The Labor Theory of (Anti)Abortion

Mas'ud Zavarzadeh


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Rob Wilkie

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Amrohini Sahay




(Anti)abortion is a labor matter. It is neither exclusively a gender question, as in liberal feminists' insistence on "reproductive rights", nor is it simply what pro-life advocates, in their moralizing stance, call the universal sanctity of life in all its forms. I put aside here the ideological contradictions that mark these positions. "Rights" feminists have shown little serious interest in the "rights" of women of color, who do most of their domestic work, and the pro-life women support militarism and the defense industries, whose main task are to make more efficient machines for slaughtering humans. Both positions are, in the end, based on a rather discredited bourgeois notion of (human) "rights"—one that is an ideological device giving the illusion of equality for all and using a legalistic discourse to obscure the material gap between classes.

Pro-choice feminists have formulated the question of abortion as primarily a matter of individual freedom: a woman's reproductive rights. In the name of a (seemingly) progressive feminism, they have actually reaffirmed the existing social relations which privilege the individual; substitute a legalism of "rights" for economic equality, and produce a populist imaginary that fantasizes reproductive rights are autonomous from production. In other words, they do not regard the emancipation of labor and freedom from necessity to be conditions for the emancipation of women. They simply want to reform capitalism to accommodate the reproductive "rights" of women. For them, abortion is a local (personal) issue and that seems to be enough to give an air of radicality because they also believe that the personal is always local, and the local is the concrete site of the political.

The pro-life movement also supports wage-labor and entrepreneurship and appeals to the same principle of the "rights" of the individual, but it defines the individual as a legal being before birth. By retreating into the false abstraction of the "sanctity of life" in general, it too covers up the gap between classes and represents all life as equal—an equality that is as empty as the equality in liberal "rights".

In spite of their cultural differences, the pro-choice and the pro-life arguments are two related ideological modes addressing different class fractions. Using different means, they both affirm the ways in which capitalism secures the dominant productive processes because (anti)abortion, in the last analysis, is a matter of controlling the labor force. It is primarily an economic and, therefore, a class issue not a cultural or legal matter.

In advocating women's right to choose, the pro-choice movement, which is composed for the most part of highly educated women and men from what sociologists call the (upper)middle class, is actually defending the right of this class to control the highly-paid segment of the labor force. Like any other guild that protects the living-standards of its members by strictly controlling the number and conditions of membership and thereby securing high pay for its members, the middle- and upper-middle classes attempt to limit the supply of labor through family planning and abortion in order to promote the highest standard of living for this class and appropriation of a larger share of the social surplus labor.

Specifically, women's right to reproductive self-determination—that is, a woman's right to decide when and how many children she will have—has the economic effect of providing a flexible, educated, labor force. The pro-choice campaign for the availability of family planning clinics, low-cost contraception and distribution of condoms in schools helps reduce unwanted births among the poor and "third-world" peoples within this country, particularly among uneducated teenage mothers. The reductions also bring down the cost of such social programs as welfare and medical costs and, therefore, increase, or at least preserve, the public resources available to the middle class for its own use through tax breaks and other devices for the transfer of wealth to this class. Abortion and reproductive control, in other words, are a means through which the (upper) middle class assures the perpetuation of its own class privileges by limiting the available labor force.

On a more immediate and personal level, by postponing childbirth (or even foregoing it altogether), (upper)middle-class women are able to complete advanced education (close to half of all college graduates today are women) and to take executive and professional positions within the dominant economic and power structures of capitalism. Consequently, access to these positions by working-class and minority men and women continues to be restricted.

Pro-life's embrace of life, on the other hand, implements the ruling class's need to always have access to an abundant and cheap labor force. Thus, contrary to the effects of the pro-choice position, which limits the labor force, the consequences of the pro-life view expand the labor force, particularly among the poor and peoples of color. Witness the severe cutbacks in birth-control and family planning programs throughout the world as a result of the Bush administration's policies and curbs on UN funding under the pressure of conservatives and the pro-life movement. Even if the poor have access to health insurance, most insurance policies available to them do not pay for contraceptives. However, they tellingly enough pay for viagra, one of whose effects is larger families and thus more future workers.

