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America's Reproductive Slaves

Ignore the religious rhetoric and moral posturing about abortion. This is about capitalism's cruelty.

A protestor dressed as a character from the Hulu TV show "The Handmaid's Tale," based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, walks back to her car after participating in a rally against one of the nation's most restrictive bans on abortions on May 19, 2019 in Montgomery, Alabama. Demonstrators gathered to protest HB 314, a bill passed by the Alabama Legislature last week making almost all abortion procedures illegal. (Photo by Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

A protestor dressed as a character from the Hulu TV show "The Handmaid's Tale," based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, walks back to her car after participating in a rally against one of the nation's most restrictive bans on abortions on May 19, 2019 in Montgomery, Alabama. Demonstrators gathered to protest HB 314, a bill passed by the Alabama Legislature last week making almost all abortion procedures illegal. (Photo by Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the day it was announced that the U.S. birthrate fell for the fourth straight year, signaling the lowest number of births in 32 years, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law the most draconian anti-abortion law in the country. That the two developments came at the same time could not have been more revelatory.

The ruling elites are acutely aware that the steadily declining American birthrate is the result of a de facto “birth strike” by women who, unable to afford adequate health insurance and exorbitant medical bills and denied access to paid parental leave, child care and job protection, find it financially punitive to have children. Not since 1971 have births in the United States been at replacement levels, considered to be 2,100 births per 1,000 women over their lifetimes, a ratio needed for a generation to replace itself. Current births number 1,728 per 1,000 women, a decline of 2% from 2017. Without a steady infusion of immigrants, the U.S. population would be plummeting.

“The effort to block birth control and abortion is not about religion nor about politicians pandering to a right-wing base, nor is it a result of prudery, nor is it to punish women for having sex,” Jenny Brown writes in her book “Birth Strike: Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work.” “It is about the labor of bearing and rearing children: who will do it and who will pay for it.”

Raising children is not a lifestyle choice. It is labor-intensive work that demands of parents, and especially women, huge physical, emotional, financial and time commitments. The wider society reaps the benefits of this work. It has a social and moral responsibility to compensate and assist those who raise children.

The birthrate decline is an indicator of the despair and hopelessness that define the lives of tens of millions of young Americans who struggle financially and see little hope for the future. Only by addressing this financial insecurity and desperation, by integrating back into society those who have been pushed aside, can the nation’s death spiral be reversed.

In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child; the government-funded subsidy is 80 percent of the parent’s job pay for the first 390 days and a reduced amount for the remaining 90 days. Employers in Sweden pay a tax on salaries to fund parental leave. The unemployed are granted a parental stipend. Parents can split the leave between the two of them. Men take nearly a quarter of parental leave in Sweden, which has one of the highest birthrates in Europe.

America’s corporate state has no intention of funding programs and building institutions to ease the burden of rearing and nurturing children. Yes, the corporate state needs young bodies as fodder for the bloated military and endless foreign wars. Yes, it needs workers, especially a surplus of workers, to toil in menial, poorly compensated labor. Yes, it needs consumers to buy its products. But the corporate state, Brown argues, intends to achieve these goals “with a minimum of employer spending and a maximum of unpaid women’s work.” If women refuse to produce children at levels desired by economic planners, Brown says, then abortion and contraception will be banned or made difficult to obtain. Social Security and pensions will be abolished so the only financial protection from abject poverty for an elderly parent will be children willing to keep their mother or father fed and housed. Eight states dramatically restrict access to abortion, and legislatures in a number of other states are considering legislation to do so. Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia have only one abortion clinic.

