Abortion is a topic that tends to engender passionate reactions. What’s behind our abortion anxieties? What are we really talking about when we talk about abortion? And what are we leaving out?
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, nearly half of the U.S. population stands to lose access to legal abortion in their state. In this special episode of AnthroPod, we explore the anthropology of abortion in a post-Roe world. Professors Sophie Bjork-James, Carolyn Sufrin, and Elise Andaya share their perspectives on the anthropology of abortion and provide insight from their own fieldsites at the time of this historic illegalization. With the help of other scholars of reproduction and activism, we talk abortion from an anthropological angle.
This episode was produced in the weeks leading up to the release of the Supreme Court's ruling. All interviews were conducted before June 24.
Sophie Bjork-James is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism's Politics of the Family (Rutgers University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (West Virginia University Press, 2020). Her research focuses on race and racism, evangelicalism, reproductive politics, white nationalism, and hate crimes.
Carolyn Sufrin is an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and of health, behavior, and society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and an abortion provider. As a medical anthropologist, she studies incarcerated people and reproductive health care and is the author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars (University of California Press, 2017).
Elise Andaya is an associate professor at the State University of New York at Albany and the author of Conceiving Cuba: Reproduction, Women and the State in the Post-Soviet Era (Rutgers University Press, 2014). She has written on reproductive healthcare in Cuba and the U.S., with attention to inequalities of race and class. Her current book project investigates the effects of service sector work and health policy on pregnant minority service workers in New York City.
This episode was created and produced by Contributing Editor Sharon Jacobs. Caroline Hodge provided research and Joyce Rivera-González provided production assistance. Michelle Hak Hepburn and Marie Melody Vidal provided late-stage review. Special thanks to this episode's contributors Sophie Bjork-James, Carolyn Sufrin, Whitney Arey, Francisco Fernández Romero, and Elise Andaya.
Theme Song: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear
Andaya, Elise. 2014. Conceiving Cuba: Women, Reproduction and the State in the Post-Soviet Era. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Andaya, Elise, and Joanna Mishtal. 2016. "The Erosion of Rights to Abortion Care in the United States: A Call for a Renewed Anthropological Engagement with the Politics of Abortion." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 31, no. 1: 40–59.
Arey, Whitney. 2020. "Real Men Love Babies: Protest Speech and Masculinity at Abortion Clinics in the Southern United States." NORMA 15, no. 3-4: 205–20.
Bjork-James, Sophie. 2020. "White Sexual Politics: The Patriarchal Family in White Nationalism and the Religious Right." Transforming Anthropology 28, no. 1: 58–73.
———. 2021. The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Fernández Romero, Francisco. 2020. "'We Can Conceive Another History': Trans Activism around Abortion Rights in Argentina." International Journal of Transgender Health 22, no. 1–2: 126–40.
Ginsburg, Faye D. 1989. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
hooks, bell. 1991. "Theory as Liberatory Practice." Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 4, no. 1: 1–12.
Maskovsky, Jeff, and Sophie Bjork-James, eds. 2020. Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Ross, Loretta, and Rickie Solinger. 2017. Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sufrin, Carolyn. 2017. Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 2019. "When the Punishment is Pregnancy: Carceral Restriction of Abortion in the United States." Cultural Anthropology 34, no. 1: 34–40.
Sharon Jacobs (SJ) [00:00] On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court case that affirmed a countrywide right to abortion in the United States. With 13 states having “trigger bans” outlawing abortion within a month of the decision, and other states likely to pass new laws soon after, nearly half of the U.S. population stands to lose access to legal abortion in their state. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization heralds a future of even more uncertainty around our autonomy, reproduction, and healthcare.
Abortion is a topic that tends to engender passionate reactions. What’s behind our abortion anxieties? What are we really talking about when we talk about abortion? And what are we leaving out?
