A couple of weeks ago, a group calling itself “The Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising” (PAAU) released a widely-circulated video on Twitter. In the video, various people describe their identities for the camera—“I’m Black”, “I’m gay”, ‘I’m Muslim”—and then announce that they are against abortion. This group uses carefully selected language emphasizing how “progressive”, “secular”, and “liberal” they are, with terminology like “abortion-industrial complex” and “the rights of unborn people.” They cast abortion as something which benefits the rich at the expense of the poor and the “most marginalized among us”, which they consider to be the unborn. A volunteer for PAAU told Fox News that her online activism centers on “left-leaning” platforms like Tik Tok and Twitch. “Left-leaning people are very pro-humanity and they are very active in talking about human rights violations,” Fellows says, “it’s just [that] up to this point that conversation has excluded unborn people.” One of the slogans the group tags itself with is “Pro-BIPOC.”
It’s easy to poke fun at how obviously inorganic this effort is—the awkward co-optation of “progressive” rhetoric, the insistence on a woke “representation” pageant, and the immediate press release, smells of a deliberately funded astroturfing campaign. However, PAAU isn’t at all the first instance of this kind of social justice-oriented rhetoric in the forced-birth movement (though it is perhaps the most heavy-handed in its insistence on being “progressive.” It is part of an alarming trend by which the forced-birth movement seeks to gain ground and gain acceptance outside the red-state, religious circles it’s associated with.
The movement has changed its messaging dramatically from the Rush Limbaugh-style rhetoric that used to be dominant. When I tell people about clinic defense, they imagine that the forced-birthers outside the clinic are generally white men hurling invectives about sluts. I’m sure this is the case in many places (as well as among anti-abortion laypeople, not necessarily those involved in clinic harassment) but in my experience, the forced birthers tend to be women. They are often people of color, and they talk about how abortion is a form of violence toward women. In the summer of 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, when a large group of anti-abortion protestors converged on lower Manhattan’s Planned Parenthood location, their slogan was “Black Babies Matter.” Among these protestors, there is often a great emphasis on how abortion is a genocide against Black people. The Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street in Manhattan was still called the “Margaret Sanger” center at the time, which, the forced-birthers correctly pointed out, celebrated the legacy of a racist and eugenicist. The name has only been changed very recently.
The proliferation of “pro-life progressives” and “pro-life feminists” over the past decade should be alarming to anyone who wants to protect reproductive rights. No matter if or how these organizations are being funded, their message echoes a sentiment often repeated by the right: “our culture does not value life.” Of course, we can point out the obvious hypocrisy of the right claiming to “value life”; there’s nothing life-affirming about border policing, for example. Nevertheless, the statement itself is true. Our society does not value life because we have a capitalist society, and capitalism does not value life, only profit.
A common “pro-life” feminist talking point goes something like this: “Abortion is a form of violence that women are forced to undergo by selfish, disrespectful, irresponsible men who objectify women; by employers who see pregnancy as a liability; and by a racist society which does not see Black women as being worthy of maternity or Black babies as worthy of life.” If you prod this argument further, a more reactionary worldview emerges—first, that everyone who can become pregnant, and only those who can become pregnant, are women. Second, that women inherently, by default, want to be pregnant and give birth; and third, that abortion always happens in the context of philandering men forcing women and girls to undergo “violence” to avoid the responsibility of providing for a family. Ultimately, our society is so blinded by the pursuit of hedonistic sexual pleasure—which actually serves men’s base needs—that there is no respect for women and no respect for life.
There are several ways to refute these. Forced birth is violence, violence which quite often binds pregnant people to abusive partners, or partners and situations they would otherwise not choose to be with. The imperative to marry and reproduce is literally a patriarchal formation for creating more workers. The forced-birth movement, including so-called “pro-life feminists”, perpetuates misleading or outright inaccurate information to paint “abortion” as more dangerous and gory than it really is—although childbirth is far deadlier, and involves a far greater toll on the body. And most insidiously, the forced-birth movement insists, with a kind of condescending glee, that abortion always involves a great amount of lasting trauma, guilt, and shame, which is patently false. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, outlawing abortion changes none of this. All it does is force people to have children they don’t want.
But just countering these specific arguments doesn’t go far enough to counter the anti-abortion movement which is quickly growing ground across the country. The “progressive pro-life” rhetoric is dangerous because it taps into fears about very real things, while rejecting the superficial imagery of the homophobic Christian bible-thumper. The current “pro-choice” movement, which is mainly spearheaded by the Democratic establishment, will not be able to protect reproductive rights. It is not a “choice” to have an abortion if that choice is coerced by economic conditions, or because of a lack of social support, or because of fears about what our world will look like when our children are grown. It is not a “choice” to have a child either if that choice is coerced through fear of a partner, or a lack of sex education, or a lack of access to abortion care—not to mention the euphemistic terminology of “choice”, which concedes that abortion is something shameful.
The forced-birth movement flourishes in the failures of liberal, capitalist-friendly feminism. It is very easy to look around and see skyrocketing housing costs, stagnant wages, alienated communities, imminent ecological collapse, a barbaric “healthcare” system, a brutal and ever-expanding carceral state, and eroding rights for workers—alongside “pro-choice” politicians who aren’t doing anything to end ruling class control over our lives—and agree that the “abortion industrial complex” would rather reserve parenthood for the rich, while it visits the “violence” of abortion upon the poor.
This is why we at New York City for Abortion Rights reject the framework of “pro-choice” and “pro-life”. Instead, we uphold and affirm the reproductive justice platform of Black feminist collective Sister Song: “the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to raise any children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” In this view, the fight for reproductive rights is not about the fight for “choosing” things. The fight for abortion rights is inextricable from the fight for racial justice, for housing, for free movement across borders, for police abolition, for environmental justice, for an end to imperialist war. We cannot truly declare any kind of “bodily autonomy” when literally every aspect of our lives is commodified.
As explored in Jenny Brown’s Birth Strike, the attack on abortion is at root not about “punishing women for sex”, but about expanding the workforce by coercively increasing the birth rate. A movement for abortion rights must emphasize how forced birth aids the ruling class and creates profit for employers—the ruling class does not want us to stop having children, an “abortion-industrial complex” is a plainly ludicrous notion.
Rosa Luxemburg’s famous quote “socialism or barbarism” aptly summarizes the terrain of the fight for reproductive rights. “Progressive pro-life feminists” on Tik Tok are correct when they point out that our society is callous, with no regard for human life. What they conceal is that the very same systems that make our world so barbaric are the ones that benefit by an end to abortion and bodily autonomy. The abortion struggle will not win out against a forced-birth campaign with savvier, secular messaging unless we make it clear that abortion is about class struggle, not about ideology and culture wars. It is a liberatory struggle, which rejects not only patriarchal control over our bodies, but the control of the capitalist state over our lives. We want free abortion on demand and without apology—but we demand everything else too; safe places to raise the children we want to have, in dignified conditions, in supportive communities, where we can not only survive but thrive. The abortion struggle won’t win by an endless succession of legislation defending “choice”—only through militant organizing that insists that we, not the ruling class, have ownership over our bodies, our streets, our labor, and our lives.