Welcome to the Baby Bust

When House Speaker Paul Ryan urged U.S. women to have more children, and Ross Douthat requested “More babies, please,” in a New York Times column, they openly expressed what U.S. policymakers have been discussing for decades with greater discretion.  Using technical language like “age structure,” “dependency ratio,” and “entitlement crisis,” establishment think tanks are raising the alarm: if U.S. women don’t get busy having more children, we’ll face an aging workforce, slack consumer demand, and a stagnant economy.

1-US-Birthrate-1900-2018-SOURCE-v2Feminists generally believe that a prudish religious bloc is responsible for the protracted fight over reproductive freedom in the U.S., and that politicians only attack abortion and birth control to appeal to those “values voters.”  But hidden behind this conventional explanation is a dramatic fight over women’s reproductive labor.  Continue reading “Welcome to the Baby Bust”

It’s Time for a Federal Abortion Rights Law

The Supreme Court is useless. Now is the perfect time for feminists to campaign to end the filibuster and pass a federal law codifying abortion rights.

Reprinted from Jacobin. The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed Texas to ban abortions at six weeks, before most pregnancies are detected. To enforce their compulsory childbirth law, the Texas legislature encourages anti-abortion activists to sue Texans who provide (or give themselves) abortions after six weeks.

To listen to the pundits, you’d think there’s nothing that can be done. But our reproductive freedom is not at the mercy of this unelected panel of anti-abortion justices. In fact, Congress could pass a law making abortion legal and available throughout the United States, and there’s not much the Supreme Court or the Texas legislature could do about it.

The Women’s Health Protection Act, which makes it illegal for states to restrict abortion before viability, has been introduced in Congress starting in 2013. The law is based on federal rights to regulate commerce and the liberties and equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Polls show 61 percent of people support it.

The anti-abortion right has long argued that there is no right to abortion in the US Constitution. And it’s true: when the Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, the justices detected abortion rights within the charter’s general rights to freedom from government interference. The Court found abortion rights there in response to an upsurge of women’s liberation organizing and lawsuits — and the very real possibility that abortion laws would be vacated by lower courts, leaving the country with no abortion restrictions at all.

But neither is there anything restricting abortion in the Constitution. In 1789, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, there were no laws against abortion until “quickening,” around eighteen or twenty weeks, when you can feel the fetus move. This is why anti-abortion groups have been trying for decades to get an abortion prohibition into the Constitution through a “human life” amendment.

At the urging of feminists, abortion rights have codified in New York, California, Illinois, and several smaller blue states. But no legislation has been seriously attempted on the federal level.

Democrats in Congress could have pushed through a law codifying the right to abortion anytime they had a majority in the last few decades, but they never prioritized it. As abortion access winked out in state after state, the cry has been “Save Roe!” as though the Court were the only place these rights could be protected. “Remember the Supreme Court,” they told feminists every election year. That’s no longer a viable election strategy, as the Court is now six to three against abortion.

This puts establishment Democrats in an awkward position. As they sold out our welfare programs, health care, labor rights, schools, and even put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block during the Clinton and Obama years, defense of abortion has become one of their last remaining unique selling propositions. If they don’t act now, they risk losing another constituency.

It’s possible the Court has overplayed its hand. In response to its actions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to bring up the Women’s Health Protection Act when Congress reconvenes in mid-September. Currently, every Democrat in the Senate is a cosponsor except Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Bob Casey (Pennsylvania). Even Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) supports the bill. No Republicans have signed on, though Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) nominally support abortion rights.

Could it pass? In the House, maybe, but never in the Senate, we’re told, because of the filibuster — the same reason we can’t win labor law reform, voting rights, a Green New Deal, a higher minimum wage, or universal health care.

Feminists must demand an end to the filibuster. The Right has no compunction about changing the rules when they think they can benefit: In 2017, they ended the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments, which is why the court is now packed with right-wingers.

There’s now a pile of important legislation blocked up behind the filibuster, and a lengthening list of constituencies who want it ended. The Court’s brash move on abortion could add a big constituency to that list if movement activists and political leaders make a strong case for it. A popular campaign to end the filibuster to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act is within reach right now. For example, New York senator Kristen Gillibrand called for exactly that in response to the Court’s decision.

Unless we force them to act, support for the Women’s Health Protection Act could become yet another empty gesture by Democrats. They can’t hide behind the Court anymore, but they can still hide behind the filibuster. A campaign to end the filibuster in order to actually pass the law would force Democrats to take a stand, and expose those who refuse as supporters of forced childbirth.

The Women’s March and several other feminist and reproductive justice groups have signed onto a mobilization on October 2, with marches in every state, just before the Supreme Court starts its fall term, with abortion on the docket. But the Court is not the right target at this point. Activists should turn our attention to Congress and take the planned mobilization as an occasion to pressure those who aren’t yet on board. And since the Women’s Health Protection Act does not address abortion funding, we should also clearly demand Medicare for All, which includes full payment for all abortion and birth control options.

