Compiled by Pam Butler
In recent months, US state-level policymakers have proposed and passed increasingly severe restrictions on abortion access, with the end goal of overturning the legal precedent set by the US Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. As this new wave of public policy reshapes the legal landscape, I’ve been re-considering how abortion fits into the courses I teach. For years, I and many of my colleagues have decentered abortion in our feminist classrooms and situated it within a broader matrix of reproductive politics and in/justice. Our syllabi are built around now-classic texts—like Dorothy Roberts’s Killing the Black Body and Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena Gutiérrez’s Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice—that center black, indigenous, and other women of color, and that call white feminism to account for its myopic focus on abortion and “choice.”
As I plan next year’s courses, though, US abortion politics are in rapid flux, and they bear new and altered meanings that many of us are struggling to keep up with and to make sense of in relation to our intellectual and movement work. State laws that brutally restrict legal abortion coalesce with racializing technologies of criminalization and surveillance, and they play out through familiar structures of power that organize the maldistribution of resources under gendered racial capitalism. Perhaps it is time to re-center abortion.
This microsyllabus highlights some recent feminist scholarship that can help us in that struggle and the struggles to come, balancing a specific focus on abortion with attention to the broader, shifting terrain of reproductive in/justice in the US. While liberal pro-choice political discourse continues to assume that reproductive freedom in the United States hinges on Roe v. Wade, these texts challenge common sense about Roe and remind us that rights-based appeals to the state have never been a reliable path to justice for those subjected to the state’s violence and exclusion. Together, they offer a critical-race feminist genealogy of the current political stakes of abortion in the United States, and they conjure visions for the future that prioritize mutual aid, community organizing, targeted demands for state-based support, and visionary strategies for building power and resources not dependent on liberal rights or recognition.
Loretta J. Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure, Editors, Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique (Feminist Press, 2017)
If you read only one text focused on reproductive justice, let it be this anthology. Reproductive justice (RJ), according to the black feminists who named the concept in the 1990s and the BIPOC organizers and scholars who have further developed and mobilized it since, includes the right to have children, to not have children, and to raise one’s children in safe and sustainable communities—rights that have been systematically denied to black, indigenous, immigrant, disabled, imprisoned, poor, and other marginalized people. The editors of Radical Reproductive Justice have assembled twenty years of writing on reproductive justice and organized it into remarkably tidy categories: historical context; theory; policy, practice, and activism; and poetry. The collection uses writing by scholars and organizers whose work has shaped the field (Marlene Gerber Fried, Dorothy Roberts, Loretta Ross, Monica Simpson, Rickie Solinger, and Andrea Smith, among others) to establish a solid grounding in the theoretical approaches that characterize RJ as an analytical framework and as the basis for a movement that centers the voices and insights of black, indigenous, and other women, nonbinary, and trans people of color. The policy/practice/activism selections then ask challenging questions that push RJ in critical and coalitional directions: Can white feminists use RJ to challenge white supremacy and reproductive privilege? How can we avoid retrofitting RJ into familiar neoliberal notions of “choice?” What possibilities exist for coalition between RJ organizers and “pro-life” feminists? How can RJ integrate with movements and demands for disability justice? Can RJ fully address the needs of trans and gender-expansive people in relation both to reproduction and to broader principles of bodily autonomy? Finally, in the great tradition of the interdisciplinary, collaborative, anti-racist, community-engaged feminist anthology, the editors hold space for the arts and feature several powerful poems.
Rickie Solinger, Pregnancy and Power: A History of Reproductive Politics in the United States (NYU, revised edition, July 16, 2019)
Perhaps no scholar has more thoroughly documented the history of political struggles over reproduction in the United States than Rickie Solinger, whose body of work pinpoints the intersection of gender, racialization, and capitalism at the heart of US reproductive politics. First published in 2007, Pregnancy and Power is a concise history of changing laws, public policies, and community attitudes about sex and pregnancy. Solinger highlights moments that are historical touchstones for RJ activists: when 18th-century slaveholders devised “breeding” schemes; when the 19th-century US government forcibly removed indigenous children from their families and communities; when 1970s physicians coercively sterilized Latina women. Throughout, Solinger chronicles an ongoing battle over who has the power to make reproductive decisions for individuals, as policymakers, courts, clergy, and physicians continually regulate reproduction in their attempts to manage social and political problems, and as those political struggles have different impacts on the lives and life chances of different groups.
