From last year’s protests against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the ongoing fight against abortion bans in southern states, the image of the red-clad “Handmaid” — an allusion to Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale — has been a constant.
As women across the country express their fears and panic about the fate of abortion access in the United States, many have likened what’s happening to Atwood’s classic, which tells the story of women being forced to bear children for powerful men amid a global decline in fertility.
Donning white hats and red cloaks widely associated with Atwood’s book and its television adaptation, activists dressed as Handmaids have appeared at congressional hearings and marches, and have held vigil outside the offices of elected officials. The spectacles they have created have undoubtedly struck a chord with many. Theatrical protest can be quite valuable, but while Atwood’s story has a thematic resonance in these times, the real-world nature of criminalization in the U.S. offers a clearer picture of what Republicans have in store for us.
The classing that people criminalized by abortion bans could ultimately face is already at work in our society. That classing already restricts the movement, reproductive choices, suffrage, life spans, health and overall human rights of imprisoned people in the United States.
It’s About Civil Death
Criminalization has long functioned as a means of imposing civil death on those who break, or are believed to have broken, society’s rules of order. Now, the spreading criminalization of abortion threatens to inflict the same dehumanization on pregnant people who opt to abort in defiance of conservative edicts. So, while The Handmaid’s Tale may offer evocative metaphors, it is critical that we examine past and present examples of criminalization in the U.S. and take a hard look at how those oppressions have played out.
The connections between felony disenfranchisement, the disenfranchisement of imprisoned people and current efforts to criminalize people who abort pregnancies, or perform abortions, may not be obvious to some. But the same logic that people currently apply to imprisoned people will soon be applied to people who choose to undergo or provide abortion procedures in defiance of the law.
When confronted with details about the inhuman, torturous conditions of the prison system, the disenfranchisement of imprisoned people or felony disenfranchisement, the most common refrain we hear is that “people just shouldn’t break the law.” People say this in spite of clear evidence that the criminal punishment system inordinately targets Black and Native people, and in spite of a well-established history of felony disenfranchisement, which escalated rapidly in the wake of Reconstruction in an effort to suppress the newly won rights of formerly enslaved Black people.
The fundamentally unjust nature of the prison system has gone unchallenged by most, because the “common sense” of our society dictates that people who commit crimes must be punished, and that prison and the revocation of civil rights is an acceptable way of enacting that punishment. Criminalization, the entryway to the prison system, e-carceration, the denial of fundamental rights and the heightened probability of premature death faced by imprisoned people is the horror that now threatens an increasing number of pregnant people. We will not successfully respond to these Republican attacks unless we acknowledge the nature of the beast these men would feed us to.
Abortion on Demand, and Without Apology
SisterSong, the largest multiethnic reproductive justice collective in the United States, defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” For communities that have long grappled with criminalization, environmental racism, state violence and other abuses such as forced sterilization, the struggle for reproductive rights has always been more complex than defending the right to abort, but mainstream feminism in the United States has historically failed to make these connections.
In 1976, when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting federal funding for abortions, mainstream feminist organizations that had fiercely campaigned for abortion rights prior to Roe largely failed to rally against the measure, which primarily impacted Black, brown and impoverished communities. As the authors of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice wrote in 2004:
It was a divisive and watershed moment for the pro-choice movement. It could have confronted the white supremacy of the Right’s agenda and its own internal racism, had it made overturning Hyde and fighting for public funding a priority. By not doing so, it seemed to women of color that the pro-choice movement was not concerned with their rights.
In the decades since, the rhetoric of traditionally white, mainstream feminist organizations has generally become more conservative. As Jael M. Silliman and her coauthors document in Undivided Rights, the word “abortion” fell out of favor, with slogans instead emphasizing choice, while conservative arguments against the intrusions of “Big Government” were refashioned by mainstream feminists to defend Roe as a matter of privacy. By failing to concern themselves with abortion access (as opposed to simply having a legal right to an abortion) and other factors that impact the reproductive autonomy of marginalized people, mainstream feminists solidified a schism between themselves and marginalized communities. The authors of Undivided Rights explain how these feminists also unintentionally lent credence to conservative arguments against “Big Government” — arguments that fueled conservative efforts to destroy the social safety net. The obliteration of public services devastated impoverished communities and helped usher in the rise of mass incarceration.