In this episode of AnthroPod, we’re going to speak with several anthropologists about the politics of abortion, and use anthropological tools to try and add empathy and nuance to the public conversation. We’ll discuss anti-abortion activism among white evangelicals who view their politics as a mode of support for women and families. We’ll look inside the U.S. carceral system, where pregnant people are stripped of their rights to choice and bodily autonomy—even in situations where abortion is legal. We’ll talk about reproduction as a conduit for broader social concerns, and the affordances of a radical framework for reproductive justice. Of course, abortion has never been a cisgender, women’s issue, and we’ll take a brief look at abortion activism for cis men and transgender and nonbinary people. Finally, we’ll zoom out from the U.S., where abortion can have a very different meaning.
I’m Sharon Jacobs, one of AnthroPod’s contributing editors. From the Society for Cultural Anthropology, this is “AnthroPod Talks Abortion.”
[01:47] [AnthroPod theme music, All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear]
Sophie Bjork-James (SBJ) [01:59] Younger evangelicals typically have increasingly rejected the religious-right politics of their parents—in virtually every way, except for abortion.
SJ [02:09] Sophie Bjork-James is an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University with over a decade of experience researching the religious right movement as well as the white nationalist movement in the U.S. She is the author of The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family and co-editor of Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism. Her current research focuses on anti-abortion activism—the self-named pro-life movement in the U.S.
SBJ [02:37] Young evangelicals can be more pro-life than their parents. And that’s really because of savvy attempts to recruit young people into the pro-life movement. All of the pro-life institutions are incredibly successful and committed to leadership development among young people, and giving young people sometimes national voices within their movement.
And targeting messages—so, when I was doing research among white evangelicals, sometimes people would ask me when I was born, which was after Roe v. Wade was passed, and they’d say, “Oh, well, a third of our generation was murdered.” And use language like, “a third of our generation was murdered,” or, “we’re survivors of the abortion holocaust”—really using very inflammatory language, but also language of social justice, to frame fetuses as the, you know, most vulnerable group to harm, because they don’t have a voice.
Younger evangelicals typically are more supportive of social justice, and so it’s one area where they can kind of agree with their parents’ generation, which doesn’t support social justice, because they see abortion through a social justice lens.
SJ [3:46] So what role does staunch opposition to abortion serve for evangelicals? For Professor Bjork-James, it has to do with the gendered order of white evangelical life and the place of women in society.
SBJ [3:58] This is a big focus of my book The Divine Institution, where I lay out the way that a gender hierarchy within the home requires heterosexuality and patriarchy as a way to kind of anchor these other hierarchies within the church. So between the individual and Jesus, between God and the Church—there’s this series of nested hierarchies that are really rooted in a patriarchal family structure. And so, if women have autonomy over their own reproduction and have access to abortion, then that’s seen as defying this familial structure because it takes women outside of the patriarchal order and, you know, allows them to make reproductive choices on their own. And so being opposed to abortion really helps to kind of defend that worldview.
SJ [04:45] I’ve been thinking a lot about how women in particular are socialized into anti-abortion politics, and I wondered if you have anything to say about the roles of women and girls in these pro-life groups, in terms of leadership positions, in terms of how women are brought into the fold, let’s say.
SBJ [05:04] Especially for young women, there’s so much possibility for them to develop as leaders within this movement. There’s internships for them at organizations in [Washington,] D.C., organizations do outreach at campuses all over the country and really prioritize young women’s leadership and voices in the pro-life movement.
And part of that has meant they have developed a strategy of—it’s almost like they’re framing being pro-life as a feminist issue. Most of them wouldn’t identify as feminist but will have re-framed abortion, saying it’s not about a woman’s right, it’s that women are victims because they fall prey to lies by abortionists. And so using this language of abortionists, right—it’s as though there’s people actively wanting to abort people’s fetuses, and women fall prey to them. So when young women and women in general are making this message, it’s very appealing, in that—framing the pro-life movement as saving women.
SJ [06:07] It sounds empowering, in a sense, within this particular framework—women speaking about women’s issues. And it also sounds like more of what you were saying in terms of the appropriation of social justice discourse to talk about pro-life activism.
SBJ [06:21] Right. And to appropriate feminist language, by saying—most of them wouldn’t identify as feminist, but they would identify as needing to support women, and women’s rights, maybe even women’s autonomy. But that to support women’s autonomy means you have to be pro-life.
