Contesting the Nuclear Family
The Struggle for Abortion and Reproductive Justice
October 27, 2022
THE SUPREME COURT’S DECISION to overturn Roe v. Wade was a blow to the Left and a victory for the far right. This is our position despite the fact that we harbor no illusions about the least democratic institution of the federal government. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision robs millions of the shreds of reproductive autonomy that had been whittled away for decades.
It will have long-term, devastating consequences for poor, working class, and disproportionately Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who will now be forced into unwanted—and potentially dangerous—gestation, labor, and parenthood. How did we get to this point? How is it that fifty years after the victory in Roe, one of the crowning achievements of the feminist movement was eviscerated?
To the extent that liberals have managed to move beyond shock and moral condemnation, their accounting seems to rely on some combination of the unprecedented nature of Donald Trump’s regime and the rise of evangelical coalitions. To be sure, recently added conservative Supreme Court justices are odious both politically and personally, but to appreciate the true causes of this loss we need to put the defeat in proper historical and social context.
Doing so also requires moving beyond the tendency on the Left to hastily connect the ruling to the profit-motive and the interests of capital. Some have recently argued that bolstering the nuclear family and disciplining women by restricting reproductive autonomy increases the labor force, thereby increasing the reserve army of labor, which has the effect of increasing competition among workers, lowering wages, and bolstering profits.
But we’ve seen diverse segments of capital supporting their own workers’ access to reproductive care in the face of the Court’s denial of it. The interests of capital should certainly be a part of the accounting but, here too, the standard story doesn’t quite fit.
The fight to overturn Roe began a half century ago, as soon as the decision was handed down. Roe has been a long-term target for the steady resurgence of a far right bloc that increasingly dominates the Republican party—capital’s “A–team.” This coalition far exceeds evangelicals and other religious zealots. Current demands tend to be less alienating to those of different denominations and persuasions, and they are primarily articulated in secular, moral terms.
Against this right-wing juggernaut, liberal shortsightedness ends in the demand to vote harder for any Democrat regardless of their stance, summed up in the slogan, “vote Blue no matter who.” And the leftist identification of capital as a direct cause of the loss of reproductive autonomy is unconvincing and does not set our side up for effective resistance.
Instead, we argue that the Dobbs decision should be understood as part of a longer-term, far right strategy that roots itself in reactionary notions of the family and gender norms. Focusing on both of these, the family and gender norms, as cultural and ideological political wedges can help us make better sense of why Roe became a—if not the—key site of struggle.
While we are critical of the reduction of the ruling to some general interest of capital, it is undoubtedly true that some segments of capital are willing to at least tolerate the outcome at the level of federal policy—especially given that reproductive autonomy has become such a key bargaining chip for its preferred party. The question then is: how and why the family became so central a battleground?
This emphasis on the so-called “private sphere” would seem to clash with market fundamentalism. But even neoliberalism’s architects, going back to F.A. Hayek, emphasized the role of the family as a key site of state intervention—in fact, as the only site of legitimate state intervention. This is first and foremost because the family is the essential social unit responsible for providing a bulwark against the ravages of neoliberalism.
The family is the institution that most reliably underpins a stable “community,” producing trust and socially adaptive behaviors. In other words, it is crucial to social coordination and the minimally nonviolent behavior required to stabilize a society otherwise organized entirely around violently reducing individuals to their market transactions.
The bipartisan neoliberal project, premised on the privatization of social reproduction, required a strategic and ideological focus on the family by both the GOP and the Democrats. As social supports were rolled back and the consequences of neoliberalism snowballed, the traditional family became increasingly and extraordinarily overburdened as a site for social integration.
The more capital sought improved conditions of profitability by underfunding or destroying welfare systems—which is to say, the more the “family” became the sole means for social integration—the more the family became a key site of struggle. For growing sections of the working and middle classes, the family, however overburdened, became a defensive refuge from the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.
Yet within the family, the harms of denying reproductive autonomy are experienced differently. We can therefore understand the ruling as yet another way that capitalist societies tend to differentiate populations: not only through labor markets, but through the differentiated consequences experienced by individuals and oppressed groups in their families.
Just as we can speak of a racial capitalism, so too can we speak of a sexed and gendered capitalism that actively creates new categories that track and entrench stratified segments of the labor force—now through increasingly different levels of and access to reproductive autonomy. Though not directly dividing the labor force at the point of production, the Dobbs ruling will certainly provide greater impetus to the racist, misogynistic, and transphobic stigmatization of the most devalorized segments of the labor market.
