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Abortion, Capitalism, and Demographic Control


The leaking of a draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court that suggests it will move to overturn the right to abortion has, since its publication last week, provoked a sharp backlash from liberal luminaries. A joint statement by Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer charged Republican justices with being on the threshold of making “one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history.” Contributors to the New York Times have declared the end of Roe v. Wade “terrifying” and have, in a move that says much about their view of political activism, called for corporations to intervene to protect their recruiting and bottom lines.

There is little doubt that the consequences of striking down Roe v. Wade would be catastrophic. In the draft opinion, Justice Alito suggests that the provisions made for childbirth in the form of maternity leaves and pregnancy discrimination protections have rendered a federal abortion guarantee, to some extent, moot. This is, of course, comical. The minimum paid maternity leave in the United States is—at a whooping zero weeks—far behind not just present-day paradises of women’s rights such as Turkey and Mexico, but also Stalinist Russia (which at least tried to offset its illegalization of abortion with extensive protections for mothers—something the Republicans would almost certainly be adverse to). Alito also singles out the ongoingly divisive character of Roe as proof that it has failed to have its intended effect of creating a new political consensus. This may be true. But it also sounds like a great reason for insisting that the rights of women be judicially enshrined, rather than exposing them to the attacks of a political class bent on their destruction.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade, then, must be opposed. Yet conspicuously absent since news of the draft opinion has been any attempt by socialist-leaning outlets to push beyond platitudes, providing an economic analysis of the current impasse. The boiling hot take of Jacobin is that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would be—brace for it—“anti-democratic.” In this magazine, Norman Finkelstein has—in an argument that seems to repurpose Pascal’s gambit—referred to abortion as an “insoluble moral enigma,” and suggested we err on the side of caution by protecting life. Given the inadequacy of these perspectives, what is needed is to reflect on the economic role of contraceptive abortion within capitalism and, by extension, within present-day society.

The Advent of the Abortion Ban

In her text Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici claims that modern abortion prohibitions have a specific origin—the late Middle Ages.

It might be a little odd to imagine that, midway through the Middle Ages, anti-abortion campaigns simply went into high gear. There’s a reason, though, that Federici singles out this period. From at least the 7th century, when the church first issued handbooks for confessors, sexuality had been subjected to interrogation and papal control. But the fact that the societies in which these rules were implemented were not exposed to the demographic pressures of capitalism meant there was a certain laxity in how they were applied. In the Decretum of 1010, for example, it is specified that women who “kill their offspring” should do penance for ten years. But it was also noted that “it makes a big difference whether she is a poor little woman and acted on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether she acted to conceal a crime of fornication.”[1]

All of this changed with the arrival of the Black Death. From 1347 to 1352, at least one-third of Europe’s population perished. This resulted in a profound labor shortage that made the late fourteenth and fifteen centuries a “golden age”[2] of sorts for the laboring masses. Proletarian revolts and peasant insurrection gripped the continent—the most well-known of which is the Thomas Müntzer-led German Peasants’ War of 1524-25. Wages doubled and trebled, and food was cheaper than, perhaps, ever before or since.

Fearing a permanent diminution in their power, the upper class struck back. The Black Death had caused the feudal system to flounder. So the nobility, church, and nascent capitalist class all joined together to exorcise the specter of peasant revolt. Merchant clans like the de la Poles and Medicis launched mega-corporations and—in some cases—lent extensive money to the crown. The nobility obliged them by using monarchical powers to create coercive conditions that were favorable to extensive capital accumulation—with payment of wages being a necessity in any case after the plague. And the church stepped up efforts to aid population growth, elevating abortion to heresy and defining the herbal concoctions used by women to avoid pregnancy as a form of witchcraft.

By the mid-sixteenth century, abortion was largely considered a capital crime throughout Europe. In France, a royal edict sentenced women to death whose children died after an unregistered pregnancy. In England and Scotland, a network of spies was created to surveil unwed mothers. And in Nuremburg “in 1580, the year in which the severed heads of three women convicted of maternal infanticide were nailed to the scaffold for public contemplation, the penalty for it was changed to beheading.”[3]

Baby-Making Machines, Actual Machines

The late Middle Ages described by Federici in Caliban correspond with the period of mercantile capitalism. At the end of the Middle Ages and throughout the early modern period, societies were increasingly organized around the augmentation of the wealth of capitalists. But at this stage, the means of production were still largely unchanged. Though manufacturing had begun to take hold in Italy, the automotive breakthroughs of the Industrial era were but a premonition dreamt of in da Vinci’s sketchpads. As such, the primary drive of capitalists was towards an “unlimited extension of the working day”[4]—essentially, creating the most coercive and grueling conditions possible for laborers, in lieu of industrial productivity.