I mean, we don’t have very good numbers on rates of abortion, but rates of abortion amongst people who have pro-life politics are not that different from rates of abortion among people who are pro-choice. Because people will make decisions based on their own life circumstances. And sometimes politics will, if they’re pro-life people will—even if they think it’s not good for them or their family—will go ahead and have a baby because of their politics. But it’s also not uncommon for people to decide, “Well, I’m supportive of being pro-life in general, but in this circumstance it’s the best thing for my family, or it’s the best thing for me, or it’s the best thing in terms of the complications with this pregnancy,” etcetera.
SJ [07:20] While conducting ethnographic research among white evangelicals, Professor Bjork-James noted a tendency to avoid discussion of overtly political issues in formal evangelical spaces—with the exception of abortion. Abortion, she says, was one of the primary political and moral issues motivating her interlocutors.
SBJ [07:39] I interviewed almost 100 white evangelicals, and I would always end my interview with some question about what are the most important political issues that Christians face. Almost without fail, it was almost like I could push play and everyone would repeat almost the same script: “Well, it’s not about politics, and it’s really about what’s inside and what’s in one’s heart and that’s what we should be focusing on—but if I had to decide on, you know, political issues, it would be abortion and marriage.”
SJ [08:05] In churches and at Christian events, anti-abortion statements were often paired with anti-environmentalist ones. Professor Bjork-James’ most recent project explores this relationship.
SBJ [08:16] There’d be, like, an offhand joke, like, “Ever wonder why anyone who wants to like save an owl, or save some endangered species, is also supportive of abortion?” “Save an owl, flush a fetus,” or something like that. It seemed to be like, almost like a moral calculus.
White evangelicals are the largest bloc to deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change. And so for me, I think it’s very important to be looking at this relationship, between kind of denying any kind of environmental responsibility, at the same time framing abortion as the greatest harm that’s happening in our society.
SJ [08:56] The staunch black-and-white view of abortion that Professor Bjork-James’s interlocutors held might prove more difficult to sustain in a post-Roe world, in which the legality of abortion becomes more nuanced and the consequences of anti-abortion activism even more pronounced.
SBJ [09:12] In my research I was quite frankly pretty stunned at how little grey area there was that pro-life people would recognize.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the gray area becomes more obvious, right. And so there’s different ways that this could happen. Like, in Louisiana recently there was a state legislator who was proposing to make, you know, abortion a felony, so that women would be punished. There’s cases, right, already in Texas of women being denied a D&C (dilation and curettage) or, you know, an abortion, because of an ectopic pregnancy. Because there is still a fetal heartbeat, and physicians were terrified of getting sued.
SJ [09:52] Yeah, I was going to say, the social justice-appropriated discourse that you were talking about earlier seems like it really flies in the face of measures that penalize women for having abortions.
SBJ [10:02] And a lot of pro-life advocates are trying to advocate, saying, like, we don’t want to see women punished, you know, for having illegal abortions. That’s not their goal, to punish women. They want to punish providers.
But a lot of people are putting forward bills that would punish women. And increasingly that will happen. Women have already been punished, especially women of color.
And it’s a question of, will the pro-life movement become fragmented when they see some of the implications of this?
SJ [10:32] Although U.S. evangelicals today are hugely influential in the movement against legal abortion, it wasn’t always that way. The religious right movement emerged in the 1970s, with the influential pastor Jerry Falwell going on to form the Moral Majority political action group. Rather than abortion per se, Professor Bjork-James says, the movement was motivated by a particular vision of race, religion, and nationalism.
SBJ [10:56] From its inception in the 1970s, the movement emerges fighting desegregation of private Christian schools in the U.S. South. It’s defined as a movement defending conservative Christian values, which also stem from the history of whiteness. So I understand the religious right as very much being the white Christian response to the civil rights movement, in trying to reshape state power to defend their worldview.
