Anti-abortion discourse is about misogyny – but not just misogyny

This is the third of my response posts to Katha Pollitt’s essay criticizing TGNC*-inclusive language in feminist and specifically abortion funding discourse. You can read the first here and the second here.

In Pollit’s essay, she frames abortion access and other issues around pregnancy as feminist issues, as women’s issues. Which they are – they don’t apply to all women, but they apply to a lot of women. This does not, however, mean that they are only women’s or feminist issues.

Many issues belong to multiple movements. Drug policy reform, for instance, is a movement issue for criminal justice reform, and also for anti-racism. Safety at work is a movement issue for the labor movement, and also the immigration reform movement. Healthcare reform is an economic justice movement issue and also a disability movement issue. These are, of course, not comprehensive summaries of any of these issues, and there are plenty more issues, and I could go on. But my point is that while movements can have ownership of issues, it’s often joint ownership.

Abortion access is a women’s issue. People get that part pretty well. But it’s also a poor people’s issue – being unable to access a desired abortion makes people much more likely to become or remain poor or needing public assistance, and poor people are less likely to be able to access abortions because of cost and logistical reasons. It’s an LGB issue, because LGB teens with uteruses are two to ten times more likely than straight ones to become pregnant, and it’s a youth issue because teen pregnancies are far more likely to be unplanned than pregnancies in general (82% of teen pregnancies vs 50% of all pregnancies unplanned, 26% of teen pregnancies vs 20% of all pregnancies aborted). It’s an anti-racism issue, because Black and Latino people are far more likely to have both unplanned pregnancies and abortions than White people (something that could be addressed with better access to contraception, another important reproductive justice issue that is a women’s issue but not only a women’s issue). It was even a Black Civil Rights Movement issue back in the day. And it’s also a trans issue, because as I already covered, pregancy among trans/gender nonconforming people with uteruses isn’t rare, and the little data we have suggests that pregnant TGNC people are more likely to have abortions than pregnant cis women.

Now, you might say that not all poor people, not all trans people, etc, can get pregnant or need abortions, so it’s still primarily a women’s issue. It is obviously true, that not all poor people, trans people, etc, can get pregnant, but that’s also true of women. Almost 11% of cis women of childbearing age are infertile. Some large percentage of women are post-menopausal. A small percentage of women are themselves trans women who were male-assigned at birth – the non-cis-dude world is not actually dividable into non-overlapping groups called “women” and “trans people” – and don’t have, for instance, uteruses. And simply calling it a women’s issue, end of story, also erases that some of those women are far more likely to seek abortions – or to have trouble accessing them – than others, as I just explained in the last paragraph.

You might also say that movement opposition to abortion is rooted in misogyny. Also true! Society sure does like policing women’s bodies! But again, not complete. Society likes policing a lot of people’s bodies. In the 19th century, when the US anti-abortion movement started, it was about policing women, and also (as Pollit knows because she wrote about this in Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights) about policing immigrants (and, ironically, Catholics). And also pretty much everyone who wasn’t a narrow slice of Northern/Western European. Trans identities weren’t understood in the same way in the 19th century, but both then and now the antabortion discourse has very much emphasized their view of abortion as “unnatural,” a framing also used by social conservatives against trans people and against a lot of other people and phenomena. In modern times, it’s intertwined strongly with misogyny, and also anti-Semitism and anti-secular-humanism, with racism…and with transphobia and queerphobia.

Anti-abortion politics are part of a history of reactionary societal policing of people’s bodies that also includes police brutality, mass incarceration, transmisogynistic laws about bathroom use, forced institutionalization of people with disabilities, and stigmatization of black and brown people’s fertility, among other issues. I don’t mean that they’re all coming out of some big intnentional conspiracy, but they’re all about restriction and violation of people’s bodies.

So yep. It’s the War on Women. And the War on the Poor. And the War on Black People. And the War on Trans and Gender Nonconforming People. I’d love to see people with all of those signs standing together at a rally, frankly. For people who are more than one of the above, recognizing that anti-abortion politics are an attack on multiple facets of their humanity, recognizes their whole self. And for people who are in a category that wasn’t traditionally understood as being affected by abortion – but that is affected by it – it recognizes that they exist at all.

