Women on the Verge: Birth Strike in The Baffler

Two recent books on the fight for reproductive rights

Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work

By Emily Janakiram
The Baffler
January 6th, 2019

Recently, Colleen McNicholas, an obstetrician-gynecologist and chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reported in the Washington Post that the Missouri health department had been tracking her patients’ menstrual cycles. The revelation came during a licensing hearing for what is now Missouri’s last abortion provider. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, admitted under sworn testimony that his department had combed the medical histories of thousands of patients, documenting the medical ID numbers, gestational age of pregnancies when procedures took place, and the last normal menstrual period of nearly seventy patients.

Legally, the health department has access to Planned Parenthood’s medical records, but Colleen McNicholas expressed surprise that they would use it for such ludicrously invasive purposes. The article is emblazoned with an image emblematic of reproductive struggles in the post-Trump era: protesters in the blood-red draperies of Margaret Atwood’s (really, Hulu’s) The Handmaid’s Tale. To the liberal feminists for whom Atwood’s work is a clarion call, who see Planned Parenthood and NARAL as the vanguard of the reproductive struggle, the erosion of reproductive rights represents a backward turn—the resurgence of right-wing, Christian zealotry which has as its goal the return of women to the home a la Leave it to Beaver. Under this framework, their aim is often a safeguarding of women’s individual rights rather than revolutionary agitation—to sway moderates and values voters with moralistic or highly philosophical appeals. Think “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare”; “abortion is a private medical decision between a woman and her doctor”; “What about rape, incest, or when a woman’s life is in danger?”; “Federal funds can’t be used for abortions anyway.”

Professional non-profits cannot lead this struggle.

To the radical feminists who have been fighting for full abortion access for decades, the recent crackdown on reproductive rights looks less like regression than inevitable progression. I don’t want to discount the positive, vital services that Planned Parenthood provides, or the doctors, nurses, and care workers who risk their lives to help those who are pregnant or in need of sexual health care. But professional non-profits cannot lead this struggle. As writer, teacher, and National Women’s Liberation organizer Jenny Brown argues in two recent books, the fight for reproductive rights will never be won by sanitizing or individualizing abortion. Nor can it be won by depoliticizing the issue, isolating it from the inextricable struggles for free child care, free health care, a reduced workweek, and a transformation of gender roles within the home. “Reproductive rights” doesn’t just mean the right not to have a child but also the right to have a child, and the right to raise that child in materially and socially secure conditions. We are fighting this battle on multiple fronts.

The first of Brown’s books published this year, Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work, is a provocative and radical intervention into the history of the abortion struggle, one that positions the work of childbearing and child-rearing as unpaid labor in the service of capitalism and militarism, cemented with the ideology of women as natural mothers and caretakers. As Brown recounts, the U.S. birthrate plummeted after a postwar boom, reaching a nadir in the late 1970s. After a slight period of growth that lasted until 1990, it has since continued to drop. A New York Times article cited by Brown reports that as of May 2018, “the fertility rate in the United States fell to a record low . . . extending a deep decline that began in 2008 with the Great Recession.” In the developed world, a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is considered “replacement level”; in the United States, it currently sits at 1.72. Brown cites figures from Japan, China, Russia, Turkey, Germany, and Sweden that indicate this is a global trend.

She describes this phenomenon as women going “on strike”: refusing to take on the additional labor of pregnancy and motherhood in the midst of stagnant wages, exorbitant medical costs, virtually non-existent parental leave, and the increasing isolation of nuclear families, where parents—but generally women—are expected to take on the work of child-rearing entirely on their own. Brown sees the efforts of the anti-abortion lobby as in service of a ruling class aiming to break the strike: forcing women to have more children in order to satiate the ravenous appetite of the capitalist machine for which endless growth, and new blood, is necessary. As Brown puts it succinctly, “The effort to block birth control and abortion in the United States is neither fundamentally about religion nor about politicians pandering to a right-wing base, nor is it a result of prudery, nor is it to punish women for having sex. It is about the labor of bearing and rearing children: who will do it and who will pay for it.”