And it’s interesting because, if we go back again to the 1970s, you know, white evangelicals were typically—they ranged, but many of them were pro-choice through the 1970s. When Roe v. Wade was decided, abortion was seen as a Catholic issue and not something evangelicals really cared about.
SJ [11:42] Anthropologists have shown how historically specific societal gender anxieties—around women entering the workforce, for example, or women’s sexuality—have been forged into concrete political action through the crucible of abortion. Since the 1980s, feminist academics like Kristin Luker, Rayna Rapp, Leith Mullings, and Lynn Morgan have placed reproduction at the center of human social life and politics, embedded in hierarchies of race and class—something Shellee Colen described with the concept “stratified reproduction.”
In 1989, Faye Ginsburg published Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. The book is an ethnography of the political mobilizations around the opening of an abortion clinic in Fargo, North Dakota. Among her analyses, Ginsburg, an anthropology professor at New York University, shows how generational differences—the social context in which women activists came of age—shaped their outlooks around abortion.
But if abortion serves as a social symbol or release valve in political debates, that doesn’t make it any less material or urgent for people who are pregnant and seeking one. All of this episode’s interviewees stressed that the people who will suffer the most from the overturning of Roe v. Wade are society’s oppressed classes—those people who are already marginalized as a result of race, socioeconomic class, gender identity, and other factors.
Carolyn Sufrin is an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and of health, behavior, and society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She’s also a medical anthropologist who’s done ethnographic research on pregnancy, abortion, and parenthood among incarcerated people. She’s the author of the book Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars.
Carolyn Sufrin (CS) [13:36] When prisons and jails do not allow pregnant people to access abortion, then by default carrying that unwanted pregnancy becomes part of their prison or jail sentence.
SJ [13:50] In 2019, Professor Sufrin published an article called “When the Punishment Is Pregnancy,” looking specifically at abortion access in U.S. jails and prisons.
[13:59] I think one thing that people might wonder is, although it seems almost, like, crass to ask, is um if—
CS [14:04] Yeah, how do they get pregnant? No, it’s a very logical question. The majority of incarcerated pregnant folks are pregnant at the time that they enter prison or jail.
Now, that being said, many people first learn about their pregnancy when they enter jail or prison, if a pregnancy test is done. And so that’s all the more reason why they need access to options counseling and abortion. Because this is, for many of them, their first opportunity to even consider accessing that care.
SJ [14:30] Is it standard procedure for people to be issued a pregnancy test when they’re entering jail or prison?
CS [14:36] There is nothing that is standard procedure about healthcare behind bars. So, many places will provide a pregnancy test within the first twenty-four hours. Or some will do it within forty-eight hours. Some will do it within two weeks. Some will do it only if a healthcare provider orders it. Some will only do it if the individual requests it. And then there’s some places that just categorically don’t have it available. So it really depends.
SJ [15:03] In her article on pregnancy as punishment, Professor Sufrin considers the effect of delays on incarcerated pregnant people’s healthcare. It’s common, even within the medical profession, for people to distinguish between abortions that are “indicated” due to a medical condition, and abortions that are “elective.” This distinction has its roots in the question of timing.
CS [15:25] It’s, you know, can this procedure be delayed indefinitely without a significant impact on a person’s well-being or life? But pregnancy is by definition a time-limited event. So anything related to pregnancy really isn’t elective. Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, if the person parents, or if they pursue adoption—those are all things that have profound consequences for a person’s life, health, and well-being.
SJ [15:54] If a jail or prison categorizes an abortion as “elective,” then it has more leeway to restrict access to the procedure for incarcerated individuals. The “elective” designation suggests that the abortion is not medically necessary, and therefore not within the purview of the healthcare that the carceral system is required to provide. Ironically, though, “elective” is precisely the kind of language that the pro-choice movement has used to characterize abortion on the U.S. political stage.
CS [16:23] That moniker of thinking of abortions as “elective,” that has a particular history to it, and one that has emerged from structures of white supremacy.