Mary Ziegler, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate (Harvard, 2015)
Much contemporary abortion debate centers on the symbolic power of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling as an almost mythical turning point in reproductive politics, when “a woman’s right to choose” was enshrined in US law, and the contemporary “pro-choice” and “pro-life” movements were born. Ziegler’s study challenges this widely accepted narrative, drawing on rich archival sources and more than 100 interviews with key players, building on earlier scholarship collected in Rickie Solinger’s 1998 Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle. Ziegler finds ideological fluidity, political complexity, and internal struggles among diverse grassroots activists in the decade following Roe, in the context of white-supremacist population control, neoliberalism, and the rise of the New Right. She identifies the specific political pressures and compromises that created the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” movements, as strategists on both sides produced and refined single-issue choice-centric discourse that interpreted Roe as a judgment about “a woman’s right to choose.” After Roe is a powerful history of the present, tracing the emergence of abortion as the paradigmatic center of mainstream US reproductive politics, defined by the limited interpretation of Roe and the white-normative choice-versus-life framing that continue to dominate our political discourse today.
Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, Homeland Maternity: US Security Culture and the New Reproductive Regime (Illinois, 2019)
RJ scholarship takes seriously the US state’s historical and ongoing role as a global agent of reproductive, gender-based, and sexual violence and injustice. And as we consider contemporary abortion politics—and whether and how we might appeal to the state for rights, recognition, or resources—we ought to consider as well the state’s biopolitical investments in regulating pregnancy, parenting, and population. In Homeland Maternity, Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz asks how the post-9/11 US security state has produced new forms of social control in relation to motherhood. What Fixmer-Oraiz calls “homeland maternity” encompasses the 21st-century policing and criminalization of pregnancy, parenting, miscarriage, and abortion, as well what she identifies as their corollary: the promotion of proper motherhood as a feminist achievement. She argues that reproduction and motherhood are key sites in the production of homeland security culture and that, in turn, the logics of homeland security shape contemporary reproductive politics. In short, post-9/11 security culture has entwined motherhood and the nation in new ways, and thus re-tied national security to the racialized control of women’s, pregnant, and potentially pregnant bodies.
Robin Marty, Handbook for a Post-Roe America (Seven Stories Press, 2019)
In Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma, legal scholar Michelle Oberman speculates about what a post-Roe United States (i.e. one without a constitutional right to abortion) might look like—how pregnant people would access legal and illegal abortion, whether and how patients and physicians might be prosecuted, and so on. Robin Marty’s wholly practical Handbook for a Post-Roe America prepares us to live in that world. In addition to a comprehensive manual for accessing reproductive healthcare (planning for emergencies, learning about self-managed abortion care, avoiding surveillance), Marty’s Handbook includes an extensive resource guide directing pregnant people to clinics, abortion funds, and practical support networks. Perhaps most importantly, the primary focus of the Handbook isn’t individual self-help, but collective action for political transformation. The manual and the resource guide introduce readers to the reproductive justice movement and direct them to women-of-color-led RJ organizations already at work on the ground. Marty observes, “We have to act now to secure what access remains, shore up the networks supporting those who need care, and decide what risks we are willing to take to ensure that any person who wants a termination can still end that pregnancy—with or without the government’s permission.”
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams, Editors, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines (PM Press, 2016)
Revolutionary Mothering is a book of vision and of hope, inspired by and built on the legacies of radical and queer black feminists of the 1970s and 80s. In a collection of reflections on mothering (“the practice of creating, nurturing, affirming and supporting life”), its authors honor human interdependence and the ways that we need each other to survive. As a theoretical text focused on reproductive justice, it rethinks mother as a verb—loosened from binary gender and from biodeterminist parent-child dyads—and insists that we build a world where nurturance and care are the basis for justice and human flourishing. In contrast to reproductive politics focused on individual rights and consumer choice, the mothers whose writing is collected here “create a generous space for life in the face of life-threatening limits, activate a powerful vision of the future while navigating tangible concerns in the present, move beyond individual narratives of choice toward collective solutions, live for more than ourselves, and remain accountable to a future that we cannot always see.” As we work to help one another survive the present, and to collectively build more just futures, Revolutionary Mothering may be the handbook we need.
Pam Butler is the Associate Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where she teaches courses on reproductive politics and works with the local reproductive justice practical support network.