In countries with a stronger welfare state, the exhortation to have children often takes the form of a carrot model: extensive paid leave, financial support for new parents, free child care, health care, and education. But the United States prefers a starred-and-striped billy club, eschewing these measures that would make motherhood more accessible because they might also decrease profits for employers and give workers more power over their wages and working conditions. If there are fewer workers (because women are having fewer children) or they are less dependent on an employer for benefits (because a strong social safety net guarantees them), they hold more bargaining power. This concern has not been made a secret; Brown isn’t unearthing a conspiracy. Prominent journalists have been opining about the dangers of falling birthrates for decades now. While centrists and liberals often approach the subject from an economic perspective, arguing that labor shortages can be solved by encouraging immigration (not through the right of free movement for all people, but through a gatekeeping model emphasizing immigrants who are “good for the economy”), extending the retirement age, and implementing new “flexible” models of work so that more labor can be squeezed out of one person, the right wing summons up racist fears of whites being “replaced” by black and brown people.

To build her argument, Brown historicizes the shifting legal restrictions around abortion with the growth of the capitalist state. She points out that until the late nineteenth century, birth control and abortion were de facto legal and widely practiced in the United States with a variety of euphemistically named “menstrual regulators.” Abortion was not considered abortion as such until “quickening,” or when the woman felt the fetus move—knowledge no one had but the pregnant woman herself. But in 1873, the so-called Comstock laws federally banned not only the practice of birth control and abortion in the United States but also its advertisement, possession, and even discussion. Fourteen states, including New York and New Jersey, criminalized private conversations between individuals about contraception; in seventeen states, doctors could not advise their patients about birth control.

Named for Anthony Comstock, a founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the legislation was the culmination of existing efforts by the American Medical Association that dated back to the 1850s. The fledgling medical profession, eager to establish its credibility, sought to eliminate competition from the midwives, herbalists, and “doctoresses” who dealt with birth control and abortion. When they didn’t succeed with medical or scientific arguments, Brown argues, they appealed to nativist instincts; Horatio Storer spearheaded the effort to crack down on birth control by stressing the shrinking size of families. She quotes a salient passage from prominent anti-abortion physician Edwin Hale’s 1867 book, The Great Crime of the Nineteenth Century: “[Abortion] is a crime against the State. It lessens the population of a State or country, in an appalling degree. . . . At this rate, if the ratio of total deaths over births goes on increasing, it will not be many years before the Americans left on American soil will be few and far between . . . the national government ought to interpose some check to its alarming increase.” After the Civil War, which eliminated 2 percent of the American population, the New York Times fueled the anti-abortion fire by running a number of scaremongering articles about women who died from botched procedures. “The Comstock Law,” Brown writes, “was not the accomplishment of one freakishly effective prude, but the triumph of a crackdown decades in the making against women who were curbing their reproduction.” Importantly, it wasn’t only the state contributing to this effort: Comstock received financial backing from the wealthy, including manufacturer and philanthropist Samuel Colgate. Despite its stranglehold on the contemporary debate, religion played a minimal role in the anti-abortion discourse of this period, except to stir up xenophobic fears of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants being replaced by racialized Catholics.

The prevailing power structure, however, has not been consistently interested in increasing the birth rate between the late nineteenth century and today. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, for example, the U.S. government feared overpopulation both abroad and within the country—and took active eugenicist measures to prevent it. As Brown writes, “While the U.S. baby boom was filling schools to bursting, U.S. planners became uneasy about oppressed nations in revolt, throwing out colonial powers, electing socialists and even achieving socialist revolutions.” Hugh Moore, the outrageously wealthy co-founder of the Dixie Cup Company, was a central proponent of this idea, writing in his 1954 pamphlet, The Population Bomb, that “there will be 300 million more mouths to feed in the world four years from now—most of them hungry. Hunger brings turmoil—and turmoil, as we have learned, creates the atmosphere in which the communists seek to conquer the earth.” Moore’s Campaign to Check the Population Explosion launched an aggressive public campaign that appealed to racist fears of inner cities swarming with violent and drug addicted “youngsters,” as well as starving Third World nations taking cues from Vietnam.