So what the leaders of the reproductive justice movement pointed out in noting the limits of focus on choice was that Black women—and particularly Black women, because reproductive justice was founded by and centers the experiences of Black women, and then also considers the needs and oppression of other people whose reproduction has been marginalized—but they noted that the notion of choice and autonomy has to be considered in the ways that it’s constrained for certain groups in our country, and the way that that’s built on centuries of colonialism, dispossession, forced sterilization, forced reproduction for enslaved Black people.
All of those things that have removed choice and autonomy with regards to reproduction for certain groups—those come to bear in the ways that we talk about, and the ways that we need to talk about, abortion.
SJ [17:20] In 1994, a group of Black women frustrated with the limitations of the pro-choice movement gathered in Chicago to launch what would become the Reproductive Justice movement. Reproductive Justice places abortion in the context of other issues of oppression and social justice that disproportionately affect communities of color. Spurred by the dark histories surrounding U.S. governance of reproduction for Black, Indigenous, and other people, the framework of Reproductive Justice equally emphasizes the right to have a child, the right to not have a child, and the right to parent one’s children and control the conditions of childbirth. Scholar-activists Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger lay out the movement’s principles in their 2017 book Reproductive Justice: An Introduction.
Reproductive Justice can be a useful lens for understanding pregnancy, motherhood, and abortion inside the U.S. carceral system, where the notion of “choice” doesn’t go very far.
CS [18:16] Although there are certain carve-outs in civil rights law and litigation, by definition the project of incarceration removes people’s choice and autonomy as part of their punishment. And so it doesn’t make sense to talk about elective procedures, choice, bodily autonomy, and the right to choose what you want for your reproduction when you’re in a setting that inherently removes that.
So when we talk about abortion, what we don’t talk about is the limits of talking about choice, and what we can learn from people behind bars.
SJ [18:47] Obviously, incarcerated people already have huge barriers in terms of their access to abortion. So what does the end of Roe v. Wade look like in your field site?
CS [18:55] Pretty awful. It’s only going to get worse.
SJ [18:58] In her research, Professor Sufrin found that many people already assumed they lost their right to an abortion while incarcerated. The end of Roe would make that assumption a fact in many cases—and in others, it would lead to new uncertainties.
CS [19:12] What’s going to happen is, someone is in a federal prison in a state where abortion is illegal. Is the Federal Bureau of Prisons going to transport a patient to another state to obtain an abortion?
Another question is people who are in state prison custody but housed in another state. So what if a California prisoner is in a state where abortion is illegal? Will the California prison system bring them back to California to get an abortion?
SJ [19:41] Without Roe v. Wade in place, it would be up to individual U.S. states to regulate abortion. One of the likely consequences of this is that people seeking an abortion would have to cross state lines to obtain one safely and legally—with the attendant costs of transport, housing, and, in many cases, childcare.
CS [20:00] But for people who are incarcerated, they cannot travel out of state. Their—I have a hard time imagining any prison in a state where abortion becomes illegal that will willingly transport a pregnant person out of state for a procedure that in their state is considered illegal, in order to obtain an abortion.
SJ [20:20] Yeah it sounds like… the question of travel across state borders is something that is talked about a lot, but that all of a sudden, when you’re looking at somebody in prison, it means another thing. It seems like this is almost, I don’t want to say, like, “bellwether” because that seems too simple but like, what’s happening in prisons seems like—
CS [20:40] It absolutely is. No, I think you’re absolutely right. And I’ve long thought that, even with the protections of Roe supposedly in place, it has foreshadowed, right? Like, we’ve seen how pregnancy is punishment for incarcerated individuals, and how restricted it already is, and we see that about to play out, and then for people who can’t get needed abortions, whether they’re in the community or they’re incarcerated, they may experience pregnancies in all kinds of negative ways.
But I think we also have to talk about the fact that people… people adapt their lives. In our study, we certainly found people who felt like they were being punished with pregnancy. They literally used those words. But we also heard some women say, you know, I wanted to have an abortion, and I’m glad I couldn’t get one because being here in prison, I’m sober, I have time to think about my parenting, and, and I’m excited now for this baby. So I’m glad I didn’t get an abortion.