This politics is articulated at a social level, not directly connected to state processes or capital itself. Deeply conservative gender, sexual, and familial norms are being defended against bourgeois-individualist (never mind genuinely radical!) attempts to secure facets of liberation beyond the traditional family and its value system.
Here, history matters. Social agendas are constructed in close relation to the legacies of struggle. The winning of Roe was part of a wave of social insurgency—civil rights, Black Power, antiwar, feminist, queer, rank-and-file unionist—that the Right sees as having undermined their favored traditional norms. For the Right then, Roe was never simply about reproductive autonomy; its struggle to overturn the ruling was but one element of a larger project of rolling back the class, social, and cultural victories of the last great period of left insurgency.
For this reason, the Roe rollback is part of a broader rightward march This includes what might be called fascist nuclei guided by far right ideology with street organization, as well as increasing ties to the state, particularly at the local level. While fascist groups today do not entirely resemble the classical fascism of the interwar period, they nevertheless function as battering rams for the wider right in their efforts to undo the social gains of the 1960s and ’70s. Though there may be debate over the “fascist” label, the far right is undeniably pushing this ideology forward as the basis for a cross-class alliance guided by a revanchist morality.
As violent ideologies with significant and growing social purchase, these developments must be understood against the backdrop of—and as responses to—BLM, #MeToo, and the general growth of a progressive common sense. The far right attack on Roe is a racist, sexist, and gender-normative assault on a resurgent left, in which criminalization will play an increasing part.
As abortion care becomes more criminalized, it also becomes an increasingly private and high-risk responsibility placed onto families. Many people who have abortions and help others have abortions—a role that will disproportionally fall onto caregivers—will be prosecuted and imprisoned, worsening the already critical crisis of care. Not only will already criminalized communities—Black communities and other communities of color; poor and working class communities—will face further repression from police and the carceral system, new sections of society that may not have had as much interaction with state repression will become more vulnerable to this type of violence.
Black people will not “just” be further targeted by the state and have a harder time securing abortions and necessary care. This is also part of a longstanding eugenicist movement to increase the population of white babies. Representative Mary Miller’s alleged slip in which she hailed the overturning of Roe as a victory for “white lives,” intentionally or otherwise, said the quiet part out loud. The Buffalo shooter who murdered ten Black people was a vocal adherent of the “Great Replacement” theory and lamented declining white birth rates in his manifesto.
Even without these examples giving away the game, it is important to see that the repeal, itself posed as universal policy, will deepen the racist effects of the US healthcare system. This is especially true with regard to pregnancy and post- partum care as the rates of related health issues—such as preeclampsia, hemorrhaging, and maternal mortality—will continue to skyrocket. When done with proper care, abortions are incredibly safe procedures; it is far more dangerous to be pregnant and give birth in the US, with deep racial disparities.
All of this was worsened by the fact that the NGO-ized defense for abortion evaded questions of class, race, and queerness, erasing the effects of the ruling on some of society’s most marginalized people. In our view, this neutral approach is strategically devastating. The far right is committed to undercutting any and all non-normative or liberatory exercises of individuals’ autonomy as part of its “family”-led social policy. How one appears, identifies, desires, and moves through space is crucial to the struggle for reproductive autonomy.
With its contemporary form tracing roots going back to at least the 1960s, this tightly knotted set of reactionary commitments is now coalescing along three related arenas: access to abortion, the freedom to self-define one’s sex and gender, and the ability to freely traverse spaces beyond the bounds and requirements of the family and its socially integrative function for capital. When combined with direct assaults on the ability to democratically self-determine through voting rights, autonomy in all its forms is under serious threat.
With decreased democratic control, all three prongs of the Right’s attack involve the shape of family units at the center of navigating capitalist developments. Limiting abortion, trans social inclusion, and mobility from borders to bathrooms are, with devastatingly differentiated harms, all of a piece. They each provide ideological and practical political, which is to say violent, support for the idealized family form at the center of the Right’s reactionary cultural commitments.
This whitewashed, straitjacket vision of family is a fever dream-induced attempt to control the social effects of their broader commitment to private property and its incessant accumulation. It must, therefore, be a key part of the Left’s strategy of ideological struggle.
