January 16, 2021
From Libcom Blog
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Malignant Ulcers of Capitalism: The Proletarian Struggle for Reproductive Freedom (Part 2)

In our first part on reproductive struggles in class society, we highlighted some of the facts and dangers surrounding abortion and contraception. We also commented on the family unit and prostitution – two phenomena Marxists deem to be flipsides of one another and inseparable from the struggle for reproductive freedom. In this piece, we shed light on sterilization, sex selective abortions, religion, and bourgeois laws as specific to the needs of capital, noting the consequential damages to the proletariat.

Bourgeois Law and the Stronghold of Capital

“Such laws [against abortion and the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures] are nothing but the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. These laws do not heal the ulcers of capitalism, they merely turn them into malignant ulcers that are especially painful for the oppressed masses.” (Lenin, The Working Class and NeoMalthusianism, 1913)

As of 2019, the Hague Convention includes 101 countries. It has been in force since December 1983 and is said to have been drawn to prevent one parent from fleeing internationally, with their child, upon losing custody.(1) The majority of Hague cases, however, involve proletarian mothers attempting to escape domestic violence.(2) Women, especially those who are unable to access contraception or abortion and have had children as a result, are then faced with the stark choice of either leaving their child behind, if they need to flee internationally, or remaining trapped in the country that they gave birth in – whether they are a permanent resident or citizen or not. On paper there is an exception to the convention if there is a grave risk of harm to the child. Despite recognizing that domestic violence puts the victim’s entire family at risk of violence (especially those living in the same household), courts often dismiss this when a direct impact on the children cannot yet be proven.(3) Under these circumstances, the ability to escape this violence is further impaired. Many proletarian women are unable to access legal advice or government assistance, they often end up homeless, at risk of losing custody, or murdered. This is a prime example of how bourgeois laws reinforce the same harm they claim to protect people against, while restricting our movement through sovereign borders.

North America

One of the first countries to sign the Hague Convention was Canada, where abortion has been free from legal regulation on a national level since 1988. The mistake of conflating nationwide legality with accessibility is one that overlooks other hurdles to obtaining the procedure, such as funding, distance to medical facilities and provincial laws and regulations.(4) For example, Ontario does not fund abortions at every clinic and New Brunswick only funds them in hospitals. The result is that workers living outside of the urban centers, such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, face further distress when seeking an abortion.

The Northern regions are heavily populated by First Nations workers and further reflect just how much better “universal healthcare” in capitalist society looks on paper than it works in practice. In the capitals, access to abortion is rather the same to the southern provinces, except for surgical abortion rarely being immediately available.(5) The procedure is only performed a few days each month and a lack of resources often see them bumped back for incoming emergencies. Those residing in rural communities, face barriers to accessing abortion that are distinctive to those anywhere else in the country. Whether the abortion service chosen is medical or surgical, the procedure demands travelling to a capital city – a demand that is financially and emotionally taxing.

In the United States, abortion is still the topic of many protests, with a handful of providers and their assistants being killed over the years and clinics vandalized or bombed.(6) In 2019, a myriad of states passed – or proposed to pass – stricter abortion laws.(7) Some of them were later blocked by federal judges and others are still yet to go into effect.(8) Most of these bills would ban abortion from the moment a heartbeat can be detected – before the embryo has even formed a heart chamber, and before many realize they are pregnant.(9) Taking the matter further, Alabama signed off on laws which would prohibit abortion at any stage of pregnancy, unless the pregnant person’s life is at risk. These laws are more restrictive than those found in Saudi Arabia – where abortion is allowed under these circumstances, as well as if there is a serious threat to mental or physical health. In Texas, laws were proposed that would see those who seek an abortion facing the death penalty.(10)

With maternal and infant mortality in the United States continuing to rise, more working women and girls were already dying from pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed country, before any of these bills were proposed.(11) As symptoms present in the same manner, even healthcare professionals cannot tell the difference between a miscarriage and a medical abortion.(12) Around 30% of the world’s imprisoned women are in United States’ prisons, and 80% of them are mothers.(13) Most of them have not been convicted of any crime and are simply unable to afford bail. Anyone who suffers through a miscarriage and avoids seeking medical attention, out of fear of prosecution, could face serious health consequences.

