Abortion, Capitalism and Patriarchy

Abortion was once lawful under Church Canon Law, it was permissible up until ensoulment, until the fetus started kicking, which was considered the sign of the soul entering the body, and known as “the quickening.” Which raises the rather obvious, yet surprisingly unexamined question, why was abortion once acceptable, and then it wasn’t. What historically gave rise to, and materially produced this anti-abortion, and anti-contraceptive, movement?

Abortion was pretty much universally practiced up until the 19th century when emerging bourgeois institutions, most important for this discussion was the establishment of the clinic (“la clinique”) and of medical institutions such as the AMA, both of which pathologized the female body, and started advocating for the need to limit women’s access to abortion and contraception, thus providing the ideological, both moralistic and ‘scientific’, discourse needed to produce the abortion narrative that benefited both capitalism’s labor needs and patriarchy’s need to control a woman’s reproductive power. At the same time there was a reactionary backlash to ideas spawned by the Enlightenment, of women’s equality, of the growing suffrage movement, of women’s rights and freedoms in general, all of which led to more comprehensive prohibitions on women’s sexuality.

All Abrahamic religions, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic, have allowed abortions up to a certain gestation time, before “ensoulment,” before the soul was deemed to enter the body. The one attribute, the one constant seen across religions, cultures and societies is that the fetus is considered property, the property of ‘the father’. According to Hebrew law the fetus does not have the status of personhood but it is considered property, the property of the male, the ‘father’. Under Roman law only the husband, the father, the male was legally sanctioned to allow an abortion to be performed. Regardless of social or cultural constructs, abortion has always been a question of who controls a woman’s reproductive power, and what societal institutions sanction those controls. It is a question of patriarchy, and of economics… of power, and who, and by what means is that power controlled. Patriarchy and economics meet in the 19th Century when the newly formed medical profession (the AMA was founded in 1847) is confronted with not only a loss power over women’s bodies but of competition from midwives for control of women’s bodies, their response was to marginalize midwives and to lobby for stricter anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive laws.

The rise of the anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive movement coincided with the rise of a new economic formation, industrial capitalism. The new mills and factories, railroads, and mines of this new economy needed a source of cheap plentiful labor. An immediate remedy was immigration, but capital needed a politically less destabilizing and culturally less disruptive means of achieving the need for cheap labor. The limiting, and ultimately restricting, of a woman’s reproductive options was an ideological way to accomplish capital’s needs without disrupting the “natural order” of things, the patriarchal, and capitalist, order of things.

If the anti-abortion movement was a means to produce more workers then what is the significance of Roe? How does that fit in? Along with the pill, Roe freed the newly educated and liberated middle-class women to enter the expanding Post-War white-collar work force, and allowed upper-class women the ability to raise the next generation of capitalists. The new anti-abortion laws enacted in recent years do not affect these women, they will always have the means to obtain an abortion. Even if Roe were overturned today there would still be liberal States, mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where abortion would remain legal, and where those middle and upper class women, and their daughters, would be able to obtain one. Who these laws do effect are working-class women, women without means, women who can’t afford a private Gynecologist, women who can’t afford to travel hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion. And these are the very women who supply the MacDonalds and the WalMarts with the army of cheap labor that is needed in order to ‘compete’ in the modern capitalist marketplace, and who supply the soldiers needed to expand and defend that marketplace.

There is a subtle irony here, the reason those corporations are able to pay such low wages is because those wages are subsidized through welfare programs provided by a government that is controlled by the ruling class women who want to cut off access to abortion to all but themselves, to their class.