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The Scandalous Economics of Abortion Access in the USA

by Sydney Calkin on March 14, 2016

Abortion is routinely portrayed as a dominant feature of the American ‘culture wars’; yet this categorisation misunderstands the fundamental place that reproductive choice has in women’s economic position in society, and the way that lack of access to reproductive healthcare compounds numerous intersecting inequalities.

ScandalIn the US today, the battle over reproductive rights is a primary site at which gender and crisis intersect. The framework of ‘Scandalous Economics’ illuminates the way that the normalisation of the current economic (dis)order also entails an economic reordering of gendered social relations. In this post, I want to draw out some of the volume’s themes to think about the crises of reproductive rights in the USA where the politics of scandal are being rapidly mobilised to erode women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive choice. The conceptual and empirical contributions of Scandalous Economics are timely and essential for understanding gender politics, even outside of areas traditionally understood as economic and as we move further away from the beginning of the (ongoing) Global Financial Crisis.

In 2015, anti-choice activists released undercover films which (falsely) purported to show misconduct by Planned Parenthood regarding the disposal of fetal tissue. These videos sparked a wave of anti-choice activity by legislators and activists, who began efforts to remove federal funding from Planned Parenthood. Perfectly encapsulating the productive power of scandal to “generate both new meanings and reassuring boundaries” (True and Hozic, introductory post), the Planned Parenthood video scandal functioned as a visible and emotionally charged vehicle to boost existing efforts to erode reproductive rights by cutting funding at the state and federal levels. This is but one indicative sign of a larger shift in the attacks on reproductive rights, which mobilise broader ideas of economic crisis, government overreach, and the need to defend ‘the taxpayer’ from misspending of public funds. In late 2015, then-Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush expressed this prevailing discourse when he said: “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues”.

The reproductive rights of American women, though tenuous and under constant threat, are due in large part to legal gains which protect the right to abortion under the 14th amendment right to privacy (established in Roe vs. Wade, 1973). Despite legal challenges which have led to increased restrictions, the core of Roe has held, guaranteeing women a constitutional right to abortion. Given the legal status of abortion, anti-choice advocates have increasingly turned away from the courts and sought to restrict access to reproductive choice through economic means, chipping away at the practical capacity for women to seek out abortions to which they are legally entitled.

Most visibly, this strategy has resulted in numerous state-level laws which restrict the ability of women to access abortion by requiring onerous waiting periods between initial doctor’s visit and the termination procedure. These restrictions are particularly harmful for women who live in states with few clinics that perform abortions, because they require most women to make long drives and stay several nights away from home to be near the clinic. Indeed, burdensome restrictions which force clinic closures mean that five states – Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming – have only one abortion clinic. Such laws make reproductive choice all but impossible for the wealthiest women who have the time, funds, and support networks to make these trips.

The attacks on Planned Parenthood therefore represent only the most recent example of efforts to erode reproductive choice for low income women in the USA. Planned Parenthood is an essential provider of reproductive healthcare for women; it is moreover the only source of healthcare for many low-income women. In December 2015, the US Senate passed a bill to de-fund Planned Parenthood. At the state level, Ohio, Wisconsin, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Texas and Utah have defunded Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is legally barred from spending any federal funding on abortion services, yet this fact features little in the public discourse.

These examples, among many others, demonstrate that the numerous and sustained attacks on reproductive rights have increasingly mobilised an economic logic to restrict access. Moreover, they demonstrate, as the Reproductive Justice movement has long stressed, access to reproductive healthcare is the product of a broader array of compounding socioeconomic inequalities which render the language of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ wholly insufficient for conceptualising the experiences of women at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression.  The right to abortion is constitutionally protected in theory, but the stark inequalities which stratify American women mean that access to abortion requires resources, not merely rights.

As the Scandalous Economics volume demonstrates, the American union of religious fundamentalism and neoliberal economics that has resulted in this multi-faceted assault on reproductive rights is but one manifestation of the way that post-crisis economic governance has eroded women’s access to rights and resources.  The purported need to scale back federal spending provides a convenient cover for a strategic and concerted program of restrictions on the access to reproductive choice, the effects of which are concentrated on restricting the freedoms of low-income women.

Sydney Calkin
Sydney Calkin is based in the Geography Department at Durham University, where she researches and teaches in the areas of feminist political economy and global development governance. Her writing has appeared in Third World Quarterly, Globalizations, and International Feminist Journal of Politics.

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