Above all, we should remember that it was feminist agitation that won us the rights we have in the first place. No court gave them to us. They were secured in the context of a general upsurge on the Left. With the Court’s decision causing outrage across the nation, now is the time for another offensive, this time focused on ending the filibuster and codifying the right to abortion in law.

Who’s Afraid of the Lower Birth Rate? (from Organizing Upgrade)

For the first time since the dawn of the capitalist system, most of humanity is experiencing below-replacement birth rates, and some countries, such as Japan and Korea, are starting to see declining populations as a result.  In others, like the U.S., immigration rather than native reproduction is responsible for population growth. This fundamental shift has implications for our organizing, but it is almost never discussed among activists.

It is, however, a big topic in corporate thinktanks and journals.  The London-based Financial Times has been ramping up panic with recent headlines: “Demographic time-bomb threatens growth in Europe,” “Italy’s plunging birth rate generates alarm,” and “Falling birth rate creates economic time bomb for Beijing.” In the U.S., the American Enterprise Institute published “Declining Fertility in America,” a 2018 report depicting a row of empty bassinets on the cover. Inside, Lyman Stone frets about the decline in demand for housing and other products, and the alleged danger to Social Security and Medicare caused by an aging society.

Why are these establishment entities worried?  Until now, capitalism has depended on population growth as an underlying driver of economic growth.  More people mean larger markets and abundant workers, and an ever-larger cohort of young people supporting those no longer able to work.  Lots of young people makes it easy to staff militaries. But with stable or falling populations, economic stagnation, such as that which afflicted Japan for a decade, limits opportunities to profit. And establishment think tanks worry about how to fund Social Security without taxing the rich.

Capitalist systems have responded to lower birth rates with three general strategies. The first is to try to suppress women’s control over reproduction and promote traditional family arrangements.  Typically we’ve seen blockages to abortion, obstacles to contraception, and low-information sex education.  The second route, which had seeds in the 19th century but reached its peak in the 21st century in such countries as France and Sweden, has been to dedicate substantial resources to making it easier for working class parents, and women in particular, to have and raise kids. The third strategy is to import people from other countries, which I’ll address below.

Capitalist anxiety over falling birth rates may explain why the last decade has been characterized by intense attacks on abortion, birth control, immigration, and Social Security. We can counter these attacks more effectively if we understand where they are coming from.

Continue at Organizing Upgrade.

Jewish Currents: It’s Time to Re-Radicalize the Abortion Movement

THE SUPREME COURT gave us abortion rights, and it can take them away. This is the fallacy at the heart of the uproar following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s true that the situation is dire. Donald Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, will likely join five other anti-abortion ideologues on the Court in permitting states to restrict or ban abortion. Ten states already have laws triggering a ban if the Court permits it. 

But we shouldn’t despair. The real power lies with the people, not the Court. The Women’s Liberation Movement raised consciousness, raised hell, and raised the banner for “Free Abortion on Demand” when abortion was illegal in all 50 states and considered criminal by the vast majority of the population. It was their organizing, not a wise and sympathetic bench, that led to the legalization of abortion nationally in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. We can start winning again if we rebuild our movement around the radical principles that forced the court to legalize abortion in the first place.

Read the rest at Jewish Currents here.

“Stay Home and Have the Baby”


From Jacobin.

Texas and Ohio have ordered a stop to abortions, saying they’re not essential medical services, while state officials in Mississippi and Maryland are edging that direction. Their coronavirus prevention program is “Stay home and have the baby.”The states argued that equipment such as masks used for surgical abortions could be used for care of COVID-19 patients. And they claim if anything goes wrong emergency services would be needed, exaggerating the risk of a safe procedure.

Abortion clinics in Texas sued to halt the ban, and in Ohio, where the order was less clear, they argue they’re already complying since abortions fall under the essential category. Clinics are backed up by leading OB-GYN doctor groups, which saw this attack coming and specified on March 18, “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible.”

Of course, it’s not about masks. Anti-abortion forces are using the pandemic as a pretext, but it’s an extraordinarily poor one, since they’ve spent twenty years blocking the at-home and telemedicine pill abortions that would be useful now.

Continue reading ““Stay Home and Have the Baby””

Berkeley Birth Strike Talk on Alternative Radio

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Women: Labor Pains

Program #BROJ001. Recorded in Berkeley, CA on December 10, 2019.

