Abortion bans aren’t a capitalist plot to increase the labor supply. But they are an outgrowth of the brutal inequalities of capitalism, which systematically subordinates women to men.
The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade has ended a half century where the right to abortion was, at least to some degree, recognized in federal law. Now states governed by (often gerrymandered) Republican majorities can pass laws prohibiting abortion or enforcing restrictive measures already on the books. Though access to safe and legal abortions has been chipped away in states like Mississippi for decades, the court’s ruling will kick off a new period of persecution for people who are pregnant and the doctors who attempt to care for them.
The massive rollback has sparked considerable discussion among leftists over what is behind this titanic escalation of the war on abortion rights. One theory has sought to link abortion restrictions to the needs of capitalists. In this account, US business leaders — aghast at the combination of historically tight labor markets and low fertility rates — are pushing abortion bans to secure an adequate supply of workers and consumers. Abortion restrictions are not only class warfare in the sense that their consequences fall most heavily on poor women, but in that the impetus behind them stems directly from capitalists’ class interests.
But while bringing capitalist political economy into the abortion debate is undoubtedly necessary, the “labor supply” argument is a spurious one. It misses that abortion bans are an inefficient means to control the labor supply and fails to explain why so many women in US society have a deep investment in antiabortion politics. Instead, the key to understanding the “pro-life” movement is grasping how capitalism creates inequality between men and women (as well as among women), and the politics that flow from this. Antiabortion politics aren’t ultimately a capitalist plot. But they are a consequence of the brutal inequalities capitalism creates.
Abortion and the Reserve Army of Labor
The appeal of the labor supply theory is easy to see, especially with corporate media droning on about a supposed labor shortage. The argument goes like this: Abortion restrictions force people to give birth against their will, producing a higher population and therefore more workers. An increased supply of workers reduces labor’s bargaining power relative to capital. Therefore, it’s in capitalists’ interests, in periods of lower fertility, to limit abortion and expand the labor supply.
As attractive as the basic logic of this argument is, however, it has serious holes. The first is the simplest: abortion restrictions can only gin up the labor supply over the long term. People take time to grow up and become productive workers. And labor-market conditions aren’t remotely predictable ten years out, let alone twenty or thirty (in the economic gloom of 2012, who would have predicted that 2022 would see the tightest labor market in most people’s lifetimes?).
Antiabortion measures are thus a spectacularly inefficient way to address capital’s immediate demand for labor. Immigration, which brings in workers immediately, is far more effective than outlawing abortion or birth control. And naturally, when ruling-class organizations talk about the problem of labor supply, they focus on things like reforming immigration policy rather than outlawing abortion (that capitalists sometimes want more immigration is, of course, no reason for socialists to oppose it).
The second problem with the labor supply theory is even more damning: abortion restrictions reduce the number of women working in the here and now. In a variety of contexts, from the pre-Roe United States to contemporary Norway, researchers have found that abortion access pushes up rates of female labor-force participation because it gives them more economic options and less compulsion to become full-time caregivers.
In other words, abortion bans aren’t just incapable of solving present-day labor supply problems — they actively make the situation worse for business by driving down the labor supply, particularly of women workers. Given that organized capitalists have shown particular concern over the “missing women” in the US workforce, it seems unlikely they would favor a remedy that would remove still more women from the labor market.
Of course, none of this proves that capital isn’t backing antiabortion measures. Capitalists are often irrational.
But examining capitalists’ political organizations reveals little evidence that business leaders are chomping at the bit for conservative abortion laws. Organizations of capitalists aren’t shy about discussing issues like labor supply. They produce reports on it constantly. Yet even the most right-wing organizations, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, don’t have anything to say about fertility and labor supply. Instead, they focus on gutting the welfare state so workers have no choice but to grovel for whatever wages employers will give them. Without some sort of direct proof that capitalists’ class organizations are looking to use abortion policy to control the labor market, it doesn’t make sense to see business as a key force pushing for abortion criminalization.
In fact, there are plenty of grounds to think that capitalists lean the other direction. Some of the country’s biggest corporations, including Amazon, Starbucks, Lyft, and Uber, have announced they will pay for employees in antiabortion states to travel to procure the procedure. Given that Amazon has shown considerable concern about labor shortages, these initiatives cast doubt on the notion that corporate America is behind the abortion restrictions.
To be sure, some right-wing politicians and capitalists do link abortion access to worries about overall fertility rates. But there’s precious little evidence that, as a class, capital is pressing for antiabortion laws to boost fertility rates.
Abortion, Sexism, and the Politics of Motherhood
Any account of abortion politics in the US must confront the dynamics of public opinion.