And I wish that would have come without the harms of incarceration, or denying them their access to care. And I certainly don’t mean to say it’s going to be good for pregnant people that they can’t get abortions. But I think we also need to talk about the fact that, for some people, their lives will continue in a way that is meaningful for them and their reproductive vision. And, for many people, it will be detrimental and deleterious.
SJ [22:15] Our personal experiences rarely fit easily into a political message. Part of the value, and challenge, of anthropology as a discipline is its ability to negotiate with human social life in its nuance and complexity. Statements like “pro-choice” or “pro-life” are far too simplistic to explain people’s actual decisions, relationships, and life paths; we’re constantly making our way through contradictory terrains that can make it hard to find a moral or political landing-point. In conducting research for her book Jailcare, Professor Sufrin had to reckon with a paradox in the U.S. carceral system.
CS [22:50] I met women who, for some of them, jail was the only place where they were able to spend time with their children, at supervised visits. One woman, whom I call “Kima,” who gave birth while she was, not physically in jail but while she was in jail custody—she had pictures of her infant baby that she had distributed to other women who were in jail, so that when she came back, she had copies that she could hang in her jail cell. Because she didn’t have walls when she wasn’t in jail. She didn’t have a place to hang pictures of her, of her infant.
How does that relate to, you know, a broader commitment to justice and advocacy? It means we need to change our entire criminal legal system, and our so-called child welfare system, which many more aptly call the “family regulation system,” to support families and invest in families, especially those that have been historically marginalized.
And I would also add, seeing all the ways that motherhood, reproduction, abortion, pregnancy care, childbirth—seeing the ways all these things are so highly regulated and oppressive for people behind bars, and all of these contradictions and complexities—I think, you know, it contributes to the broader case for abolition.
SJ [24:13] Things aren’t always what they seem. Jail can end up being a place of care. Evangelicals haven’t always been anti-abortion.
Abortion is not just about women, and it’s not just about people with uteruses. In a 2020 article called, “Real Men Love Babies,” Whitney Arey shows how anti-abortion protesters in North Carolina used language of men’s reproductive choices and patriarchal responsibilities to target male companions of abortion clinic patients.
Whitney Arey (WA) [24:40] While other research has explored the importance of social support for abortion access, I’m interested in how support persons also experience obstacles to abortion care, such as anti-abortion protesting.
SJ [24:51] The protesters framed men who prevent abortions as strong, masculine heroes—men with the power to save their women and families. “That’s your seed, your own seed,” says one protester.
The anti-abortion protesters were angling to provoke a reaction in the companions of abortion patients, writes Arey, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas. Quoting her article: “Attacks on the masculinity of the male companions may be internalized as feelings of shame or guilt at being unable to live up to cultural constructions of masculinity.”
WA [25:24] This matters because abortion stigma does not only impact people who have abortions. Expanding our understandings of who experiences abortion stigma and how they experience it is important to broader efforts to mitigate that stigma.
SJ [25:37] Arey’s research reminds us that people who have abortions aren’t the only ones affected by them. But it’s also important to expand our idea of who has abortions. Writing from Argentina, Francisco Fernández Romero discusses transgender activists’ contributions to the movement for reproductive justice in another 2020 article, called, “We Can Conceive Another History.” Argentina has progressive laws on gender identity and gender-affirming healthcare, combined with restrictive abortion policies that were only broadened in 2021.
Francisco Fernández Romero (FFR) [26:10] Many activists were afraid of using trans-inclusive language in our abortion rights bill because they were afraid it might make it harder to pass. But last year it did pass with trans-inclusive language. And we continue to achieve progressive gender-related laws in Argentina despite all the conservative backlash.
SJ [26:27] Fernández Romero, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Buenos Aires, shows how trans activists have worked in support of legalized abortion.
FFR [26:36] I think all of this is only possible because our activism is intersectional and coalitional.