Because it corresponds with industrialization, there is no unambiguous date at which the era of mercantile capitalism ends. In England, it ended in the eighteenth century; in Europe and North America, in the nineteenth century; in much of the Third World, in the twentieth (though some parts of the Third World—China, for instance—barely experienced “early” capitalism of this type). Still, the narrow focus on maximizing labor time helps explain the actions of early mercantilist capitalist states. Slavery guaranteed a steady supply of brute labor—as well as undercut the subversive efforts of European workers after the Black Death. Likewise, the campaigns waged to ensure the confinement of women to the home as never before helped ensure that the population would continue to grow—a sine qua non of economic expansion, for the mercantile capitalists.

The Industrial Revolution did much to alter this economic dispensation. Breakthroughs in automation partially de-linked the production of surplus value from labor time. The narrow focus on reproduction was, as such, partly curbed. In England—the paradigmatic capitalist state—women began to split duties between working waged jobs, often in industrial factories, and rearing children. The English state also moved in this time to liquidate a potentially volatile surplus population, by shipping it to colonies where labor time remained a more decisive economic metric. Summing up the age, Thomas Malthus declared in his 1798 essay on the Principle of Population that “moral restraint” was needed to arrest the birth rate of the poor, so as to avoid the grisly “negative checks” of famine, war, and epidemic. But while acknowledging the potential utility of abortion for this, Malthus as an Anglican minister refused to condone it. Instead, he advocated delayed marriage, and—most infamously—the pruning of aid for the poor.

The paradox of Malthus’ position was also the paradox of industrial societies. On one hand, abortion remained officially restricted—though increasingly the state took over from the church the role of imposing punitive measures. On the other, the integration of women into the workforce as well as the broadened availability of medical techniques meant it became a widespread social practice. In Northern England, a rash of miscarriages caused by lead poisoning in water led women to begin using diachylon—that is, lead plaster pills—as an abortifacient (the side effects of which included blindness and death). Drug-based solutions were so common that one mail-order business sold drugs to 12,000 women between 1896 and 1898.[5] In France, Dr. Tardieu, a medical professor who specialized in abortion, declared that in the 1860s it was effectively an “industry.”[6] By the end of the century, there were over fifty abortionists advertising in Paris papers: “Troubles mensuels. Si inquiet ecrivez rue …no. . . .” “Sages femmes . . . St’ril(it’) Discr(etion) Meth(ode) infaillible.” “Retard, moyen infaillible.”[7]

The mainlining of abortion did not apply equally across all social classes. For the wealthy—with their divisible estates, high education costs, and safer abortive methods—it was often an immediate back-up in the case of pregnancy. For the poor, who typically relied on larger families for subsistence, it was used more exceptionally: While having many children was the norm, abortion might be resorted to if it interfered with the income streams generated by women.

That it was disproportionately the well-off who turned to abortion impacted its political reception. By the early twentieth century, the case for its legalization was beginning to be formulated along explicitly feminist lines. In 1904, the editor of La Suffragiste, Dr. Madeleine Pelletier, argued that, while economic equality would sweep away many of the obstacles associated with childbirth, abortion was a matter ofpersonal autonomy, and women should have the right to choose regardless.[8] Faced with these sorts of arguments, the right responded with a toxic mixture of Social Darwinism and eugenics (though enthusiasm for these was, more generally, by no means restricted to the right). Poor minorities, such as the Irish or Chinese, they reasoned, were more prone to reproducing than their genetic superiors. Thus, if the feminists were heeded, the result would be nothing less than collective race-suicide.

The Abortive Soviet Abortion Decree

In December 1920, the world’s first worker’s state became the first state to legalize abortion. In a short decree, Nikolas Semashko—the People’s Commissar of Health—offered an explanation for the decision of the USSR’s Politburo. Abortion is an “evil” that has spread “both in the West and here in this country.” But illegalizing it has only “driven the operation underground” and led to a situation in which four percent of abortions are fatal. Pending the creation of socialism, which will lead to its “gradual disappearance,” abortion will therefore be made free in Soviet hospitals.

