The Gentrification of Abortion Politics

An illustration of a cracked vase, with water overflowing from top
The right-wing onslaught demands a new and independent strategy

This note was first published in November 2021.

Texas might have changed something. Ever since a sadistic state law went into effect, putting bounties on the heads of abortion providers and anyone who helps an abortion-seeker, we’ve noticed the stirrings of a more interesting, more radical feminist movement.

Working class and poor people have, for decades, experienced the reproductive dystopia that better-off people now fear. Since 2005, there have been 1,200 arrests of women for miscarriages or other pregnancy-related problems. Over 11 million women live more than an hour’s drive from an abortion provider. Meanwhile, America’s brutal history of sterilizing those deemed unfit to mother has never ended: California did it to incarcerated women up until 2011. Reproduction has always been subject to an authoritarian level of control and surveillance for hundreds of thousands of people in this country, a reality that is beginning to seep into the sense of safety long felt by middle-class white people.

We’ve written before about liberal feminism’s unsatisfying response to the right wing’s anti-abortion onslaught.

It usually includes some unthreatening public rallies, calls to donate to reproductive rights organizations, and lawsuits. Organizations like Planned Parenthood — which provide important services while working within mainstream Democratic politics — have been hesitant to encourage confrontations with right-wingers outside their clinics, or to focus on grassroots organizing as opposed to lobbying and elections. Even as the right managed a Supreme Court takeover, the response was a bit like the early Trump years: on the one hand, Trump was a Nazi, on the other hand, we mustn’t stoop to the right’s level by arming ourselves, kicking right-wingers off campuses, interrupting Kirstjen Nielsen’s dinner, or punching Nazis in the face. There’s a “war on women,” but we should just lobby the generals. The result is a slow-rolling disaster and a very confused and weak opposition, tied to strategies that have already failed.

This lack of radical imagination isn’t restricted to reproductive rights. As scholar and activist Dean Spade wrote during the pandemic, systems of domination encourage us to “bring our complaints in ways that are the least disruptive and the most beneficial to existing conditions. Voting, filing lawsuits, giving money to causes we care about that are properly registered as nonprofits, writing letters to the editor, posting our views on social media, and maybe occasionally attending a permitted march that is flanked by cops and does not disrupt traffic are forms of dissent (as opposed to disobedience) that are tolerable and mostly nondisruptive for existing arrangements.” These tactics are not powerful enough to combat entrenched injustice and yet, Spade writes, “most people cannot imagine raising concerns in any way besides these.” We have a misunderstanding of the history of social movements, from civil rights to immigration activism, that symbolic tactics are more respectful than direct action.

There’s a “war on women,” but we should just lobby the generals.

This perspective did not come about by accident. Because most Americans are not enmeshed in social movements, they experience politics episodically: a crisis followed by a protest or a short campaign. Trump’s election followed by the Women’s March. Family separations followed by a donation to a legal fund. The Texas ban followed by a lawsuit. How have we come to be satisfied by these individual actions?

In The Gentrification of the Mind, writer and activist Sarah Schulman describes New York in the years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, showing how the radical politics of ACT UP were replaced by assimilation and passivity. She explains that it’s “not only the city that has changed, but the way its inhabitants conceptualize themselves.” Her newest neighbors, she notes, were the least likely to fight back or make demands on the landlord when something was wrong with her building: “They do not have a culture of protest, even if they are paying $2,800 a month for a tenement walk-up apartment with no closets. It’s like a hypnotic identification with authority… they do not want to ask authority to be accountable.” Schulman’s analysis can be mapped onto present-day national politics. Much like white suburbanites took over blocks of the Lower East Side, large, respectable nonprofits have come to dominate social movements. Many of these nonprofits are dependent on the donations of wealthy individuals whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the people they purport to support. Just as we’ve seen radical demands for guaranteed health, child, and elder care remodeled into convoluted tax credits, big box stores and banks have taken over; during the pandemic, many of them have sat empty even amidst a housing crisis. 