There is no national guarantee of maternity leave in the United States, and the price of childcare continues to soar – disproportionately driving mothers out of the workforce.(14) In two parent households, where both are in employment, over a quarter of household income is spent on childcare. Things are even bleaker for single parents, as childcare costs around half of their income. Childcare workers themselves remain among the lowest-paid in the country. When working long hours (often in multiple jobs), the need to survive often results in working women taking care of others’ children for survival, with little time left to spend with their own.(15)

Canada and the United States both have a long history of forced and coerced abortion. First Nations women in Canada have been seeking compensation for these atrocities, some as recent as 2017.(16) It has been reported that Californian prisons’ authorized the coerced sterilizations of nearly 150 prisoners between 2006 and 2010.(17) We understand this struggle against forced abortion and sterilization to be one and the same; both are part of the struggle for safe access to consensual terminations and overall reproductive freedom. They are both a part of the fight against capital’s incessant fetish for controlling our bodies.

Oceania

In Australia, abortion legislation varies from state to state. Some even have “safe zones” surrounding clinics which criminalize anti-abortion protesters.(18) In every state and territory, abortion is legal to protect the life and health of the person carrying the pregnancy. In recent times, several states have removed abortion from the penal code. Western Australia was the first to do so over two decades ago and now the focus has shifted onto South Australia finally doing the same. The current laws in South Australia state that all surgical abortions must be signed off by two medical professionals and performed at a registered hospital. After 23 weeks, abortion can only be lawfully performed to save the pregnant person’s life.(19)

Despite being available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) since 2013, RU486 is still classified as a special drug. In rural areas especially, where many doctors are unable to prescribe the pills, pregnant workers experience great difficulties in accessing them.(20) The demand for a surgical abortion after 9 weeks gestation can also leave many working women without access to much-needed services.(21) On top of the limited medical facilities in some states and most rural towns, the price of a surgical termination varies.(22) The cost of the procedure and the common need for travel and accommodation is one that not all working women can afford.(23)

Access to permanent forms of birth control, such as tubal ligation or a hysterectomy, is practically non-existent for anyone under 30 – no matter how adamant we are about the decision to not have (more) children.(24) At the same time, the Australian state has an ongoing tendency of forcing contraception, sterilization, and abortion – that is wanted but inaccessible to others – onto disabled women and girls.(25) Capital informs who ‘must’ and who must not raise children. The unborn are deemed as either necessities or liabilities – reproductive restraints are here enforced by the state.

Proletarian Indigenous women are the fastest growing segment among the Australian prison population – they are 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-indigenous counterparts.(26) Evidence suggests that up to 90% of imprisoned Indigenous women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused at some stage of their life (in some cases, they are even imprisoned for calling the police on someone who has assaulted them). It is believed that these experiences, coupled with racial profiling and the usual working class struggle of poverty and exploitation, frequently lead to their offending and subsequent criminalization.(27) The majority of them are mothers and it is largely through this fragmentation of their families that women are more inclined to reoffend out of desperation. Indigenous women are the least likely to find secure housing after leaving prison, they are often left homeless or must return to a violent household. Being denied the ability to provide a safe and secure home for their children only fuels the conditions in which children are more likely to end up in the child “protection” and “criminal justice” systems themselves.

