I recently read independent historian Rickie Solinger’s book Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America. Solinger’s central argument is that women are not accorded full personhood and cannot be fully participatory members in a society where they are not allowed to manage their own reproductive lives, a premise with which I fully agree.
Solinger’s narrative about abortion was especially eye-opening for me. She argues that abortion today is far more heavily regulated and oppressive than it was pre Roe v. Wade when abortion was outright illegal. It floored me to read Solinger’s account of the ease with which both women (read: middle class, White women) and doctors circumvented the law to procure the medical procedures they needed. General practitioners who performed abortions were hailed for performing a necessary service. There was no harassment of individual women terminating pregnancies and little organized public outcry, even from the religious right.
Working at Planned Parenthood straight out of college, I was constantly made aware of the perilous state that abortion rights are in today. My first day at work, I was shown around the building, shown which glass was bulletproof, where the panic button was, and what to do in the case of a clinic shooting or bombing. Several times a week, we had protesters lining the streets with ugly signs and shouting uglier slogans at anyone entering the clinic. Despite the FACE act, they repeatedly tried to follow women into our parking lot or physically block their access, at which point we called the police. They took photos of everyone who worked at the clinic and I would not be surprised if my face was on an anti-abortion site somewhere. Working in an abortion clinic today can feel like a warzone.
Pregnancy, abortion, and motherhood have heavily shaped our ideas of race, class and gender in the US. One of the most engaging aspects about this book is the Solinger breaks down the reproductive realities of women throughout time by race and class. She portrays state-legitimized motherhood, and therefore the right not to reproduce, as a class and race-based privilege. Her narratives of the reproductive lives of White middle class, White poor, African American (both pre and post slavery), Native American, and Chinese women fill a glaring gap in many of our reproductive histories.
Regarding abortions pre-Roe, it was much easier for middle class White women and women of color to obtain care than it was for poor White women. Middle class White women could afford to purchase privacy and competent medical care. In a racist, pro-eugenics era, policy makers all but encouraged women of color to have abortions so as not to produce more “inferior” children. Plus, the lives of women of color were valued less than those of middle-class White women so if these women received substandard care, the government did not spend time searching out incompetent care providers. This was of course completely unconscionable, but the effect was still that women of color had an easier time procuring abortions than poor White women.
For poor White women, their ability to access abortion was tied up in their race and gender. There was no question that middle class and upper class White women were White. If they transgressed the strict boundaries of their gender by not carrying a pregnancy to term, it did not call their whiteness into question. However, poor White women existed in a boundary zone, especially if they were immigrants from countries not always seen as White – Ireland, Italy, eastern Europe, etc. Solinger describes how socioeconomic class was/is inherently tied up in our ideas of race. By virtue of being low class, poor White women were seen as in danger of becoming Black. The way to rectify this unthinkable circumstance was to strictly police and enforce gender norms, one of which was bearing and raising White children who would become productive White citizens. It was poor White women who were arrested and tried in the courts if they were discovered to have received an abortion. It was poor White women who were jailed and fined for such acts. Of course middle and upper class White women were having abortions as well, but they were not transgressing race boundaries and so were allowed to do so by and large without interference.
As time marches on, class and race still have great effects on our ideas of who is and can be a mother, what makes a “good” mother, which mothers deserve to mother their children, and what children are worthy of being raised in “good” homes. Just look at our racialized and gendered stereotypes of the welfare system, which parents can choose to stay home and mother their children, which children get adopted, and which children wind up in the foster care system. As responsible citizens, we need to actively question and combat racialized and gendered ideas of pregnancy and power where we find it in order to create a world where all women are equal and full citizens with autonomy and agency.