A discussion article by Feminist Fightback
Across Europe in recent years, the abortion question is back up for public debate. In Spain, the new Government wants to revert to the stricter abortion laws overturned by its predecessor. In Greece, slashed funding to the healthcare system is threatening women’s access to safe and free abortions. In France, they have actually liberalised abortion law. But in the UK we have seen various attacks on different fronts that re-configure the sphere of reproduction, of which women are disproportionately involved in. That this is happening during a time of capitalist crisis is no coincidence. In this article we want to explore an apparent paradox: some states are promoting an ideology of ‘the family’ and making it harder for women to access abortions at a time of high unemployment and a surplus population (i.e. a population surplus to the needs of capital), at the same time as implementing policies that makes childrearing much harder.
How can we analyse this contradiction and the implications?
We suggest that this reflects a contradiction within capitalism itself, namely that on the one hand, from the capitalist point of view, the costs of reproduction of total population are always too high, so it makes sense to keep the population small and allow as many abortions as possible. On the other hand, surplus population fulfills some crucial functions (pressure on wages, effective demand, reserve of labour in times of expansion) and politicians constantly complain about a lack of (“qualified”) labour in Western Europe. So, the fundamental contradiction here is that capitalism relies on (the exploitation of) labour (which requires the birth of more babies), but at the same time it will do its best to keep the conditions of reproduction (which does not produce commodities and therefore exchange value) as low as possible (which means less babies). We could conclude that this contradiction will always lead to paradoxes regarding the question of abortion and reproduction more widely.
In times of crisis, this contradiction becomes acutely apparent. In the UK we can see this in the form of various contradictory policies, for example through valorising the ‘hard-working family’ and (financially) responsible (i.e. middle-class) motherhood while at the same time, the government is making us shoulder more of the burden of reproducing ourselves through the politics of austerity and the Big Society. Abortion is being stigmatised and women pushed into (unpaid) reproductive roles, while at the same time, women are pushed to go back to work sooner after having children and being penalised through the benefits system for even having children, especially as a single mother.
In the UK we can trace a number of policy initiatives affecting ‘reproductive rights.
There have been two attempts to reduce the time limit for abortion; once in 2006 from 24 to 21 weeks and again in 2008, from 24 to 20 weeks. While this was primarily a crusade by one MP, Nadine Dorries, it did gain parliamentary support (as well as from anti-choice organisations). While Dorries was defeated, her proposals were deemed politically plausible. Abortion was once again ‘up for negotiation’ – symptomatic of overt ‘pro-natalist’ agitation.
There has also been an attempt to enforce ‘independent’ abortion counselling for all women wanting an abortion; abortion providers would no longer be allowed to provide counselling themselves. So-called ‘independent’ counsellors would have opened the door to anti-abortion and religious groups as ‘providers’. This proposal failed, but while the ‘financial incentive’ argument is used by the Conservatives to suggest conflict of interest with abortion providers providing counselling this same argument isn’t used when private companies contract to provide other healthcare services in the NHS. This stark double standard single outs and undermines abortion provision.
In 2011, the Health Minister ordered an investigation into the working practices of abortion clinics; it seemed to be a political move with no basis other than creating an atmosphere of mistrust about abortion services.
Privatisation opens the door for organisations with an implicit anti-abortion agenda to deliver services to women. We’ve seen this with the public funding of pregnancy crisis centres such as Care Confidential that offers biased advice to women.
Also in 2011, pro-abstinence and anti-choice organisations were invited to become members of the Sex and Relationships Education Council (an advisory group to the Government) as well as to their Sexual Health forum. This cements an ideological framework in which decisions are being made. In May 2011 Nadine Dorries attempted to introduce abstinence-only sex education (but only for girls!) in schools. Thankfully though, she failed.
The ‘right sort of mothers’?