The effects of the pro-life opposition to abortion, as well as its overwhelming lack of support for any form of contraception (even as a means of reducing the need for abortions), promote the traditional needs of monopoly capitalism for a large ready reserve of labor that exerts tremendous pressure on wages, keeping them at an absolute minimum. The ideological contradictions of the pro-life moral position becomes even more clear when one considers that the pro-life belief in the sanctity of life in all its forms has in no way made them reluctant to support the genocidal militarism of the West in Gulf War I or Afghanistan or to resist the daily slaughter of the Palestinians by Israel's military. The Pro-life movement is in fact organizing tourist trips to help the Israeli economy, which is collapsing because of its lack of access to cheap Palestinian labor. (One of the promises of the "Labor Party" to Israeli capitalists is that it will produce a peace accord that will make the Palestinian labor force once again available to them.)

To say that the pro-life position is an enactment of the ruling class's need for an abundant and cheap labor force may strike many as odd and counter-intuitive because the majority of pro-life advocates are from the working and lower-middle classes. One of the roles of the ruling ideology, however, is to convert the economic interests of the ruling class into cultural values—the "sanctity of life", "testing in schools", "family values", "law and order", "work ethics", "national security"—that can be embraced by the lower-middle and working classes. In fact, the hegemony of the ruling class is commonly obtained by appealing to cultural values that mask the economic interests of capital. Recent conservative governments—from Thatcher, Kohl and Reagan to Bush, Sharon and Chirac—have all been voted into power by cultural slogans that divert attention from the economic issues.

The lack of class consciousness among the working people who support the conservative agenda shows the success of the dominant ideology in displacing the material with the cultural. The left cultural critique is, of course, complicit with the production of this false consciousness. Instead of offering an analytical critique of "values" politics, it has retreated into an affirmative narration of the dominant culture under the alibi that the culture of oppression is hybrid—thus, no matter how oppressive it might look, it also contains, at the same time, lines of resistance. What the "post-al left" calls resistance—in consumption practices, in (anti)abortion, in sex work, in tax cuts—is always a way of embracing capital through a cultural relay.

Population, contrary to Malthus, is not the problem. It becomes a problem in class societies. Malthus's theory claims that since population increases at a geometrical rate while food supply increases only at arithmetical rate, the imbalance between the two causes poverty and unemployment and, therefore, prevents the formation of an egalitarian society. Engels points out that "[I]t is precisely this theory which is the cornerstone of the liberal system of free trade". Both he and Marx demonstrate that Malthus's theory is more propaganda than a serious inquiry into political economy. The ideology of Malthus's theory becomes clear in his claim that in every civilized society  "a class of propertied and a class of labourers must necessarily exist." Class, according to Malthus, is natural; and, therefore, hunger is to be accepted as an effect of the law of nature, and nothing should be done about it. But hunger is an effect of the social relations of production not nature because it is not lack of food that creates hunger. It is lack of access. To put it differently, the relation of the population to the food supply does not explain poverty and hunger. The relation of the population to employment does. Population, in other words, does not cause the scarcity of resources or lack of access to them. The problem is the systemic class differences produced by wage-labor. Population is used to maintain the wage-labor system that produces immense poverty and wealth.

By representing the question of (anti)abortion as a matter of rights, ethics and (generalized) life, pro-choice and pro-life theories conceal the class politics of abortion and naturalize wage-labor. Both pro-choice and pro-life treat the (anti)abortion question as a local issue, effectively isolating it from its social totality. The (anti)abortion issue is not a reproductive issue. It is an issue of production.

What is at stake here is the very shape of contemporary democracy and economic equality. Democracy is not merely freedom of speech or of choice—as it is most commonly defined in opposition to socialism—nor is it simply a matter of individual rights (whether of the mother or unborn child). Rather democracy in its most fundamental sense is an economic issue: satisfaction of the needs of all people by socializing the means of production and ending the commodification of human labor. But the pro-choice and pro-life movements have conceded to wage labor, and the only question for both is how best to insure reproductive rights within that system.

(Anti)abortion is a historical question: its solution is not in reproductive rights/right to life but in what Engels calls the "first premise of the emancipation" of women: abolishing family as an economic unit and reorganizing a new society free from private ownership of the means of production.

Reproduction is always an effect of production.

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