Katherine Armitage discussed Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work with Jenny Brown on April 28, 2020 as part of Red May Seattle Online (replacing the original plan to do this in person!). Replay it at the link.
On the Jacobin webcast series “Stay At Home,” Jenny Brown discusses her book Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, and why we cannot rely on NGOs to protect or expand abortion rights. Includes a critique of NGO-style abortion rights advertising and shows three remarkable ads as examples. Originally webcast April 15, 2020. The book is available from Jacobin here.
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.
Why can’t a gynecologist or general practitioner call in a prescription for abortion pills to your pharmacy? There’s no safety reason. When the abortion pill was finally approved for use in the United States in 2000, the FDA bound it up with restrictions designed for the most dangerous drugs. These served to make pill abortions just as expensive and inconvenient as surgical abortions.
The FDA’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) for the abortion pill mifepristone means that retail pharmacies can’t stock the pill. Clinics that want to provide it must order it directly from the supplier. Doctors have to be approved by the FDA and put their name on a publicly available list (great for would-be assassins, not so great for docs). Further, the first pill (mifepristone) must be provided to the patient in person by the doctor. The subsequent misoprostol pills which complete the abortion are taken later at home.
Since clinics are scarce and abortion doctors scarcer, some clinics have developed telemedicine options. The doctor consults the patient online and then meets FDA requirements by remotely unlocking a drawer with the pill so a nurse on site can provide it to the patient. But anti-abortion legislatures in several states have outlawed even this workaround. In states where it is legal, a telemedicine study of abortion pills is being conducted. Becoming part of the study is one way to obtain pills now.
Anti-abortion groups are aware that their positions are shaky during a pandemic. They suggested that the Trump administration “ensure that telemedicine abortion is not expanded during the crisis and maintain FDA limits on dispensing of chemical abortion.”
Still, pandemic-safe provision of pill abortions is hampered all over the country by the FDA’s REMS requirement. Without it, you could call a doctor or clinic, they could write a prescription and call it into your pharmacy, and then you could get the pills from there or even have them mailed to you.
Aid Access, a group based in Austria, is trying to approximate this experience for US patients. The group is an offshoot of Women on Web, which provides abortion pills worldwide in countries where abortion is illegal. Gynecologist Rebecca Gomperts started Aid Access specifically for those affected by the United States’ restrictive laws. Aid Access provides remote consultation and then provides a prescription, filled by a pharmacy in India and shipped to the American patient. They ask for around $85 (compared to an average $350 for a first trimester abortion in the United States) but waive it for hardship cases.
The FDA attempted to shut down Aid Access in March of 2019, but they hired a US lawyer and responded in May that the service would continue. However, in the last few days, coronavirus has impeded their operations since flights out of India have been halted.
Several grey-market internet sites still provide pills for now. The website Plan C provides a report card on sites that provide the pill online. And in a pinch, the second pill of the combination, misoprostol, is 85 percent effective for abortion on its own (WHO recommendations for dosing instructions here). Misoprostol is readily available in Mexico and as a prescription drug in the United States to protect your stomach if you take regular nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen (Advil).
Then there are feminist sites that don’t provide pills but give guidance. Besides Plan C, there’s Women Help Women which has developed a phone app called Euki. Hesperian Health Guides has also developed an app, designed for use internationally.
Imani Gandy accurately characterized Texas’s COVID-19 response as “Ban Abortion, Kill Grandma” after Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested that everyone should just get back to work and seniors would be willing to risk dying in the interests of “keeping the America that America loves.” She called out the contradiction: when Patrick defended Texas’s restrictive anti-abortion laws, he went on about how precious life is to Christians.
Of course, the myth that only the old will sicken and die is wrong, but it benefits employers who are trying to keep working-age people on the job — don’t worry, you won’t die! More perniciously, it undermines the social solidarity we need to get through this together.
The “pro-life” rhetoric is hypocritical, but the policies are consistent. They express the capitalist establishment’s bias toward babies (a source of future work and profit) and against past workers (retired and regarded as an unwarranted expense). As the US birth rate has declined over the last four decades, establishment think tanks have been complaining that the country skews too old.
Lining up an assault on Social Security in 2017, then–House speaker Paul Ryan said, “Baby Boomers are retiring and we have fewer people following them into the workforce…. We need to have higher birth rates in this country.”
Scott A. McMillan, a La Mesa, California lawyer, caused outrage when he summed up capitalist desires perfectly, tweeting on March 23: “The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive.”
Ryan and McMillan echo an obsession of capitalist think tanks which desire an increased younger population as a driver of economic growth. Meanwhile, entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare — are a cost they are eager to shed.
What they aren’t willing to invest in, of course, is the childcare, health care, and paid leave that would make it easier for women to have children if they want to and end pregnancies if they don’t.
Jenny Brown’s book, Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, is out now. You can get a copy here.
From Jacobin Magazine: https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/coronavirus-abortions-health-care
Women: Labor Pains
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.
National 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
READ the rest in New Labor Forum.
By Jenny Brown
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.
Establishment Democrats have settled on immigration “for our country’s long-term growth strategy” and as “a source of economic vitality and demographic dynamism.” Most elite Republicans agree. “Immigrants and their children have made up over half the workforce growth in the country for the last twenty years,” said Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas president Robert Kaplan in response to a crackdown on immigrants early in the Trump administration. “Because of aging demographics . . . if we do things that limit sensible immigration, we are likely to slow GDP.” Likewise, the Koch brothers, hardly known for their concern for the well-being of immigrants, have been pushing Congress to allow people brought to the U.S. as children to stay.