New York’s gentrification has a material history (tax breaks for developers, aggressive policing, the destruction of low-income housing), and so does the gentrification of America’s social movements. We’ve discussed in previous issues how wealthy nonprofits like the Ford Foundation helped domesticate radical social movements by offering money for “indoors” work — policy paper writing, teaching, lobbying, etc. — partly in a bid to cool street protests and radical organizing. The result is a nation of people who, with a learned helplessness, look to professional nonprofit workers to fight their battles for them, while often well-meaning organizations, even with their big donors and fundraising galas, have less power than they thought without a movement behind them. ­­

A positive outgrowth of the appalling situation in Texas, and perhaps of the longer Trump era, is that people are beginning to think more independently about political strategy. Covid-19 gave many people their first taste of mutual aid organizing, which required that they get in touch with their communities and figure out how to do things for themselves. Efforts like Plan C and Aid Access are making available the medications necessary for self-managed abortions (our friends at Jewish Currents published an illustrated guide to how to use them.) As Lizzie Presser reported a few years ago, there exists at least one quasi-legal underground network of women providing cheap, safe abortions at home and training others to do the same. There is a growing awareness of the small abortion funds that help patients find and access abortions, which tend to be more integrated with their communities than the large nonprofits are. The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, for example, drew a great deal of attention in 2019 for following “its own compass on how to best help clients” — in other words, giving people money for what they needed instead of limiting and surveilling what it could be used for. The Frontera Fund in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley has a particular focus on getting help to undocumented abortion-seekers, who may be trapped in a hostile region by border controls. Others are working on mobile clinics that can serve people in rural New Mexico, near Texas. Sometimes it takes straight-up confrontation, as New York City for Abortion Rights proved when they put an end to anti-abortion activists harassing Planned Parenthood patients in Brooklyn. Counter-protests and a community pressure campaign finally convinced the church who had hosted the antis to stop. We have an opportunity to shift from seeing ourselves as either victims or givers of charity to standing in solidarity with our neighbors in the face of threat. In Schulman’s words, referring to ACT UP’s principles, “If someone hurts you, you have the right to respond.” 

We have an opportunity to shift from seeing ourselves as victims or givers of charity to standing in solidarity with our neighbors in the face of threat.

It’s no coincidence that abortion support often takes the form of mutual aid. Spade argues that mutual aid is not just the provision of necessities outside of state control, or a way to guide people toward social movements. It is also a process of educating oneself in one’s own power. Learning to organize meetings, be accountable to a group, receive criticism, and understand your enemies does not happen overnight. Spade quotes a slogan of organizers from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (madr): “no masters, no flakes.” You don’t show up because someone with authority tells you to, you show up to do something that matters, and so others can count on you. As mutual aid organizer Emi Koyama points out in this issue: “We should be in community with people in the first place, and then, when hard times hit, you can be like, ‘Oh, this is so and so. I already know them. They need help.’” Bryce Covert takes some of those same lessons from the campaign to get universal child care in Portland: The movement had to grow beyond a niche issue that was just for the parents of babies and toddlers.

As feminists in the U.S. find more radical footing, we’re not alone. Direct action feminism is on the rise around the world. Verónica Gago recounts the lead-up to Argentina’s 2016 women’s strike in her book Feminist International. The massive organizing effort required to stage a nationwide strike across sectors “transformed mobilization against femicide, focused on the sole demand ‘stop killing us,’ into a radical, massive movement, capable of linking and politicizing the rejection of violence in a new way.” By beginning with the concerns of women, the strike came to embrace the fight against economic violence, environmental violence, and incorporated all kinds of working class Argentines, calling into question “once again, a long Marxist history that takes homogeneity as the central characteristic of the class.” In other words, starting from a specific identity proved a powerful way to mobilize a mass movement. But that identity can’t be that of a victim of violence or misogynist law. “To be a victim,” Gago writes, “requires faith in the state and demands redeemers.” The strike, by contrast, “puts us in a situation of struggle.”

See you in the struggle,

The Editors

Illustration by Colleen Tighe.