced cheaply, with a maximum of unpaid labor and a minimum of employer expenditure.
Coercion or Contribution?
The US system relies on reproductive coercion — but this isn’t the only possible response to lower birth rates. In Europe, politicians openly discuss declining birth rates and react with programs that make it easier to combine work and family, providing substantial paid parental leave (480 days in the case of Sweden); universal childcare; national healthcare; monthly payments to parents; ample sick leave; shortened work hours; and other blandishments parents in the United States can only dream about.
In the United States, private health insurance companies have a profitable stranglehold on the medical system, and parents struggle mightily to pay for childcare. Employers don’t even want us to take unpaid family leave, never mind the six months or more of paid leave workers in over fifty countries receive. On top of this, our work hours are longer than those in Europe — we work ten weeks a year more than German workers.
Under these circumstances, even with limited access to birth control and abortion, we are having fewer children than ever. “People say they’re not having kids because it’s insanely expensive,” explained a summary of a 2018 survey showing that the decision to start a family is being weighed down by childcare costs, lack of affordable housing, and overwork. But right now women, and all parents, are blaming themselves when they can’t make it work. This is why it’s important to expose the anti-abortion right as the enforcement arm of an economic system that pushes the costs and burdens of childrearing onto families and relies on women’s unpaid labor.
While lower birth rates are a phony crisis from the standpoint of workers, for the establishment the problem is real. Their profits, and capitalist economic growth in general, rely on a continually expanding workforce replenished with ever-larger cohorts of young people to labor and consume and pay taxes and serve in the military, and to provide for retired workers, either individually through family ties or collectively through Social Security.
Immigration has compensated somewhat for slumping birth rates in the United States. Politicians and employers openly discuss immigration as a way to dump the work and expense of raising the next generation of workers onto the mothers, families, communities, and nations that immigrants leave behind. But pro-immigration Republicans worry that birth rates are dropping in sending countries, such as Mexico. And now, immigration isn’t making up for the deficit in births.
In addition, immigration carries its own political liabilities for the employing class — immigrants may organize against mistreatment, unionize, and eventually vote. Terrorizing immigrant communities is only so effective. That is why Republicans, including Trump, support expanding guestworker programs, which place workers in a no-rights twilight zone where they can be deported should they annoy the boss by working too slowly or demanding their rights.
If the birthrate is the underlying issue, it is no wonder establishment Democrats are “wimpy” on abortion and even birth control. Just like the rest of the ruling class, Democratic elites want to encourage a higher birth rate without additional public or corporate expenditure. And when establishment Democrats do recommend birth control, they emphasize the tax savings. Catherine Rampell writes in the Washington Post, “If you want to . . . discourage people from going on welfare, improve low-income people’s earning potential, and reduce government spending overall, more generous support for family planning services should be on your list.” Raising wages or repealing anti-union laws are not on her list. This is why the black women who coined the term “reproductive justice” answer that we need “(1) the right not to have a child, (2) the right to have a child, and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.”
We’ll be stronger in the abortion fight when we recognize that the battle is over our reproductive labor and how cheaply that work will be done. And with a fresh feminist angle showing how attacks on abortion rights and birth control access are about keeping reproductive labor cheap, we have a chance to reach additional women. By connecting our right to refuse reproductive labor to our demands for improved reproductive working conditions, we can move people on this issue. Many women have only been exposed to a feminism of the one percent, which says that any problems you have supporting and raising kids are your personal responsibility. After all, you had a “choice.” Lean in. But socialists and pro-woman feminists insist that women aren’t dumb or brainwashed for having kids — it’s important, difficult work that benefits the whole society.
This is also an opportunity for feminists and the broader movement to leverage the ruling class’s panic about low birth rates to win things we desperately need. The organization I’m part of, National Women’s Liberation, suggests that while we should organize for full abortion and reproductive freedom — our right to strike — we should also use our informal “birth strike” to demand the things that make parenting feasible: expanded and improved Medicare for All, generous paid parental leaves for both parents, a universal childcare system with a unionized workforce (as with public schools), and shorter work hours for everyone with full-time pay.
Abortion is our right to strike against untenable reproductive working conditions. It is time we defend it on that basis.