The idea of legalizing abortion had some precedent within the still-diminutive canon of Communist history. In 1871, the stillborn Paris Commune had declared abortion legal, so as to break the fetters of “the father” and promote free, “common pleasure.” But the libertarian esprit of these phrases did not issue from the economic writings of Marx—they came rather from anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who loomed larger than Marx in the mind of the Parisian working class of the late nineteenth century. The view of Lenin—as well as of that of the Soviet state—was less influenced by “extra-class concepts.” If it was desirable to legalize abortion—this is, beyond the desire to protect women—it would help mobilize the female workforce. Along with the expulsion of foreign capitalists and the use of state planning to drive industrialization, this was a central pillar of the economic policy that the Soviet Union hoped would prevail over its Western adversaries.

The Soviet economic strategy was not concocted out of nowhere. The increased involvement of the state in the economy, as well as of women in the workforce, had been—in Russia as elsewhere—normalized during the First World War. Lenin’s particular genius was to see in this era the means of constructing a new kind of state, one that, if not communist, could at least make rapid developmental gains so as to herald the transition to it.

After the sharp downturn of the Great Depression, the USSR’s enemies began to take notice of its economic success. The “right-wing Leninism” of the Nazis concentrated power in the hands of the state, but with the goal of crushing the worker’s movement and liquidating populations deemed undesirable. They also differed starkly on the question of women’s workplace participation: the destiny of women in Germany being, as Goering eloquently put it, to “take a pot, a dustpan, and a broom and marry a man.”

In the U.S., the embrace of state planning followed a predictably less conservative pattern. Encouraged by the Women’s Bureau—a bureau founded, tellingly, after World War I—female participation in the workplace rose steadily throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Yet while opposed on the subject of women’s work, the US and Nazi Germany shared in common a continued hostility towards abortion. Ironically, so too did Stalin’s USSR: In 1936, Soviet official concern with the falling birth rate—from 45 births per 1,000 people in 1927 to 30 in 1935—caused them to opt again for illegalization.

Out with Embryos, In With Immigrants

By the mid-1930s, abortion was—yet again—illegal in all of the world powers. But the slow strangling of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad, and the defeat of the Nazi counter-revolution, cemented a political status quo in which women’s workforce participation was—if not always desired—an economic necessity.

Efforts at limiting reproductive freedom in these years yielded diminishing results. The illegalization of abortion in the Soviet Union only afforded a temporary respite from a declining birth rate: By 1939, more abortions were being performed than in 1926, when it was legal. Once again faced with a situation in which botched abortions were exacting a high death toll, abortion was legalized again in 1955—just two years after Stalin’s death. In the following years, the Soviet state would confine its intervention in reproductive policy to the use of positive enticements—family allowances, partly paid leave, extensive early childcare programming, and the like. In general, these policies experienced mixed results, with the demographic decline being a conundrum that continues to bedevil Russia’s ruling class today.

In many ways, the U.S.—and more broadly, Western—approach to demographic management was more successful. After a short-lived attempt to sequester women in the homes in the early 1950s, women’s workforce participation began to steadily incline again from 1955 onwards. By 1973, it had reached 45%, up from 20% in 1920. That same year, the Supreme Court seized upon certain ambiguous phrases in the constitution to legalize abortion nationwide in the landmark Roe decision.

The legalization of abortion helped clear the way for women’s involvement in the workforce to rise even higher, plateauing at 60% at the turn of the millennium. It also created a demographic aporia. In general, high birth rates only go hand-in-hand with a high rate of female labor participation when children are raised frugally and help provide security to families—something as true of the nineteenth-century British working class as it is of the largely impoverished peoples of West Africa today. As the postwar United States clearly did not fit these criteria, the effect of the use of female labor was to contribute to the depression of the birth rate to an unsustainable level, falling from 30.1 per 1,000 persons in 1910 to 14.9 by the time of Roe. The risks were here twofold: on one hand, a decline in the relative share of the working-age population would drive up the cost of social guarantees that had been provided in the mid-century (in large part, as a way of buying off the population so as to fight wars). And on the other, the sinking of the birth rate below replacement levels would undermine U.S. hegemony, given the remarkable economic growth of populous blocs such as the Soviet Union and China.

Confronted with a demographic crisis, the U.S embraced a strategy it had long avoided: liberalizing immigration. Prior to the end of the nineteenth century, the nation had largely favored an open-door policy, with few questioning the right of foreigners to install themselves on American soil. This started to change in the 1880s. The increasing desirability of the U.S. as a destination for immigrants, coupled with the increasingly racist political climate, led to the imposition of strict national quotas for different national groups—as well as the full exclusion of Asians. But after World War II, the pressures of anti-racism affected a thawing of these regulations. In 1952, Asians were re-allowed into the U.S. In 1965, national quotas were eliminated altogether.

