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.” Ensoulment at conception was not codified into canon law until the 1917 Code of Canon Law. 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, 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 the soul was deemed to enter the body, before “ensoulment” (which begs the question of a soul, but that’s a discussion for another time). 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. Under American “slave codes” the fetus was the property of the slave owner thus abortion was banned for slaves. 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 of power over women’s bodies but of competition from midwives for control of women’s bodies, their response in the case of midwives was to marginalize them, the male doctors had the ‘scientific’ knowledge that female midwives were not privy to, and those same male doctors lobbied for stricter anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive laws in order to usurp new power over women’s reproductive power.

With the rise of industrial capitalism, came the rise of new ideologies that justified and validated capitalism’s existence, ideologies that benefited and served capitalism’s production demands, its need for expansion. What the new mills and factories, railroads, and mines of this new economy needed was a source of cheap plentiful labor. An immediate remedy was immigration, the Transcontinental Railroad was build by Irish immigrants and newly freed African slaves in the East and Chinese immigrants in the West. Immigrant labor, mostly Eastern European, was also used to replace striking workers at industrial factories and steel mills. But capital needed a politically less destabilizing and culturally less disruptive means of achieving this need for cheap labor. The anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive movement which arose at this same period was a means to supply capital’s need for cheap labor with Anglo-Saxon and Western European laborers. 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. The men who controlled the means of production now realized that by siding with the anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive movement they could also control the means of reproduction.

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 also supply the soldiers needed to expand and defend that marketplace.

A word to all who believe that the Bible is the word of God, there is no prohibition against abortion in the Bible, the Bible says absolutely nothing about abortion, not one word, so, if the Bible is the word of God, then did he just forget? Anti-abortionists will claim that the sixth commandment, fifth if you’re Catholic, covers abortion but there are hundreds of enumerated prohibitions applied to the commandments, yet no mention of abortion. And most importantly, using a Biblical reference is a theological rationale to what is a secular matter, no matter how much they wish it so this is not a theocracy. Anti-abortionism is patriarchy couched in religious gibberish. It’s not about banning abortion per se, it’s about controlling a woman’s reproductive power, regardless of the stated reasoning.