In response, the federal government, along with a number of private foundations, undertook campaigns of sterilization in India, in Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. Domestically, the government continued to sterilize black women, Native American women, Latinas, women who received public assistance, mentally ill women, incarcerated women, and other “undesirables.” While it was being forced on their marginalized counterparts, sterilization was nearly inaccessible to middle- and upper-class white women. Most hospitals deployed a measure called the “120” rule: a woman could only be sterilized if her age multiplied by the number of children she had was equal to or greater than 120.

The United States changed course after birth control became available to married couples in 1965, and radical feminists won abortion rights with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, seeking to increase the birth rate among poor women as well—notably through the passage of the Hyde Amendment, which blocked the use of federal funds for abortions, meaning that Medicaid could not be used to pay for the procedure unless a mother’s life was in danger. As successive administrations fought against the expansion of federal child care, rolled back workplace protections, suspended the draft (meaning that the robust military required to carry out endless imperialist wars depended on an impoverished pool of volunteers), and slashed welfare benefits, Republicans joined forces with the religious right, armed with extravagant funding from figures like the Kochs, in order to mount an attack on both abortion and birth control. “Why are these public figures so worried?” Brown asks.

Are they horrified at single motherhood and extramarital sex? Are they pandering to a prudish electoral base? I submit that their overarching goal is more cost-effective—from their standpoint—child production. Shaming single mothers and proscribing premarital sex are time-honored ways to create pressure to marry, and a married couple is not only more likely to have children, it is also a more efficient baby-raising unit. . . . While they claim to champion liberty, they are in fact pushing people toward a more onerous dependency: on employers.

While the United States’ eugenicist and pronatalist policies may seem contradictory, they have always been mobilized toward the same end: the unity of state and capital in controlling childbirth and child-rearing for its own social reproduction purposes. In other words, to suppress revolts, to seize land, to increase the workforce, to swell the ranks of the military.

Brown argues that for the abortion struggle to succeed, it cannot make concessions, appeal to individual rights, or depoliticize abortion as a simple medical issue.

Birth Strike owes much to Silvia Federici’s groundbreaking book Caliban and the Witch, in which Federici dates the mandated position of women within the home back to the late medieval period and the Renaissance, when their unwaged labor became necessary for the growth of the early capitalist state. The demand for more workers was compounded by the Black Death, which decimated Europe’s population from 1347-1351. Landlords grew alarmed by their new dependency on workers, who, as a result of the labor shortage, had greater bargaining power and began to agitate for higher pay and shorter hours. To tip the scales back in their favor, the ruling class enacted a number of reforms intended to increase the birthrate. While maternal infanticide by poor women had previously been treated with some leniency in the late Middle Ages, it was turned into a capital crime, punished more severely than most crimes committed by men. In sixteenth century Nuremberg, the new penalty for maternal infanticide was drowning, later changed to beheading. In France, an edict of 1556 required women to register every one of their pregnancies and executed those who had concealed deliveries if the baby died before baptism. England and Scotland followed suit with similar statutes. More women were executed for infanticide in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe than for any other crime, save witchcraft—which also generally centered on women rejecting the command to marry and bear children.

Federici writes that “the witch hunt was, at least in part, an attempt to criminalize birth control and place the female body, the uterus, at the service of population increase and the production and accumulation of labor-power.” It not only aggressively criminalized, brutalized, and murdered women for practicing reproductive autonomy but also quashed communal systems that allowed people, particularly women, to collectivize and defy the new capitalist order.

In Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, Brown extrapolates from the theoretical framework of Birth Strike to make a powerful and extensively researched case for a militant approach to winning reproductive rights—one that refuses to shy away from making polarizing claims or “alienating moderates.” Brown argues that for the abortion struggle to succeed, it cannot make concessions, appeal to individual rights, or depoliticize abortion as a simple medical issue. Instead, the movement for reproductive rights must fight for all women to access whatever form of birth control they wish, including abortion: an essential point for the liberation of all women.

