Feminist Times, a new U.K.-based, ad-free publication, released its first issue yesterday – and to say it stumbled out of the gate might be a charitable description of its debut. Reinforcing the first impression that it’s really a publication for white feminism, its editors saw fit to publish an article in a section called Taboo Corner advocating for forced sterilization – which was taken down after a lot of outrage and some very smart responses about how sterilization does violence to women’s bodies, and comes from a place of victim-blaming that is deeply anti-feminist. In my experience, creating a space explicitly endorsing discussion of the “taboo” is sort of like when some play “devil’s advocate” to arguments about injustice. These are the things people aren’t really supposed to say out loud because it only reinforces existing structures of oppression, but rather than examine why one might be holding onto socially unacceptable thoughts and being critical of that, people throw these topics out to “spark a discussion” – as if these discussions can ever be dispassionate, and are in fact not deeply offensive to some people whose rights and dignity are the subject of debate.
I won’t belabor the issue with my own response as I’m already late to the party. What this did get me thinking about is something that happens frequently on the Internet, when antichoicers hijack prochoice spaces and start posing challenges to those who support safe, legal abortion. I’ve definitely seen those challenges in respect to prochoicers who were outraged that the California prison system was sterilizing inmates, because the underlying assumption is that prochoicers hate babies so much, of course we don’t ever want to see any being born. But my personal favorite is when they pose the question, “How can you support abortion and oppose the death penalty?” This is usually said with a smug tone, as if they are declaring checkmate.
Supporting legal abortion and opposing sterilization is the easier lift to explain, because prochoicers believe women should be able to determine their own destinies, and bodily autonomy is crucial to that. When the state intervenes, it is transgressing physical boundaries and removing our choices, obliterating the ability to consent. What’s more, it reinforces classist and racist systems of oppression. When states enact TRAP laws that force the closure of abortion clinics, who is harmed the most? Wealthy women will be able to travel to where laws are less strict and reproductive care is more available, while poor women are left with no other options. When it comes to sterilization, it’s too easy to bring subconscious prejudices into the judgments of who has the rights to her own body and who doesn’t. First of all, sterilization is a tool of eugenics - the attempt to literally re-engineer the human race by breeding "desirable" (read: white) traits. Here in the United States, it has a pretty horrific history and still happens to female prisoners even though it's illegal. When states have sterilized people, it usually isn’t white women, but women of color. People’s empathy usually vanishes when they think of poor women having children – “she can’t afford to have more kids” – and it’s not a far leap to thinking that poor woman would be a candidate for sterilization. And our perceptions of the poor are racialized, whether or not it’s accurate. We tend to think of the poor as being people of color, even though the majority of poor people in this country are white. It’s also women of color whose sexuality is often coded as threatening, and something that people want to control.
This brings me to the death penalty as the trump card anti-choicers use against pro-choicers. Now, I could go on and on about a respect-centered, anti-violent view of life. I believe women, who are real live human beings, can be trusted to make important decisions for themselves and what’s best within their own morality codes. I believe that forcing a woman to be pregnant when she does not want to be is a form of violence. I also believe putting someone to death is violence, and we should not be perpetuating this in an already-violent culture. While I am typically not lizard-brained, I am just lizard-brained enough to think, say, serial killers don’t deserve to live, but this base impulse is overcome by my feeling that when we collectively decide to put someone to death, it does little to bring justice to the victims of violence and only serves to dehumanize us more. It makes us less than what we are capable of being. But in my experience, anti-choicers don’t believe that forcing a woman to carry a child is a form of violence, and they don’t believe she has a right to her own body, which is fundamentally insulting. So making any kind of argument about a woman as a fully-formed person is clearly not compelling to those who oppose abortion.
So let me try a state-centered argument. When we sentence someone to death, it is the state that’s completing the execution. In the olden days, this was the state flipping the switch on the electric chair. These days, it’s the state injecting the needle. I think this is, for lack of a better word, creepy. It’s another, more lethal form of physical transgression. The state should not take it upon itself to put its own citizens to death. This is especially true in light of how “inaccurate” the system is, to use a callous phrase. It’s sometimes completely arbitrary, who is imprisoned for life and who is put on death row. People are wrongfully convicted, and we’ve put people to death who are innocent. We’ve put people to death who were mentally ill. And again, we reinforce the classism and racism in our society in the worst of ways. Jury selection in capital crimes cases continues to be an issue, and often white jurors bring racial biases to bear in their decision-making. Someone is far more likely to get capital punishment for killing a white victim than a victim of color, which is the natural extension of who our law enforcement systems are really designed to protect. And ask yourself: When was the last time a wealthy white man was actually put to death?
This is why there isn’t cognitive dissonance in supporting abortion rights, opposing forced sterilization, and opposing the death penalty: I do not believe it should be the role of the state to enact violence against its citizens. This is also why I oppose torture and drone strikes, for instance. It is especially troubling that the burden of these instruments falls unevenly, most harming those with the least power and privilege in our society. They are tools of oppression, and not just convenient topics to spark debate for the sake of generating buzz.