The forced removal of Indigenous children from their families runs rampant throughout Australia’s history and to this day they are still extremely overrepresented in the child “protection” system. They compose just under 6% of the child population but 37% of children in “out-of-home care” are Indigenous – 81% are on a long-term guardianship order and therefore in state care until they turn 18. Additionally, the number of Indigenous children in the child “protection” system doubled in the decade between the 2008 “apology to the stolen generations” and 2018.(28) In Australia, children as young as ten can be thrown in prison. Indigenous minors constitute a little over 53% of those in youth custody.(29) It is clear that the state has never ceased imprisoning Indigenous people or stopped stealing children, they simply altered their methods. We could consider this to be a generations-long, colonially informed, capitalist suppression of one of the most simplistic forms of reproductive freedom: the freedom to partake in the raising of one’s own children.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found that conditions in Australia’s “offshore processing center” on the nearby island of Nauru are “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Despite this statement, they believe these policies have not been purposely designed to harm anyone and say there is not enough evidence to prosecute the Federal Government. For years, these camps have produced tragic accounts of women and children being sexually assaulted – especially at the hands of those who are paid to “protect them”. From 2015, until a policy change in 2017, 24 women were flown to Australia to their terminate pregnancies – most of them the result of rape.(30) This change has meant that traumatized women and girls would no longer be seen by doctors in Australia and would instead be referred to the Nauruan Overseas Medical Referral committee.(31) As abortion is illegal in Nauru, except for when saving the pregnant person’s life, women are now denied yet another necessity. These laws are the same in Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands. In Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu abortion is only allowed if it is lifesaving or is for the preservation of physical or mental health.(32)

Religion, One Child Policies, and Son Preference

In many religions, abortion is forbidden and seen as an act of murder. This is the case in Roman Catholicism, where the belief is also that any form of contraception, outside of natural calendar methods, is an “intrinsic evil”. In recent times, Pope Francis has compared abortion to the mob hiring hit men to kill people to resolve a problem. Despite these factors, it is said that around 90% of Catholic women in the United States use some form of artificial contraception.(33) All denominations of Christianity adhered to the Catholic Church’s view on contraception until the 1930s, today they are one of the only denominations to maintain it. The views of some Anabaptists (such as the Amish) are even stricter and prohibit both artificial contraception and natural methods.

Across predominantly Catholic Latin America, abortion is heavily restricted. Out of 33 countries, only Cuba, Uruguay, and Guyana permit elective abortions – as well as Mexico City. Some countries permit abortion in the case of rape or if there are life threatening conditions. But Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Suriname all have a total ban on abortion, and punishments include up to 50 years imprisonment.(34)

Although abortion is legal in Cuba, access to contraception is extremely inadequate for workers and this often results in repeated abortions being sought in its place. Studies have indicated that 76% of pregnant teenagers terminate and that many pregnant 15 to 19 year old girls have already had at least one abortion.(35) This is not only evident of the lack of contraceptive access, but also of the broader issue of economic crisis and skyrocketing food prices.(36) It is all the more complicated to flee from a country when you are pregnant or have small mouths to feed – something that is evidenced by Cuban, Venezuelan and other Latin American migrants currently being held and living in uncertainty in Mexico and in ICE cages upon trying to enter the United States.(37)

In Argentina, birthplace of Pope Francis, you can face prison time of up to fifteen years for having an abortion. It is also quite common for pregnancies to be forced to term.(38) In 2019, there was the controversial case of an 11-year-old girl who was raped and then delayed an abortion by state authorities, until a doctor stepped in to perform a caesarean section at 23 weeks gestation.(39) Despite the strict abortion laws, it would have been legal for the procedure to have taken place when the pregnancy was discovered at 16 weeks. A minority of health professionals and activists provide information about accessing safe abortion, while others go a step further and provide access to abortion pills.(40) The health professionals and first group of activists are protected by “freedom of information” laws as they do not provide access to the pills themselves, but the latter must operate more discreetly to avoid prosecution. It is unfortunate, however, that just as in many other places, most pro-choice activists put their faith into electing the “right people” into parliament.(41) In 2015, following the murder of pregnant 14-year-old Chiara Paez by her boyfriend, Argentina saw mass protests against femicide under the slogan Ni Una Menos.(42) And in 2016, following the brutal rape and murder of 16-year-old Lucía Pérez, protests broke out again and a one hour “women’s strike” was called (inspired by the “women’s strike” in Poland a few days earlier).(43) The Ni Una Menos movement has since spread into surrounding countries and mobilized support for reproductive rights but in 2018 a bill to legalize abortion was rejected in the Argentinian senate. On 11 December 2020, a bill legalizing abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy passed through the lower house and is now once again awaiting the decision of the senate. We must keep in mind that even if legalization does go ahead, it could just as easily be stripped away again while the capitalist state still exists. The same issues that women in other countries with legalization deal with are also likely to present themselves.