While we could view these attacks on abortion and reproductive services as ‘pro-natalist’ (in the sense that the consequences make an increase in the birth rate more likely), it is not true that the state just ‘wants more babies’ as the state is also cutting its ‘social wage’ responsibilities. More accurate to say that a particular class of child (future labour force) needs to be produced: the child that can financially support itself, is educated, and disciplined. And how will the selection of the ‘right sort of mothers’ for capital be made? Here, the motivations behind the increasing demonisation of single, young mothers and benefit ‘scroungers’ by the state and media become clearer. The idea of ‘good’ and ‘productive’ reproduction is promoted via ideologically-imposed policy changes. For example, tax breaks for married couples, and the new configurations of state benefits where single mothers receive far less money and are forced to find work after a certain amount of time or do workfare programmes. Meanwhile childcare costs are soaring, housing benefit is being capped, the state is cutting childcare support, more than 400 Sure Start children’s centres have closed down, statutory maternity pay is facing a real terms cut. The bedroom tax will disproportionately affect single parents. And the government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda is an attempt to shrink the state’s role in the provision of public services. The overall effects? Firstly, the responsibility to carry out the work arising from “individual reproductive choices” falls on the individual (usually) woman. Secondly, the ‘choice’ to have children (those who feel inclined and are able to afford childcare and other costs) will diversify more along class lines. A certain class of mother is being encouraged to pro-create, reflecting the type of labour (and consumer, ‘citizen’ and worker) that is needed by capital in this current phase.
That all of this occurs in a period of pressure on jobs and wages leads to other considerations. For example, women’s unemployment is at a 25-year high, especially as public sector workers, the majority of whom are women, are being targeted for job cuts. The state/capital has to ‘do’ something with these unemployed women in the short-term without creating any further ‘burdens’ on the state. One answer is to promote motherhood that removes them from the labour market in the short term and then puts them back into it in worse-paid, part-time work later. These jobs are often more precarious, with fewer employment protections. Such conditions will also lead to new chains of exploitation as care jobs invariably fall to lower stratas of class society, such as illegal and migrant women who receive lower wages and have lower bargaining power and make it possible for middle-class, professional women to continue their ‘double burden’ of work.
Within this terrain of conflicting pressures however, in the UK, the birth rate has fallen for middle-class, professional women and risen amongst working class women, an inversion of what is expected and happening in other parts of Europe. How can we account for this? Perhaps middle class women delay having children until they are in a more financially secure position, making it more difficult to conceive (which also explains the recent relaxation of rules around IVF for older women). Rising birth rates for poorer women could be seen as an expression of a ‘retreat into the family’ when the alternative is working long hours for a wages that does not lift you out of poverty. The retreat to ‘family’ and ‘motherhood’ in times of economic crisis is in some ways a reaction to the increasing precarity of employment, even a resistance against the further commodification of labour and marketisation of social relations.
However, in the rest of Europe especially Greece, Ireland and Spain, fertility rates are falling. This is a more expected response to crisis and unemployment, but it also undermines the idea of ‘individual choice’. The commonly used language and ideology of defending women’s ‘choice’ over their ‘own/individual’ bodies by many pro-choice campaigners is therefore politically limited. It fails to address the material conditions under which such choices are made. Liberal and legalistic language of ‘choice’ disguises the influences and structural constraints in a capitalist society that determine and limit it. And a bourgeois society cannot solve the contradiction between individual freedom and social constraints. Our only alternative is to maintain ‘formal individual freedom’ but at the same time build collective material conditions and power, which makes a real choice possible.
Whether such a contradictory raft of policies will successfully develop capital’s ideal worker/citizen/mother is unlikely, not least due to realities of class struggle. Fundamentally though, the state will always have an interest in control on women’s bodies, because one of the main cumulative affects limiting women’s reproductive ‘choices’ will be to reproduce a hierarchical gender divide. The bigger the gender divide, the more women can be exploited by capital, both from their unpaid reproductive labour and in the wage-relation. Stronger controls over women’s reproductive capacities strengthens divisions between men and women by making more explicit their different roles within the division of labour. Maintaining women in their ‘naturalised’ role as childbearers maintains the category of ‘woman’. It exacerbates class divisions both between proletarian men and women as well as between different groups of women.
The puzzle of the contradiction i.e. that of restricting abortion at a time of surplus population, remains unsolved. Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk response by sections of the state, instinctively trying to rescue the family, even if that contradicts the slump in demand for labour. Or perhaps at times of rising unemployment, women are sacrificed first from the labour market, also because gender ideology enforces the idea of a ‘viable’/’natural’ alternative towards which they can be routed: motherhood. Why not just leave them unemployed? Because this way they are less of a social threat. Ensuring that people stay locked into nuclear family structures reduces the risk they pose to existing social structures. Restrictions to abortion do not just impact on women and their supposed autonomy. These policies point to a social relation that seeks to weaken our abilities to fight back against the inevitable (at least, within capitalism) decline of the quality of our lives. Defending our reproductive rights also means imagining what kind of future we want to raise children in, and seeking to collectively destroy the systemic (capitalist) limitations that will impede us from doing so.
*This article is a report by a member of Feminism Fightback – designed to stimulate discussion (it does not necessarily represent our collective opinion).
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