It is far from clear that the goal of the postwar immigration reforms was actually to sharply raise immigration levels—more commonly cited objectives included bringing immigration into conformance with civil rights and facilitating family reunification. Still, the explosion of immigration rates was clearly seen as—if not an intended consequence of the changes—then a felicitous one, in light of the decline of the birth rate. In 1960, nearly ten million immigrants resided in the United States. By the year 2000, this number had risen to over 30 million; by 2019, to over 45. This allowed the US population to climb from 179 million in 1960 to 331 million in 2020, a remarkable feat considering that the birth rate fell below replacement level in 1972.

The increase in immigration after 1965 led to the production of a new, pro-diversity ideology—one perhaps best embodied by John F. Kennedy’s oft-repeated description of America as a “nation of immigrants.” The effects of this shift, however, have not been entirely positive. It would be silly to suggest, as Angela Nagle has, that immigration simply diminishes the value of labor. Such a position overlooks, or at worst willfully ignores, the substantial job creation immigrants engage in. In the United States, for instance, it is estimated that—due to the fact they’re more likely to found firms of all sizes—immigrants actually create more jobs than they take (illegal immigration, admittedly, is quite another subject). Yet, though she tellingly does not discuss the remittances sent home by these migrants, Nagle is correct in pointing out that immigration often has negative effects upon the countries immigrants come from. For instance, Mexico’s status as one of the world’s largest exporters of educated professionals has resulted in it having a “qualified employment deficit.” High levels of immigration have also reduced the pressure on the United States to implement pro-natality measures that would raise the birth rate—to provide free childcare or family allowances. Indeed, nearly 3 out 5 millennials cite the high cost of raising children as either a “minor” or “major” reason why they do not have them.

Reproductive Freedom, Digital Fences

The use of immigration to offset the falling birth rate helps explain two of the central planks of the Trump-led Republican coalition: nativism and opposition to abortion.

It wasn’t always this way. Ronald Reagan was the first president inmodern history to mobilize evangelical voters en masse, a feat that required him to restrict his Supreme Court appointments to judges opposed to abortion and to make the overturning of Roe a top priority of the Justice Department (in spite of the fact it was mostly Republican-nominated justices who voted for it in the first place). But, if anything, Reagan was a pro-immigration president. His 1986 Immigration and Control Reform Act provided amnesty to illegal immigrants who had entered the United States before 1982. Between 1980 and 1990, the foreign-born population of the United States increased from 14.1 million to 19.8. This pro-immigration stance was largely continued in the 2000s under the George W. Bush administration, even as Bush’s formation of ICE sanctioned the use of extremely brutal measures to deter illegals.

Trump dramatically upended this status quo. Looking to far-right European populist movements for inspiration, his successful political gambit was to exploit the rift between Republican voters and their representatives on the issue of immigration. After his election, a flurry of measures were introduced to curb it: the lowering of the refugee cap population, a reduction in the issuance of green cards, and the vaunted “border wall.” While these changes were intended to appeal to larger political constituencies than white evangelicals, white evangelicals—who have a long history of advocating nativism—have been more than happy to go along with them. Indeed, in January 2018, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that over 75% of them see the “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as a positive thing.

By any objective metric, the reduction of immigration is not good for the U.S. economy. The U.S. has long been in the privileged position of being able to pick and choose amongst the most talented working-age would-be immigrants—a cost-saving measure when compared with the pro-natality policies that would be required to raise the birth rate. From 2015 to 2019, though, the number of immigrants to the U.S. declined from 678,000 to 389,000. The invective leveled by Trump, the insecurity this induces, is more decisive for this shift than the direct effects of his policies (as well as, to some extent, processing backlogs caused by COVID). Regardless, if things continue in this direction—if immigration is halved in the coming decades—the population is poised to stagnate, rising by only 44 million by 2060. The problem here isn’t just raw population size, though that is a problem considering the comparative population of China. It’s also that reduced immigration will result in a decline in the relative size of the working-age population, sending social costs upward.

It’s interesting to analyze the timing of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion in light of these changes. The Republican Party has committed itself—for the first time in recent history—to opposing immigration. Is it possible, then, that the Republican-controlled SCOTUS is moving to illegalize abortion so as to increase the birth rate? Thus offsetting the impact of these policies?

This is a highly delicate thesis. It is likely to encounter two major lines of opposition. First, the Supreme Court does not tidily make decisions so as to service the needs of the party that controls its majority—a number of contingencies are involved; and, anyway, the overturning of Roe is incumbent on a Republican majority (or “supermajority,” as the case may be). Second, the illegalization of abortion is historically a fairly inefficient way, given the illicit providers which are bound to emerge, of increasing the birth rate.