Abortion is also illegal in Venezuela, except for when the pregnant person’s life is at risk. These strict laws, increased prostitution due to the country’s economic woes, and a lack of affordable birth control have caused a rise in sexually transmitted infections (and diseases) and in unintended pregnancies.(44) Due to this, many working women seek out back-alley abortions and die or are lucky to survive.(45) When the pregnancy is carried to term, the struggle continues in the form of trying to avoid sending children to bed hungry.(46) With most of the country’s population living below the poverty line, more permanent forms of contraception, such as sterilization – which the government offers for free while denying access to safer, less permanent contraceptive measures – are being sought by teenage girls after one pregnancy. Previously, this procedure was sought primarily by people in their late 30s with multiple children. On top of this is a freshly emerging trend of childless workers seeking out vasectomies.(47) The crisis of reproductive freedom in the country continues to grow.

In recent years, Catholic Poland has repeatedly tried to tighten their already highly restrictive abortion laws.(48) In 2016 and 2020 this resulted in nationwide protests where tens of thousands of people from all over the country missed work and school, or disregarded lockdown measures, to attend them.(49) This years’ protests have resulted in a temporary freeze on the implementation of laws that virtually ban abortion by making them illegal even when the fetus is severely deformed or will not survive the pregnancy.(50) In the Republic of Ireland a long campaign and a series of protests (with the likes of Strike 4 Repeal again taking direct inspiration from events in Poland) culminated in a referendum in 2018 which legalized abortion. The procedure is available for any reason until 12 weeks, until 24 weeks in case of serious risk to the pregnant person’s health, and beyond this in instances of fatal fetal abnormality. When these laws went into effect in January 2019, the country’s national health service also began offering the procedure free of charge. However, there is a lack of doctors able to provide it and there is a mandatory 3-day “cooling-off” period between requesting an abortion and being able to receive one. These conditions make it so that many people are still likely to have to pay for travel and accommodation – like they did before legalization.(51) In October 2019, Northern Ireland also scrapped their draconian abortion laws. Some of the women who were forced to travel to England and had to pay for procedures they could not truly afford have now won compensation cases that they filed against the government.(52)

In Islam, contraception is permissible only if both parties consent – in other words, if the man gives permission. It is widely agreed that abortion after 120 days is the killing of a soul – an act forbidden by Allah. Before that 120-day mark, the permissibility varies among different sects. Although no Muslim-majority country has a complete ban on abortion, it is illegal to have one under any circumstance other than for saving the life of the pregnant person in almost half of these countries. Where abortion is legal outside of this factor, the only additional leeway typically comes in the form of also allowing fetal abnormalities, if there is a proven risk to the woman’s mental or physical health or in cases of rape.