It is therefore crucial that we discuss abortion care within a reproductive justice framework. The fight for reproductive justice is not simply an effort to preserve or restore abortion rights, but also an effort to create conditions that would allow pregnant people to abort safely or give birth safely, without the threat of our children being destroyed by environmental racism, bigotry or state violence. It is a framework that already takes into account the violence of the carceral state and the myriad ways the system has robbed marginalized people of their reproductive autonomy, such as forced sterilization, the coerced use of birth control (as documented by Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body), violence against pregnant people and the shackling of pregnant people who are forced to give birth while incarcerated. It is an analysis that calls on us to make bold, expansive demands. Demands such as “abortion on demand and without apology” were uplifted by many of the feminists who marched for abortion rights prior to Roe, but have all too frequently been lost in the shuffle amid diffuse battles over particular laws and regulations, and a creeping apathy born of the misguided belief that Roe would never be overturned.
A Narrow Vision Will Avail Us Nothing
Black and Native communities have never had the luxury of dividing their understanding of policing and the prison state from their understanding of what it means to bear children. For marginalized communities, the police state and the prison-industrial complex have been a threat to reproductive autonomy for as long as these structures have existed. Failing to connect these issues to the fight for reproductive autonomy is not only a failure of solidarity. It’s bad strategy.
The world is burning, and global fascism is ascendant. We all clearly need each other.
The rise of the prison-industrial complex has created a monstrosity beyond anything that prison abolitionists in the early 1970s could have predicted. In those days, incarceration rates had reached impressive lows, and people were having public conversations about the potential end of prisons. But as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explained in her 2007 book Golden Gulag, the plethora of prisons that were built on a yearly basis in the 1980s absorbed people who had become part of a “surplus population” after what remained of the safety net had been clipped.
Prisons have also continued to serve the function they have always served in the United States: functioning as a means of maintaining established social, financial and racial hierarchies and as a means of disappearing people deemed as “undesirable” from society, including Black and Indigenous people, disabled people and LGBTQ people. And while the rise of the prison industrial complex was a bipartisan affair, it is the right wing that is currently wielding the power of the prison system to control the bodies of people who could potentially give birth.
It will undoubtedly be difficult for people who have never personally identified with incarcerated people to see themselves as being pulled into the same societal dragnet, and thus having shared interests with people who have been caged for reasons unrelated to pregnancy, but a narrow vision of the struggle against abortion laws will avail us nothing.
Conservatives have not won the victories they are currently racking up by way of a narrow vision. The fight to suppress reproductive rights was woven into a larger conservative project born decades ago to subvert the social and political gains of the left. That project is not a single-issue crusade. It is an expansive vision that encompasses the right-wing buyout of college curriculums, the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s takeover of local news networks, corporate personhood, attacks on suffrage, the dismantling of campaign finance laws and more. Conservatives have won and are still winning these battles because their politics are interwoven and because they have never been derailed by claims that their goals were too radical or “unrealistic.”
In addition to being subjected to conditions that greatly enhance their potential for premature death, people within prisons and those who have previously been incarcerated are marked, civilly and socially, in ways that lock them out of most social and economic institutions. These are the punishments that the GOP would inflict upon pregnant people who choose to abort. From family detention centers to jails, prisons and the ankle-bracelets of e-carceration, the potential fate of people who exercise reproductive autonomy is more clearly reflected in the present than any fictional depiction of the future. Our dystopia is upon us, and whether we are in costume or not, we must see the tentacles of criminalization for what they are, or we will continue to be consumed by the monster they feed.