After decades of polling, we know that opinions on abortion display less gender polarization than many other prominent public policy questions. While men and women show clear differences of opinion on, say, foreign policy, their views on abortion are much closer to one another. Despite clear evidence that antiabortion laws make women’s lives worse in a plethora of ways, women are generally not much less likely to support abortion access than men.
Some might argue that these women have simply been brainwashed by capitalist or patriarchal ideology. But this is unconvincing. An alternative explanation, put forward several decades ago by the sociologist Kristin Luker, is much more plausible. Luker’s book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, was both a history of abortion restriction and a study of “pro-life” activist women.
Among the women she interviewed, Luker found that they tended to come from less affluent backgrounds, have less education, and have fewer career prospects. For these women, motherhood was by far the most important and socially valued role they thought they could play in society. Without access to meaningful, highly paid, or prestigious career paths, motherhood was central to their self-esteem and sense of social respect.
Abortion access, by making motherhood optional rather than the central telos of women’s lives, dethroned it as the key source of self-regard and community recognition. And for “pro-life” women, that was the abortion rights movement’s grave sin. The struggle over abortion access was therefore a struggle over women’s place in US society and whether that place was centrally defined by motherhood.
Though Luker’s study was conducted in the late 1970s, its conclusions hold true today. Among people with a high school education or less, women are still more likely than men to oppose abortion rights. At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the dynamic flips: women are more in favor of abortion rights than men.
Luker’s analysis has the advantage of explaining the sincere investment in “pro-life” politics by tens of millions of US women while also linking it to the political economy of capitalism. The United States’ devastating economic inequality creates a situation where, for huge numbers of women, the elevation of motherhood to a sacred duty constitutes one of the only sources of positive meaning in their lives. As scholar Stephanie Coontz has argued,
Women with less economic or personal autonomy are often drawn to a culture of family values that emphasizes men’s responsibility to look after women. Women who have a shot at achieving or competing on their own emphasize equality, supporting the kind of policies that make it possible for them to move up in their jobs and combine work and family.
While “pro-life” women are a crucial part of the antiabortion movement, it would be a mistake to overlook the equally central element of male sexism. From Rush Limbaugh’s leering rants about college students and birth control to GOP candidates saying women should learn to enjoy rape, misogyny permeates the “pro-life” movement. For many men, restricting abortion access, and reinforcing women’s primary social role as mothers, is but one part of the broader project of cementing women’s subordination.
But this kind of misogyny and gender hierarchy is also deeply rooted in capitalist political economy — though again, not largely as a direct consequence of capitalists. Instead, capitalism tends to reinforce women’s social role as caregivers. Women are paid less than men, so in many families, it makes sense for them to prioritize childcare and domestic labor, while it makes more sense for men to prioritize their careers. Women are consequently viewed as less reliable workers than men (particularly in occupations with nonstandard hours, like business and law), further locking the structure of inequality in place.
Such inequality, ultimately generated in the labor market, also fosters power imbalances within relationships. Women are more likely than men to stay in unhappy relationships because of financial concerns and more likely to bear the burden of household labor. Domestic violence against women is more prevalent when there is a bigger wage gap between men and women. Crucially, even households that desire an egalitarian division of labor are undercut by labor-market inequalities. The structure of capitalism, left to its own devices, renders inequality between men and women, and the patriarchal ideology that justifies it, inevitable.
Abortion Rights and Anti-Capitalism
The political economy of capitalism and the politics of abortion restriction in the United States are deeply intertwined. Those links, however, don’t lead to capitalists’ bank accounts. Instead, they run between the restricted opportunities capitalism creates for huge sectors of the working class and ideologies that emphasize women’s role as maternal subordinates to men.
“Pro-life” politics aren’t a capitalist plot. They’re a pathology of a strikingly unequal society.
Because antiabortion politics are rooted in the inequalities of capitalism, combating them requires challenging those inequalities. First and foremost, the political inequality at the heart of the US Constitution, which empowers minorities over majorities and allows unelected justices to legislate, needs to be dismantled. Though the “pro-life” movement commands the support of tens of millions, the simple fact is that clear majorities of Americans oppose outlawing abortion. Real political equality would deal a devastating blow to the antiabortion cause.
Even more fundamentally, the structure of capitalist labor markets needs to be tackled head-on. As Lillian Cicerchia recently put it, we need to “create ties between feminists, the labor movement, and health care campaigning.” Unions shrink the pay gap between men and women. Egalitarian social policies, like Medicare for All, reduce both the dependence of workers on their employers and of women on men who earn more than they do. Family leave policy can allow men and women to have equal incentives to perform unpaid domestic labor, rebalancing power in both the labor market and the family. And finally, of course, we need to fight for widespread, publicly funded abortion access for anyone who needs one.
There is a deep connection between capitalism and forms of gender inequality like abortion restriction. But misunderstanding the nature of that connection only hinders the fight for a truly free society.