In 2018, the birth rate in the United States reached its lowest level in decades. This alarmed the patriarchal class that wants to control women’s bodies. Reproductive rights and access to abortion are under sustained political attack. Roe v. Wade is under threat. What role does misogyny play in gender relations? Feminist activists assert that declining birth rates represent a work slowdown, or strike, in the face of the poor conditions for those who do the work of bearing and raising children and the accompanying financial stress. The U.S. economy relies on the unpaid labor of millions of often overworked and exhausted women. What happens when they organize and say, “No More”? Unpaid work, particularly bearing and rearing children must be paid for. Jenny Brown says, “When it comes to compensating for the labor of having kids, the U.S. is truly at the bottom.”

Recorded at the University of California.


The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work (New Labor Forum)

1_O1j-elo0IZB0AL38eBgW-wNational Association of Manufacturers billboard in Memphis, Tennessee, 1937. (Edwin Locke/Library of Congress)

From New Labor Forum, vol. 29, issue #1, 2020

The U.S. birth rate is now the lowest it has ever been. Other countries, confronting low birth rates in the twentieth century, instituted supports to make raising children more appealing. They provided universal child care, health care, paid leave, child allowances, and shorter working hours. The United States, by contrast, has taken the low-cost route to raising new generations: poor access to birth control and abortion. But despite these obstacles, women are refusing. This article will explore what it would take for working people in the United States—and women in particular—to leverage our spontaneous birth slowdown into family-supporting policies.

Starting in the 1980s, while birth rates in most developed countries dropped, U.S. rates remained elevated. We had higher teen pregnancy rates, and higher unintended birth rates, about twice those of Sweden and France.1 But more recently, the U.S. rate has declined, across ethnic groups, and is now considerably below the 2.1 “replacement rate” required for a stable population, reaching 1.72 in 2018 (see figure on following page). The women’s liberation group Redstockings in 2001 described this as a “birth strike,” a reaction to the difficult conditions women face having and raising children.2

Surveys indicate that potential parents are deterred by the costs of child care and housing, long or irregular work hours, low wages, unreliable health care, and student debt.3 In National Women’s Liberation (for which I am an organizer), women name these factors as reasons to stop at one child or have none at all. In consciousness-raising meetings, testifiers describe the stress and exhaustion of their “double day”—eight or more hours of paid work and then an additional eight hours a day of unpaid care work and housework. Others recount difficulty finding partners who are willing to take the plunge into parenthood, wary of the time commitment and costs. Some say they were deterred by memories of their mothers’ struggle to raise them.

As in other countries with modest birth rates, government and corporate planners from both sides of the aisle would like the U.S. birth rate to be higher. “Simply put, companies are running out of workers, customers or both,” the Wall Street Journal claimed in 2015. “In either case, economic growth suffers.”4

“Declining birth rates constitute a problem for the survival and security of nations . . . in the broadest existential sense of national security,” wrote Steven Philip Kramer of the National Defense University in his 2014 book, The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do about Falling Birth Rates. “For several hundred years, economic growth has been tied to prosperity . . . Growth in population has increased the size of the domestic market and labor force.” While many scholars continue to worry about the effect on the environment of expanding global populations, in fact birth rates are now dropping in most of the world and total population is expected to be stable or declining by 2100. Among continents, Europe, Asia, North and South America are expected to have less population in 2100 than in 2050. Only Africa is expected to grow.5

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Data from Jay Weinstein and Vijayan K. Pillai, Demography: The Science of Population (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 208, and National Center for Health Statistics Births, Final Data for 2016.

READ the rest in New Labor Forum. 

Bosses, Birth Rates, and the Battle over U.S. Immigration Policy

By Jenny Brown

From the fall 2019 issue of the Socialist Forum, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America.SocialistForumgraphicforJBarticle

The U.S provides very little support for parents—no paid parental leave, expensive childcare and college, unreliable health care that can bankrupt you, pay that requires both parents to work, and long working hours. These conditions are contributing to the U.S.’s lowest-ever birth rate: 1.72 children per woman, well below the 2.1 rate required for a stable population.  But instead of taxing the rich to provide support for childrearing, as other countries have done, the U.S. employing class has been carefully avoiding the costs of reproduction of its workforce. These costs are instead pushed onto families, to be paid out of their strained wages. The level of exploitation has reached the point that U.S. parents, and women in particular, are having fewer kids. It’s an uncoordinated “birth strike” in response to all the unpaid work, stress, and exhaustion.  And now there’s evidence the low birth rate is freaking out establishment think tanks and policymakers.

Immigration has always been the U.S. employing class’s answer to lower birth rates, so why won’t it suffice now?  Immigrant workers arriving as adults substitute for the children U.S. women didn’t produce, and if they settle here permanently, may have children of their own. But now we’re seeing new levels of anti-immigrant fury while pundits and politicians plead with U.S. women to have more babies. This article will examine what is going on. Continue reading “Bosses, Birth Rates, and the Battle over U.S. Immigration Policy”