Edited to add: Pollitt did suggest in her essay that she’d be fine with language that includes TGNC people as long as it also retains “women” language. I suppose you could frame everything in the language of “pregnant cis women and trans/gender nonconforming people with uteruses,” but that seems way more cumbersome and awkward, frankly, than “pregnant people,” and while Pollitt fears minimization of cis women here, I honestly don’t think there’s much danger of society ceasing to make connections between cis women and pregnancy/abortion.

*There are tons of terms out there that people use for “anyone who is not cis, whether they’re transitioning from one binary gender and/or sex to the other, or are nonbinary, or genderfluid, or bigender, or what have you.” I’ve seen trans, trans*, trans+, trans/genderqueer, trans/gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender nonconforming, T/GQ, T/GNC, and TGNC all used in this manner. I’m using TGNC here, but different people, communities, and contexts will have different preferences and usages.

2 comments to Anti-abortion discourse is about misogyny – but not just misogyny

  • Ampersand

    (I think the fourth word of this post is meant to be “third,” not “second.”)

    Thanks for this series of posts. I’ve been thinking a lot about that Pollitt essay, and reading your thoughts has been helpful.

    One minor nit-pick, however, is that from my perspective (I’m in my mid-forties), something that goes back to 1998 actually does seem pretty new, and I don’t think that’s an invalid perspective. The pro-choice movement, obviously, is itself many decades old. Over that scale, the concern for trans-inclusive language is pretty new – but “new” doesn’t mean “wrong,” of course.

    • lirael

      Thanks for the comment, and you are correct, I did mean “third” rather than “second” there.

      Part of the issue here is that I try to say things that I can back up, and for the most part, to back it up in a post, I need to be able to find evidence on the Internet (especially since I don’t really have formal training in gender studies and thus don’t have a ton of material on hand in book form). As I go further and further back it gets progressively harder to find anything on the Internet. I would be very surprised if trans people with uteruses haven’t been talking about pregnancy and what to do about it for much longer than 17 years. Trans men as currently constructed in the US have existed, after all, since the ’60s (the conversation at that link is a giant trainwreck, but raxlraxlraxl is a friend of mine and former gender studies PhD student, and you can scroll down to see their informative comments as opposed to some of the other stuff happening in that conversation). It’s just that while I can say “Yeah it makes sense that trans men and non-binary people with uteruses would have been talking about this stuff for as long as those have been identities that people have identified with, why wouldn’t that be the case?” I don’t have a cite. So, since Pollitt used the abortion funding movement as the center of her piece, and since I know exactly when TGNC-inclusivity in abortion funding started (having joined the first fund to do it in 2009 while they were in the process of doing it), I found cites that TGNC discourse about pregnancy and abortion is significantly older than that.

      In the grand scheme of things, 1998 isn’t ancient, but Pollitt’s essay presents TGNC discourse and influence on the wider discourse as new, new enough that that’s why she’s wrote her essay now. The difference now is that higher-ups in the abortion funding movement – the older people who dominate a lot of fund boards outside of a handful of locations, the mostly-not-young people who run NNAF (the abortion fund parent organization), are starting to acknowledge TGNC inclusivity as valid. Less than three years ago we were still the only fund using TGNC-inclusive language. Less than two years ago someone from NNAF was warning people from my fund not to be too loud/vehement about TGNC inclusivity at the abortion funds’ national summit (even as at least three or four other funds had gone TGNC-inclusive over the previous year), and at the summit itself I was having to stand up and explain why a new campaign claiming to be inclusive of everyone who needs abortions and then using only women-only language was a problem, but at least they were including a “trans 101” workshop at the summit for the first time ever. This year, for the first time, the template the NNAF created for fundraiser pages for the Bowlathon uses TGNC-inclusive language. Pollitt’s very close to the abortion funding world; she knows these dynamics too.

      My point was that even documented-on-the-Internet TGNC discourse on pregnancy/abortion goes back far beyond when she noticed it because it started gaining steam among abortion funds and other cis-dominated pro-choice and reproductive justice groups.

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