SJ [26:42] Beyond matters of language—like using “gestating bodies” rather than “pregnant women”—trans activists have drawn comparisons between gender-reaffirming procedures and abortion—both hinge on healthcare, bodily autonomy, and reproductive justice. One activist highlighted similarities between the back-alley silicone and oil injections that were a leading cause of death for trans women in Argentina in the early 2000s, and clandestine abortions. In a political flier, the Frente de Trans Masculinidades writes: “Argentina already has a gender identity law (conquered by the trans movement) which enables every person to willingly modify their body or not, without pathologizing nor subjecting their decision to professional evaluation. Let’s aim for more bodily and sexual autonomy for all persons. Legal abortion for cis women, trans men, transmasculine and nonbinary people.”
The U.S. is just one country. But it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t all talk about abortion in the same language. Anthropologists have shown how abortion is wrapped up in different cultural contexts and social issues in other parts of the world.
Elise Andaya (EA) [27:48] The kind of fetal politics so common in the United States, ideas of fetal personhood, were just not common discourses in Cuba. Individual women of course might say something like, you know, “Sometimes I think about that and it could have been a baby.” But in terms of dominant political discourse—or even dominant popular discourse—the emphasis on fetal personhood that we hear so much of here in the United States was just not there.
And instead, it was really framed within these economic discourses, and discourses of really being a responsible mother. That of course, an abortion was not an ideal way to manage your reproduction, but if the consequence of not seeking abortion was further stressing your family and the well-being of the children that you already have, then this was certainly preferable.
SJ [28:46] Elise Andaya is the author of Conceiving Cuba: Women, Reproduction and the State in the Post-Soviet Era. An associate professor at the State University of New York at Albany, she’s done research on reproductive healthcare and inequality in the U.S., as well as Cuba.
EA [29:02] One of the things that women talked about often was abortion as a necessity in this, conditions of economic crisis—that, when they wanted to achieve a moral, responsible motherhood that meant curtailing the number of children that they had, rather than a kind of, sort of sense of stigma and shame.
SJ [29:19] In her book, Professor Andaya shows how the Cuban state leveraged its reproductive policies and politics towards what she calls a socialist “moral modernity”—and how people used their own experiences to contest what the state said it offered.
[29:35] What sort of challenged your own expectations as you were doing this fieldwork in Havana?
EA [29:41] Yeah, this was such a fascinating topic to study in Cuba because as anthropologists of course we’re aware that fieldwork challenges our cultural assumptions about what’s “normal,” and abortion politics is really one of them. So, you know, for me, coming from the United States, I’d really normalized this idea of abortion as something private, stigmatized, taboo, perhaps even shameful for some people. And when I got to Cuba, I quickly realized that this was not the case. I mean, it was not seen as this private stigmatized event—at least for the majority of people I spoke to.
SJ [30:15] When Professor Andaya was doing her research, Cuba had a particularly high rate of abortion—something Cuban authorities often chalked up to irresponsible sex, lack of awareness, or social backwardness. At the same time, the state viewed abortion as a service it provided to people as part of its comprehensive medical care.
EA [30:35] Most of the women I spoke to had had at least one abortion, if not more. And they spoke quite readily about those abortions. And if they hadn’t had one, they certainly knew people who had. And this was even carried out—this kind of openness or normalization of this quite common experience of reproductive politics even took place in the clinics, where people lined up outside clinics, in hallways, or in—or even outside on the street.
So abortion care wasn’t sort of tucked away as some hidden part of a hospital or with a police presence. It was really public and open and acknowledged. And I found this to really challenge my sense of what was private and public.
SJ [31:19] But the process of getting to this realization wasn’t easy—and is illustrative of how anthropological fieldwork often progresses.
EA [31:26] When I was thinking about going and doing my fieldwork in Cuba, I had begun constructing my interview schedule, and I began with questions that I thought of as being public or factual or non-problematic. Like, how many people live in your household, what do they do for a living? And only after I got to this mysterious “rapport” was when I had decided that this was when I was going to ask about reproductive histories, and experiences of abortion.
And so when I got to Cuba, I began with these questions, who lives in your household, what do they do—and I realized that people clammed up very, very quickly. People did not want to answer these questions.
