War on Hunger, War on Women: Anti-Abortion Politics in Nutrition Science and Policy

From the Series: After Roe

Bans Off Our Bodies NYC. May 14, 2022. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0.

“If women have control over if and when they have children, we will see fewer hungry children.”

I heard this call for reproductive justice from a Guatemalan aid worker during ethnographic research on food security projects in Guatemala. Many people I have spoken with over the past decade have similarly advocated for increasing access to contraception and abortion: Giving women increased autonomy over their families, bodies, and lives would help prevent hunger.

And yet policy-makers consistently cleave hunger from reproductive rights, and numerous politicians who hold food security advisory roles are staunchly anti-abortion. Days after casting a deciding vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified Roe vs. Wade into federal law, US Senator Joe Manchin allocated roughly a half-million dollars to food assistance in his home state. “Addressing food insecurity continues to be one of my top priorities,” he said, as if this were entirely disconnected from the right to abortion.

Not only do food security policies often ignore reproductive rights, they can also undermine them. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a global movement to reduce childhood malnutrition titled “1,000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future,” which would come to shape the present-day orientation of much US food aid. She upheld the “first thousand days of a child’s existence”—from the start of pregnancy until a child is two—as a critical window during which the mother’s diet will greatly impact the potential of the child.

Nutrition policies frequently invalidate women’s expertise in cooking and caregiving, characterizing women as unhealthy, uneducated, and in need of schooling, supplements, and oversight (Yates-Doerr 2015). A maternal nutrition movement defining “life” at conception seemed to be another blow to women. But when I interviewed policy-makers shortly after the launch of Clinton’s agenda, they told me my concern about this detail was unfounded. “The exact date isn’t important. What’s important is that we design interventions targeting pregnant or even pre-pregnant women,” explained one scientist on a panel focused on “Early Life Nutrition” attended by numerous United Nations–affiliated nutrition experts.

Except nutrition programs that mark the start of life at conception have created space for anti-abortion agendas to flourish. A few years into the rollout of USAID’s “first 1,000 days of life” agenda in Guatemala, a Catholic organization stepped in to deliver nutrient supplements to pregnant and breastfeeding women while monitoring their children’s growth. During this same period, Guatemalan abortion services have become more restrictive.

On the International Day of the Woman in May 2022, Guatemala’s conservative congress passed the Protection of Life and Family bill, mandating up to ten years in jail for those seeking abortion and up to fifty years for anyone who provides abortion services (the bill also prohibited same sex marriage, education about sexual diversity and gender equity, and seems to authorize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation). Following civil and political protest, President Giammattei did not sign the bill into law. But he nonetheless declared Guatemala to be the “pro-life capital of IberoAmerica” the day after it passed through congress—a tacit endorsement of the policies it would have authorized.

To make a pro-life declaration in conjunction with the “Day of the Woman” is especially haunting in Guatemala, given that thousands of girls and women are violently raped or murdered in unsolved cases in the country every year. Anthropologist Gabriela Torres describes sexual violence in Guatemala as a political strategy, “wielded as a systemic tool of governance, laying a foundation for the mano duro (firm hand or iron fist) forms of authority that sustain politicians today” (2019).

This political strategy of sexual violence has come to powerfully influence food security. In a trenchant critique of the “1,000 days of life” agenda in Guatemala, anthropologist Alejandra Colom notes that in the name of health, girls are denied bodily autonomy and forced into motherhood. The emphasis on the first 1,000 days “reduces women, including young adolescents, to reproductive roles,” coercing them into a “mother-centric agenda” (2015, 37; see also Pentecost and Ross 2019 and Manderson 2016).

Torres’s analysis of state-sanctioned sexual violence and Colom’s analysis of forced motherhood challenge the broad field of nutrition science and policy that is—not innocently—focused on “early life.” Whether policy-makers intend to codify an anti-abortion message in the science and policy of prenatal development is beside the point. To mark life as happening before birth allows anti-abortion politics to give shape to sexist nutrition science and policy, in which a person’s value is tied to their capacity to reproduce a white-cis-heteropatriarchal social order (Valdez and Deomampo 2019).

Ostensibly, hunger policies could support reproductive justice. Policy-makers could respond to the call to alleviate hunger by giving women—who do much of the work of provisioning food in Guatemala—greater autonomy over their bodies and futures by expanding abortion care. They might, in parallel, address issues of land sovereignty, working to give people access to land upon which to grow food. Yet the science and policy of nutrition has instead narrowed through an anti-abortion agenda focusing on the “first 1,000 days of a child’s life and women of fertile age,” as stated by Guatemala’s national antihunger plan. Indigenous women, who frequently lead movements for reproductive justice and maternal health, are especially targeted by nutrition policy. Policy-makers say this is because Indigenous women have the most need—they are the most malnourished—but we might consider that they are targeted because of the challenges their work presents to those in political power.

Tony Hall, an anti-abortion Democrat who left the US House of Representatives to serve as Ambassador to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2002, famously said: “The capacity to end hunger exists today. The only thing lacking is the will to make it happen.” After the repeal of Roe v. Wade, this must be turned around so that we can better see how much political will exists to hurt women. When politicians take a stand against hunger but refuse to strengthen reproductive justice, we must see this for what it is: A rhetorical war on hunger leveraged to carry out an actual war on women.


Colom, Alejandra. 2015. “Forced Motherhood in Guatemala: An Analysis of the 1000 Days Initiative.” In Privatization and the New Medical Pluralism: Shifting Healthcare Landscapes in Maya Guatemala, edited by Anita Chary and Peter Rohloff, 35–50. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Manderson, Lenore. 2016. "Foetal Politics and the Prevention of Chronic Disease." Australian Feminist Studies 31, no. 88: 154–171.

Pentecost, Michelle, and Fiona Ross. 2019. “The First Thousand Days: Motherhood, Scientific Knowledge, and Local Histories.” Medical Anthropology 38, no. 8: 747–61.

Torres, Gabriela. 2019. “Gender-Based Violence and the Plight of Guatemalan Refugees.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, January 23.

Valdez, Natali, and Daisy Deomampo. 2019. “Centering Race and Racism in Reproduction.” Medical Anthropology 38, no. 7: 551–59.

Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2015. The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.