Compelling as these arguments are, they are not foolproof. The Supreme Court has had Republican majorities every year since 1970—basically, since the embrace of the party by Southern whites signaled the onset of the era of Republican domination. One could point to a number of reasons for why it has only now shown a willingness to overturn Roe: the lack of a party polarization around the abortion question prior to the 1980s, or the way divided government forced the Republicans to frequently select justices that a Democratic Senate would confirm. In any case, though, it is hard to deny that—on a purely technical level—there were enough Republican justices to overturn Roe years ago (indeed, since Reagan opposition to abortion has been more or less requisite for Republican appointment). And, notwithstanding the question of the birth rate, they might’ve been better advised to do it years ago, given that public support for unconditional abortion has slowly but palpably increased over the past five decades.

The idea that overturning Roe wouldn’t actually lower the abortion rate also isn’t above scrutiny. To say that abortion bans in the past haven’t been effective is an understatement: In many cases, they’ve coincided with increases in the rates of abortion. But the United States of 2022 is not the Soviet Union of the thirties, let alone nineteenth-century Western Europe. One of the most common ways abortions have traditionally been performed in areas where they’re illegal is via self-management: that is using pills, often acquired by mail, to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Given the state of cyber-surveillance laws in the U.S. today, such an approach could be extremely risky. There are plenty of avenues available to law-enforcement to access personal data. They can, of course, acquire a warrant or subpoena—with “geofence warrants” allowing access to the data of anybody near a crime scene. They can buy information through data brokers like Lexis Nexis or Equifax. Or they can simply stop you at the border—where your phone can be legally accessed without probable cause. It should at least be considered, then, that the overturning of Roe might be a trial balloon to see whether—after literally centuries of failure—an abortion ban can now be comprehensively enforced.

Freedom from Both Sides

Examining the link between abortion and capitalism is not just of pedagogical value. Typically, debates on this subject divide along predictable lines. On one side are liberals who advocate reproductive “choice”; on the other, conservatives who see even an embryo or fetus as a sacral form of “life.”

These ethical arguments conceal what are at bottom class positions. Knowingly or not, the effect of the affirmation of abstract choice absent any discussion of demographic reality is to support the continuance of the status quo, a status quo in which mass immigration is wielded as a substitute for making the economic changes necessary to support families. It would not be a stretch then to say that the dominant articulation of the pro-choice position conceals an agenda that—so far as the positive choice of having a child is concerned—is in fact opposed to it.

The conservative agenda is similarly hypocritical. Its goal is—under the pretext of protecting life—to shore up the forms of patriarchal stupidity without which capitalism risks floundering: nationalism, religion, and the nuclear family. The restriction of women’s freedoms is part of this. So too is the eschewal of immigration. The question thus raised by their actions is: whose lives are they trying to protect? One does not need to make reference to the human costs of America’s wars to see that the protection of life is here upheld quite discriminately: to embryos, not to those deemed inferior.

The task of the socialist left, then, is to put forth a position on abortion that protects women’s rights, but remains cognizant of demographic reality. Immigration should be supported, but its exploitation must be opposed. This means providing illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship, so that they do not undercut the value of domestic labor by accepting wages below the minimum. It also means forging multinational agreements amongst the biggest recipients of foreign migrants to insure that brain drain is avoided—that there are not more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago, for instance, than in all of Ethiopia.

These policies should be combined with measures that support the choice to have a child. In France, the presence of means-tested daycare, paid parental leave, and family allowances have caused it to have a higher birth rate than not just the United States but also the ardently Catholic Ireland, a nation where abortion was recently legalized. The socialist left in the U.S. should aim even higher: to provide enough support for families that the birth rate rises at least to the replacement level. None of this, of course, will be sufficient to eliminate the need for immigration. Nor should it: there are plenty of poorer nations in the world which can reciprocally benefit from sending citizens abroad. But by pursuing these changes, the left can hopefully realize reproductive freedom from both sides: the freedom to have a child, or not.

[1] Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004, p. 40.

[2] ibid., p. 46.

[3] ibid., p. 58.

[4] Marx, Karl. Capital, A Critique of Political Economy: Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin/New Left Review, 1976, p. 343.

[5] Knight, Patricia. “Women and Abortion in Victorian and Edwardian England.” History Workshop, No. 4, Autumn 1977, p. 59.

[6] McLaren, Angus. “Abortion in France: Women and the Regulation of Family Size 1800-1914.” French Historical Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3., p. 472.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid., p. 482.