Brown urges feminists concerned about abortion rights to abandon the distinction between abortion and more “benign” forms of birth control, arguing that abortion is and should be considered a legitimate form of birth control. Since the anti-abortion lobby is not actually concerned with the sanctity of life, but with raising the birthrate, the elimination of abortion can only be seen as a first step toward eliminating birth control altogether. This point is lost on many liberal feminists, who see the attacks on Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services and expanded birth control access by the right as nonsensical, since surely these efforts would decrease the abortion rate, which the right claims as their goal. If you understand that the aim has never been to protect the unborn, but to protect population growth, the strategy makes perfect sense. 

Brown looks to the example of pre-Roe feminist networks such as Redstockings and the Jane Collective, the latter of which made it their mission to provide abortions and contraception to women in an era when it was illegal, secretive, and shameful. The former group engaged in active consciousness-raising in an effort to end the silence and shame around abortion, speaking publicly about the abortions they, their friends, their mothers, and their grandmothers had undergone, often at great risk. They found that the prevailing narrative that those who had abortions were generally young, desperate, unmarried teenage girls was a fiction. Women who had abortions were of varying ages; were married; were already mothers who either could not afford—or simply did not want—to have another child. Redstockings was also concerned with more than abortion; though reproductive rights were a central tenet of their platform, they were anti-capitalist, calling for an end to the nuclear family, the private sphere in which women were kept subjugated.

While reform-minded feminists in the United States concerned themselves with challenging the ban on abortion incrementally, fighting for concessions which were implemented in more than ten states pre-Roe, left-wing feminists mobilized a militant wing of the reproductive rights movement that called for radical social change. Fearing their unapologetic, raucous activism, Brown argues, the U.S. government was made further uneasy by the fact that women in socialist countries often enjoyed greater reproductive freedom than their American counterpoints, something which was not lost on feminists in the United States. She claims, then, that Roe was not ultimately intended to grant women freedom, but to quash a wave of radical organizing and graft what was a collective, anti-capitalist movement onto a liberal, individualistic framework. The term “pro-choice” is evidence of this rhetorical shift: having children or not isn’t solely an individual choice, but a decision that exists within a greater political and material structure. All of society reaps the benefits of more laborers (owner and managers most especially), but in the United States, the costs are incurred solely by the family—and particularly by women, who in addition to the physical acts of pregnancy and labor, still take up most of the work of child-rearing.

We must recognize the failure of Roe’s liberal framework to protect the bodily autonomy of those who can become pregnant.

While the right wing aggressively mobilized after Roe, the new prominent face of feminism, including Planned Parenthood, fought back by making compromises, losing ground repeatedly over the decades, from the Hyde Amendment to the recent inclusion of so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers under Title X. Brown attributes much of this to the takeover of the feminist movement by a new professional class that divorced feminism from anti-capitalism and fought instead for women to “break the glass ceiling” and become capitalist exploiters themselves. Though we cannot adopt the accelerationist policy of embracing the overturn of Roea distinct possibility when the Supreme Court hears arguments in June Medical Services v. Gee this March—we must recognize the failure of Roe’s liberal framework to protect the bodily autonomy of those who can become pregnant.

For Brown and Federici both, reproductive rights must be only one aspect of a broader set of demands. If the capitalist system requires the reproductive labor of those it assigns as women, then there is no capitalist-friendly way for us to reclaim bodily autonomy. Brown cites the model of “reproductive justice” as an alternative to the outdated notion of “pro-choice.” Brown writes:

Our attenuated right to abortion has become the only answer from the Democratic political establishment to the crises family face when they have kids: If you can’t afford children, just don’t have them. You had a “choice”, after all. . . . This is why reproductive justice argues that abortion and birth control can’t be understood separately from housing, jobs, wages, health care, policing, racial and sexual hierarchies, immigration, and environmental health.

Liberal feminism will not win this fight for women because it is not fighting for the liberation of all women, but for maintaining individual rights granted by the status quo. Brown urges us instead to remember that feminism and anti-capitalism are inextricably linked. No more “safe, legal, and rare,” but, as the popular Redstockings slogan goes, “Free abortion, on demand.” 

Back to Jenny Brown’s Author Page