In some countries with looser abortion laws, it is not often easily accessible or affordable for working women. The reasons behind this legalization also do not stem from genuine concern for the well-being of anyone who falls pregnant. Since 1973, Tunisia has been the only Muslim-majority country with legalized abortion for social reasons if it is before the end of the first trimester. This is believed to have been influenced by post-war neo-Malthusian ideology that had the ruling classes deem population control as a top priority.(53) In Turkey, abortion is legal until the tenth week of pregnancy. But most public hospitals reject the request for an abortion if it comes solely from the pregnant person. Around 12% of hospitals refuse to perform the procedure as a matter of principle and in the regions near the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, abortions are no longer permitted at any hospital.(54) In a country where the average household income is far below that in Europe and where only one-quarter of women are employed, the costs of the procedure vary and are often far too expensive for working women.(55)

After the 1979 Islamic “revolution” in Iran, abortion became a criminal offense and was only permitted before 120 days to save the life of the pregnant person. In 2004, laws were changed to include preventing stillbirth and deformity as grounds for legal abortion. Approximately one third of all pregnancies are unintended, around half of these are unwanted and the other half are poorly timed. A number of these pregnancies are terminated through unsafe back-alley methods. As a result, abortion complications are one of the main causes of maternal mortality in Iran and around the world.(56)

The practice of sex-selective abortion is influenced largely by cultural beliefs that deem female children as an economic burden. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, these beliefs and a lack of sexual education are just two factors behind high abortion rates.(57) Due to the vague laws that regulate the procedure, many hospitals will not provide it.(58) In cases where the hospital does believe it is legal, doctors often use their personal beliefs as an excuse to refuse them. Once again, it has been proven that abortion laws and social influences do not always deter people, especially if they are desperate not to give birth – they only maim and kill them.

The main religion in India is Hinduism, which permits abortion if the pregnant person’s life is at risk – due to it being viewed as the lesser harm. Outside of this condition, abortion is considered tantamount to killing one’s own parents.(59) It is not uncommon for illegal unsafe abortions to be sought, for procedures to be delayed by abortion clinics, or for pregnancies to be forced to term. This is a struggle that unmarried female workers especially face, at an increased rate, due to the social stigma surrounding sex before marriage, and the additional legal hurdles faced by minors.(60) It was not too long ago, that dowries involved the family of the bride paying the family of the groom. These days it is the bride’s family who pay, to maintain or increase the family’s status. The combination of dowry costs and women earning less comes with the fear of the family being financially crippled if they have too many girls.(61) The act of “bride-burning” (also known as “dowry death”) – where a husband or his mother sets the wife on fire – claims the life of at least one woman every hour, in India. This threat, and other instances of domestic violence, pose a significant risk to married women, whether that marriage is forced or one of love – especially to those who only bear girls or who marry into a family with little, or no, dowry.(62) Similar to this act of bride-burning, is the ancient ritual known as “Sati”. Sati began as an act that was considered as the greatest from of devotion to one’s husband and signified the end of a marriage. The widow would “follow her husband into the after-life” by throwing herself on his pyre and burning alongside him. Over time, Sati became a forced practice and women who did not wish to burn to death were forced to kill themselves in different ways. This is because widows are viewed as a burden who have no role to play in society, especially if they have no living children to support them.(63)

In 1979, under Deng Xiaoping, China implemented a one-child policy to ensure that population growth did not outpace economic development. During the 1980s, a change was made to allow rural parents to have a second child if the first one was a daughter. Towards the end of 2015, the shift was made to a two-child policy. This move has so far failed to resolve any of the extensive issues that were caused over a 36-year period. In Chinese culture, women typically join their husband in taking care of his parents in old age, rather than taking care of her own. This is a tradition that makes male children more desirable and has them seen as a wise investment for retirement. The one-child policy has also had a significant impact on those who lose their only child and are left to suffer financially and mentally, along with having no one to care for them in old age.(64)

The one-child restriction resulted in the abandonment of many baby girls in public spaces – in hopes that another family would come along and adopt them. For some families, a second child could mean anything from large fines to women being forcibly sterilized or tied up and their pregnancy aborted.(65) There are now 30 million more men than there are women in China, largely due to many having opted to terminate their pregnancies upon finding out they were carrying a girl.(66) Although sex-selective abortions are morally condemned in mainstream opinion and have long been the exception to China’s otherwise loose abortion laws, there is a clear contradiction and both cultural and state enforced factors are the driving force behind such choices.

