Count on the G.O.P. to throw up a smokescreen during an election year. While the calamitous state of the economy is one of the biggest issues facing us today, reactionaries like to divert attention with wedge issues. They’re called “wedge issues” because they divide a sometimes otherwise unified electorate. I think of it more like the Republicans sharpening a wedge and jamming it into America’s fundamentalist religious fear-filled jugular.
That’s exactly what’s going on with the latest round of legislation against abortion rights and protests from religious organizations about providing contraception health insurance coverage. When legislators propose laws that would require transvaginal ultrasounds or redefine when pregnancy begins, they are playing on fear. It’s called social conservatism or the culture wars, it’s called “a controversial issue,” but it’s really about fear of women and their power over their own bodies. Which means it’s really about patriarchy. Anytime lawmakers or pundits get on a soapbox about the family values that protect “life” or “marriage,” they’re trotting out the most tenacious ideology of the patriarchy: straight men get to make all the decisions.
There’s lots of theory from Marxists and others about how capitalism and patriarchy are intertwined, how the industrialization of capital constructed the modern idea of “family,” how capital needs to control women’s reproduction for the same reason it needs to control the production of commodities, etc. After all, women produce the next generation of workers, and capitalists want to control that process as much as possible, in the same way they’d control the production of Ford Explorers or iPhones or Hello Kitty keychains. A woman may have a number of solid, logical reasons for not wanting to keep a pregnancy, like economic instability, health concerns, or simply bad timing. Most of the time, she’s right on target with her concerns that these situations would be detrimental to the overall wellbeing of a potential child, but that’s inconsequential to capitalists as long as new workers and consumers are being produced. You can read Engels (particularly “Origin of Family, Private Property and The State”) and Emma Goldman and Gloria Anzaldua to learn the meatier details of those theories.
But basically, most socialists are in agreement that women’s rights must be respected and fiercely guarded. The ability to choose how to care for your own reproductive health is a human right, and should not be impeded by anyone else’s strict and sexist morals. We believe in putting an end to patriarchy and heterosexism. We believe women’s bodies are fundamentally their own, and that the existence of a zygote or a fetus inside those bodies does not make them a concern of the state.
But we also believe that the struggle is more than a matter of choice. Our theory does not stop at, “Everyone should be free to make their own decisions.” We are also conscious of the stark inequality that the three-headed monster of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy has created. We know that the same system that restricts or outlaws abortion rights has also encouraged forced sterilization among working class women of color, especially Black and Latina women. We know that though lawmakers may claim to care SO MUCH about children (well, fetuses, at least), they have created horrible policies that harm children, and that many of these policies hit the children of working class people and oppressed nationalities disproportionately.
So while we do believe in freedom of choice for family planning, we know that all the crucial resources it takes to plan and raise a family – nutritious food, water, health care, safe neighborhoods, leisure time, childcare, education, a support network, toys, games, green spaces, transportation, clean air, and money, did we mention money? – are often in higher supply among the middle and upper classes, and can be hard to find within working class communities and communities of color. And we know that the avenues to reproductive health are scattered with more roadblocks for a young Black woman or an undocumented immigrant woman than they are for a middle-class white woman. It’s not only stone-age legislation that damages women’s health. It’s the inequalities and everyday oppressions that capitalism generates.
Socialism will mean a comprehensive approach to healthcare, women’s rights and family planning. Reproductive health should encompass abortion rights and birth control access, as well as justice for women in all oppressed communities, a righting of the wrongs of the past centuries. We also reject the rigid definition of “family” and call for affirmative access to reproductive health care and family resources for LGBT people. Socialism must be paired with the demise of patriarchy and misogyny, so we never again have to deal with these reactionary smokescreens that purport to care about health and life, but are really just another desperate attempt to keep women firmly “in their place.”
Socialists want to put women in their place, too. In the front.
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