Unfortunately, in the US, the most common mode of pro-abortion struggle is pursued through a kind of universalized electoralism: elect Democrats who will appoint new justices. This is the liberal strategy despite the fact that the party has long abandoned both any robust commitment to abortion and a broadening of freedoms gained through past struggles. Hillary Clinton ran on abortion being safe, legal, and rare, and the Party recently supported anti-abortion Representative Henry Cuellar’s reelection bid when running against a pro-abortion challenger (Jessica Cisneros).
In the face of mounting losses, and what ought to be the increasingly obvious failure of the electoral approach, liberal strategy retreats to a largely defensive legalism, a battle waged solely through the courts. Even following the early leak of the decision, Party leaders did little more than appeal for campaign funds and dangle the specter of lesser-evilism. When they did speak of the issue, they restricted their messaging to “choice” and “liberty.” At best, they are seeking to restore the status quo ante. We should demand not only the restoration of a constitutionally protected right, but also crucially expand access: free abortion on demand.
Though itself insufficient, this has left us in the short-term position of requiring robust commitments to legal defense, the growth and support of underground networks to provide abortion services, as well as the broader development of systems of mutual aid that make such work possible. There will be hard times coming in which people in desperate need will have to take risks, relying on those who are prepared to share medical information, perform services, disseminate medication, and provide gear, transportation, secure housing, backstories, and when necessary, alibis. That such heroic efforts cannot fully provide necessary reproductive autonomy should not blind us, at this moment, to their immense value and necessity.
To effectively fight for reproductive autonomy, however, we will need to make the ideological connections briefly traced here into a coherent worldview, centering the misogyny of overturning Roe as also a version of racism and an attack on queer lives, with criminalization as a crucial component. We will need to articulate an abolitionist commitment to a principled open-endedness of family forms in the face of the far right’s attempt to compel a constrained and constraining vision of the family.
Practically speaking, it will be absolutely essential to break out of a narrow NGO, US-based framework and to think about the struggle for reproductive autonomy as part of an antifascist struggle in relation to recent victories across Latin America and the broader world. In Latin America—from Mexico to Argentina—feminists have seen demands around abortion as theoretical and strategic keys to understanding and combatting gender-based violence and femicide, criminalization and policing, neoliberal austerity, and repressive authoritarian policies.
This expansiveness—something sorely missing in the US context, where abortion is still largely seen as a siloed “niche” issue without real revolutionary potential—has gone hand-in-hand with mass action and militancy. Millions took to the streets, as well as built and participated in regional assemblies, neighborhood councils, labor unions, and workplace and land occupations, integrating abortion as a central priority of all feminist and working class organizations. This included educators developing comprehensive sex education curricula; clandestine networks providing, accompanying, and training others in abortions; groups of physicians defying bans; and so much more.
We will need to take these lessons from such organizing and apply them to our own efforts to build movements to defend both legal and underground clinics, and to broaden legally recognized access to reproductive autonomy. As shown by the international struggle, we will need to confront the state as well as push it to articulate and realize our political demands in the here and now.
What then would it take to build a large, motivated, internationally informed, ideologically clear-sighted and fighting movement in the US? We must directly confront the state—as we have seen, legalism without simultaneous feminist movements in the streets, without base-building specifically around abortions, comes with acute limits. The US state is different from that of other countries, and it will be a challenge to confront it directly, but that is the role of activists.
Fortunately, we are not starting at zero. A surprising number of unions have put out statements condemning the overturning of Roe. In a resounding defeat for anti-abortion forces in Kansas, a recent referendum there rejected an amendment that would have removed the right to abortion from the state constitution. Poll after poll shows that the majority of people in the US favor legal abortion.
This number, coupled with meaningful action behind it, will need to grow significantly. Newer generations are politically sharper and more radical than their predecessors, and the vast majority have liberatory positions regarding abortion, antiracism, and the legitimacy of queer lives. Even better, the conditions that produced recent upsurges of resistance and mass protest are still in place. As Mike Davis recently told the LA Times:
Everybody always wants to know: Aren’t you hopeful? Don’t you believe in hope? To me, this is not a rational conversation. I try and write as honestly and realistically as I can. And you know, I see bad stuff. I see a city decaying from the bottom up. I see the landscapes that are so important to me as a Californian dying, irrevocably changed. I see fascism. I’m writing because I’m hoping the people who read it don’t need dollops of hope or good endings but are reading so that they’ll know what to fight, and fight even when the fight seems hopeless. 1Sam Dean, “Mike Davis is Still a Damn Good Storyteller,” LA Times, July 25, 2002.
Notes & References
- Sam Dean, “Mike Davis is Still a Damn Good Storyteller,” LA Times, July 25, 2002.