The two-child policy has done little more than add pressure on women to have more children and has caused fear of state measures that could force pregnancies to term in a bid to boost the population. Despite this pressure and fear, birth rates have continued to decline. With children being trafficked out of the country to foreign orphanages for decades and women from Myanmar now being trafficked into the country to marry Chinese men, we can see that the lasting impact of the one-child policy extends well beyond China’s borders.

Conclusion

We know quite well that a surge in working women’s militancy can trigger big and great things. For example, the 1917 February Revolution spurred from working women and soldiers’ wives taking to the streets on International Working Women’s Day.(67) As mentioned above, recent years have seen mass women’s protests for reproductive rights in countries like Poland, Argentina and Ireland. These undoubtedly inter-classist movements have managed to affect public discourse and, at least in Ireland, to change existing laws. In rhetoric they have taken up the language of strike action, but this has hardly translated into reality – more often than not the “strike” consists of not carrying out household duties, simply taking a day off work, or liberal employers letting their employees attend a protest.(68) Although slogans pertaining to economic realities have at times been taken on, organized proletarian elements have not emerged, and politicians (from various mayors up to presidents) have come out in support of these movements. Any real class movement will have to see a struggle not just for one day of action, and not only in the sphere of reproduction, but also at the point of production where surplus value is extracted (i.e. where the capitalist class would really start to worry). As Rosa Luxemburg noted in 1912:

“This kind of work [bringing up children, housework, etc.] is not productive in the sense of the present capitalist economy no matter how enormous an achievement the sacrifices and energy spent, the thousand little efforts add up to … As long as capitalism and the wage system rule, only that kind of work is considered productive which produces surplus value, which creates capitalist profit … This sounds brutal and insane, but corresponds exactly to the brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy. And seeing this brutal reality clearly and sharply is the proletarian woman’s first task.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Class Struggle and Women’s Suffrage, 1912)

We do not pass judgement, nor can we say that there are right or wrong reasons to choose to, or choose not to, have an abortion. But what we do know is that downtrodden workers turn toward religion and cultural beliefs, to seek solace from the world that we live in. They put their faith into the idea of an afterlife that will reward them for having lived this life in accordance with the sacred scriptures. Religious beliefs, in masters and slaves, in heaven and hell, parallel the conditions in class society here on earth. The ruling classes have long considered religion to be an extremely useful tool for deceiving the working class into adapting to and accepting their position as slaves. This is because they know that the religious worker is more likely to accept anything that comes their way without so much as a whispered objection – because everything is the will of God.(69) One example of this can be observed during the Stalinist counter-revolution in the USSR, where the Russian Orthodox church was revived during the Second World War to fuel patriotic support among the working masses and to garner help from the West. In 1936, several years prior to the outbreak of the war, abortion had been recriminalized (after the Russian Soviet Republic had been the first country in the world to decriminalize it under all circumstances during the revolution) due to concerns about needing to boost the population due to impending war. If one thing is sure it is that laws reflect the needs of capital, which always override all else – not all religious states have strict abortion laws and not all states with strict abortion laws are officially religious.

Our goal as communists is to make life here on earth into one that we all look forward to living each day, rather than spend our days exploited and struggling for survival – a life that is free from slaves and masters. We aim to live in a world where caring for children, the elderly, and the disabled is something that is done communally and has ceased to ever be a burden that primarily falls on women. The laws, economic conditions, and religious and cultural beliefs that impact reproduction in class society, will disappear or become superfluous upon states (religious or not) being abolished and these matters becoming private ones. This can only be achieved through international proletarian revolution and the global communist society that comes as a result.

Our next part in this series, will comment on schooling, forced and coerced sterilization of sexual and gender minority workers, sexual violence in times of imperialist conflict, and the full extent of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis is having on us having children.

E (ICO) & S (IWG)
12 December 2020

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Source: Libcom.org