However, immigration has caused discomfort as well as joy for the ruling class—a contradiction that has been a recurring theme of U.S. history. In the 1870s, and again at the beginning of the twentieth century, immigration and the birth rate were often discussed in the same breath: If native-born women don’t have more children, we’ll be overrun by immigrants. Fear of Slavs, Jews, Catholics, and Chinese has been replaced with fear of Latinos and Muslims, but the alarmist claims endure: They’re disloyal, they bring foreign ideas, an alien religion, class conflict, crime, drugs, they won’t assimilate, they’ll come to outnumber “real Americans.” Still, distaste for outsiders always seems to yield when employers need their brain and muscle.
These days, while Democrats largely embrace immigration as an answer to low birth rates, the Republican establishment is split. One faction supports immigration, while the other complains that immigrants will demand government benefits, vote for Democrats, and bring class war. Even the pro-immigration side worries that the flow of immigrants is unsustainable politically, and lately they worry that the supply will run out due to declining birth rates in the immigrants’ countries of origin.
Pro-immigration Republicans are quite candid that they favor immigration to compensate for the low U.S. birth rate. In a 1997 New York Times op-ed the late Ben Wattenberg, of the pro-corporate American Enterprise Institute, identified immigration as a cheap way to cope with an aging U.S. labor force. “The median age of legal immigrants to the United States is twenty-eight,” he wrote. “These are men and women who have been raised and educated on someone else’s nickel. They typically pay into Social Security and Medicare for about forty years before drawing upon them.”
Wattenberg let slip a truth that is often hidden in the immigration debate: Immigration is a colossal rip-off of the labor and resources of the mothers, parents, communities, and countries the immigrants leave behind. This reverses the mainstream narrative that immigrants are a drain on the economy and should be grateful to be here. In fact, Mexico, India, the Dominican Republic, and other sending countries are subsidizing U.S. employers by raising these workers to adulthood.
Wattenberg favors pro-natalist tax policies, but they’re too slow for him. Even if tax breaks for parents are increased, he writes, “a baby born nine months from now won’t even start paying into life’s Ponzi scheme for a generation. . . . And that happens only after we spend a lot of money to raise and educate the child. . . . A quicker fix would be ‘instant adults.’ As it happens, they are available: immigrants.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is almost as frank in Immigration Wars, a book dedicated to changing U.S. laws to increase immigration: “America’s population is shrinking and aging. We need more immigrants to stem that debilitating demographic tide. . . . A demographic time bomb . . . is shaking the sustainability of our savings for retirement, the viability of the entitlement system, and our ability to create robust economic growth.”
Jeb Bush recognized that much of his party’s base opposed increased immigration, but when he wrote his book in 2013 he hoped to avoid the venomous split that occurred in 2006. Then, the U.S. House passed a bill to punish and expel immigrants who were without proper papers. Twelve million would have become felons. The Senate favored a program that allowed immigrant workers to stay, while creating expensive hoops for them to jump through—also known as a “path to citizenship.”
President George W. Bush backed the more pro-immigration Senate bill, which put anti-immigration pundits in a froth. Patrick Buchanan accused the president of allowing an “invasion” and wrote in his book State of Emergency that President Bush would be remembered for a “dereliction of constitutional duty.”
Fox News host John Gibson waded into the debate by instructing white viewers to “Do your duty. Make more babies!” Gibson raised the specter of a Latino majority in the United States: “By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic.” His logic may have been faulty, but his projection of Fox’s racial anxiety was precise.
After he was criticized for racism, Gibson backed off, implying that children of any color were needed: “To put it bluntly, we need more babies . . . or put another way, a slogan for our times: ‘procreation not recreation.’”
Along with the Bushes, most corporate owners favored some form of immigration bill and were angry at House Republicans who opposed the Senate bill on “cultural” grounds. Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot grumbled that the anti-immigration right “isn’t even rational anymore.” His wing of the Republican party, more concerned with corporate labor force requirements than the national origin of that labor force, supported a bill that would broaden a work permit system, euphemistically called a “guest worker” program. As long as you are working, the system allows you to stay. If you are laid off or fired, you can be deported. Employers thus avoid paying for unemployment insurance for the workers they have discarded, and don’t have to face their political protests either.
Jeb Bush also emphasized “work-based” immigration and goes further, urging lawmakers to get rid of family reunification as a criterion for immigration. Family reunification makes it possible for immigrants to eventually bring close family members to the United States. But in keeping with their desire to import young adults and avoid paying for children or old people, Bush and his Immigration Wars coauthor, Clint Bolick, write: “Extended family members typically do not produce the economic benefits that work-based immigrants do, and they impose far greater costs. Many extended family immigrants are children, elderly people, or others who do not work[,] yet often consume … social services such as schooling and health care.” Instead, he urges that only the spouse and children of the immigrant should be permitted to follow them to the United States. Forget about your family, you’re here to work!
[Rest of the article at Socialist Forum, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America.]
Here I’m interviewed by Liza Featherstone at the Strand Bookstore in New York on October 10.
And here I am on a panel with Nona Willis Aronowitz, Lillian Cicerchia, Allison Guttu and Fahmida Azad, at the Verso Loft in Brooklyn on November 7.