And that really stymied my fieldwork for a while. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And after a few months of not doing interviews, what I realized was that these were the questions that were actually quite sensitive for people. That in a context of, you know, economic crisis, where a lot of people were working on the black market or gray market, or renting a room illegally to a tourist, or someone from out of Havana, they did not want to answer questions about household economy. Whereas questions about abortion politics, and abortion histories, they were quite ready to answer.
So after I recognized that, I began all of my questions with, you know—tell me about your pregnancies, and why you brought some pregnancies to term and not others. And that really began what I think of as my fieldwork proper. And challenged my idea of what were public events and what were private events.
SJ [32:57] In 2016, Professor Andaya co-wrote an article called, “The Erosion of Rights to Abortion Care in the United States: A Call for a Renewed Anthropological Engagement with the Politics of Abortion.”
[33:07] Now I want to turn to the article you co-wrote in 2016. What can an anthropological lens tell us about the current moment in the U.S. as we’re facing the possible end of Roe v. Wade?
EA [33:19] I know, I know. I mean, I think that one of the things that anthropologists can bring to the table is our longstanding emphasis on holism, and showing how cultural symbols and values track through different social domains.
What can a focus on abortion tell us about contemporary cultural politics in the United States? What do extreme anti-abortion laws, and the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, tell us about struggles over gender and ideas of personhood in the U.S. today? What can they tell us about forms of stratification and inequality, and how these play out in particular forms of reproductive governance over people who might become pregnant? And finally, and sort of most broadly, how are these tied, not only to the rise of evangelical religion—which is, of course, something that is a dominant discourse; we think a lot about evangelical religion in relation to abortion politics—but how is it also tied to particular economic, political, and cultural configurations that may not be quite so obvious to us?
SJ [34:24] In this episode we’ve looked at abortion among evangelical activists who oppose it, abortion among incarcerated people who’ve already had their right to choose taken away, and abortion in a context of socialist, socialized healthcare and economic crisis. Abortion looks different under each of these lights—so how can we put the pieces together into a full picture?
EA [34:46] So, when we’re talking about abortion and abortion politics, I think it’s worth underscoring again and again that we’re not talking just about a process of biological reproduction, but we’re also engaging in debates about the social reproduction of gender, race, and class inequality. And to think about how our scholarship can intervene into those kinds of ideologies and discourses.
SJ [35:09] Feminist theory teaches us that all knowledge is partial and always inflected by the knower’s position in society. Proponents of “feminist standpoint theory” have maintained that projects aimed at knowledge-gathering and consciousness-raising ought to begin from the lives of marginalized people, to bring to light the processes by which they have become marginalized—which can be obscured when exclusive focus is given to the societally privileged.
In presenting these vastly different anthropological windows onto abortion, we’re not trying to make out like all political views are equally true. Rather, our goal has been to paint a picture of social issues that are playing out on the terrain of abortion, and which now threaten the reproductive liberation of—well, of all of us, but in different ways, and to different extents. As we close out this episode, let’s keep in mind bell hooks’ words from the 1991 piece “Theory as Liberatory Practice”:
I am grateful that I can be a witness, testifying that we can create a feminist theory, a feminist practice, a revolutionary feminist movement that can speak directly to the pain that is within folks, and offer them healing words, healing strategies, healing theory.
If we create feminist theory, feminist movements that address this pain, we will have no difficulty building a mass-based feminist resistance struggle. There will be no gap between feminist theory and feminist practice.
It’s my hope that this episode contributes to a feminist theory and practice that can offer some kind of healing today.
[36:44] [AnthroPod theme music, All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear]
[36:47] Thank you for listening to this special episode of AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. We’ll be back with regular episode releases in September, the start of our fall season. This episode was produced by myself, Sharon Jacobs. Caroline Hodge provided research, and Joyce Rivera-González provided editorial assistance. Michelle Hak Hepburn and Marie Vidal reviewed this episode. For show notes, including all the articles and books referenced in this episode, please search for AnthroPod on www.culanth.org—that’s c-u-l-a-n-t-h-dot-org. Until next time!
[37:25] [All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear continues to play]