The falling birthrate is the real reason women are being forced to become reproductive slaves. As long as wages are kept artificially low (nearly four in 10 middle-aged Americans have no emergency savings, and a third have less than $25,000 invested for retirement), as long as pensions are denied, children become, as in the developing world, the only form of retirement insurance. Policymakers assume that these assaults, coupled with the privatization and destruction of Social Security, will force women to up the birthrate. Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court makes likely the overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Indeed, the Alabama law, which makes no exception for victims of rape or incest, is designed to be legally challenged and brought before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The outlawing of abortion will not affect the elites. I saw this in communist Romania, where abortion and contraception were generally illegal from 1966 to 1990 under an unsuccessful effort to boost the country’s population from 23 million to 30 million by 2000.
As was the case in Romania, wives, girlfriends, mistresses, sisters and daughters of the elites in the U.S. will have easy access to safe abortions while other women die from procedures done in squalid backrooms at the hands of quacks charging exorbitant fees. Worldwide, almost 23,000 women each year do not survive unsafe abortions, primarily in countries where abortion is illegal or inaccessible. The death toll among Romanian women from unsafe abortions during the 1965-1989 reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who took harsh steps to raise the country’s birthrate, was estimated at 10,000.

I spent two years with the Christian right in the U.S., often with members of the so-called “pro-life” movement, in doing research for my book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” These Christian fascists, whose heretical version of Christianity is the primary ideology used to justify the outlawing of abortion, have little regard for the sanctity of life. They enthusiastically bless the military and the dropping of iron fragmentation bombs on Muslim families and villages in the Middle East, fervently support the death penalty and absolve militarized police who gun down unarmed people of color trapped in our urban internal colonies. Their bizarre apocalyptic fantasies revel in the mutilation and suffering of nonbelievers, including Jews who do not convert to Christianity and those they dismiss as “nominal Christians.” Once out of the womb, poor children are seen as not deserving of help, and 12 million of them go to bed hungry every night in this country.

The crusade for the unborn fires up Christian zealots and anti-abortion fanatics with righteous indignation that can lead to violence. It fosters a self-adulatory and repugnant moral absolutism. But its ultimate goal is to strip women of control of their bodies to reverse the decline in births, especially white births, as well as reinstate a tyrannical patriarchy.

The ruling elites use code words such as “dependency ratio” and “entitlement crisis” to express their fear about declining fertility rates. To indoctrinate the public, they employ mass culture to disseminate propaganda, including that which drives the “right to life” movement. These fake moral crusades, always a part of the mass propaganda used to justify war, are covers to perpetuate and consolidate the interests of the elites.

The architecture of the corporate state is designed to disempower women. Most wages are not sufficient for one worker to support a family. This means that both the father and the mother must have income-producing jobs. If a parent takes time off to raise a child, the family income declines, usually by half, and there often is also a loss of health benefits, leaving the parent raising the child dependent on the spouse. This economic dependency makes it harder for a woman to leave an abusive or failed relationship, perpetuating the powerlessness of women that is at the heart of the system. By forcing poor couples to stay together, it frees the state from providing even minimal benefits. If each parent, for example, earns $15,000 a year, a couple often is priced out of social programs such as welfare.

“There are several programs within the welfare system that pushes parents to get married,” Brown said when I interviewed her in April for my television show, “On Contact.”  “They have unimpeachable names like ‘Healthy Families.’ What they’re really trying to do is get people off of welfare by combining these incomes. But that doesn’t solve the problem for that couple, which still doesn’t have access to childcare. They still don’t have access to decent wages. They still aren’t going to be able to take any time off when they get sick. All of these things, [guaranteed] by law in most European countries, we don’t have here.”

Social Security is not a retirement savings account. It is a pay-as-you-go system to support retired workers. If wages remain low and the numbers of workers decline, payments into Social Security will go down and the program will go into crisis.

“My paycheck this week is paying my mom’s Social Security next week,” Brown said. “If the age structure of society changes, it changes how many people are going to be paying into the system. The problem is the wage structure. This is the issue for Social Security. The intense worrying about demographic shifts is about employers worrying about having to put in more for retirement if we continue with this system. They don’t want to do that.”

Families of color, meanwhile, are penalized for having children. African Americans have 2.5 times the infant mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites. African American infants have over twice the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites. Such children are twice as likely to have asthma, 56% more likely to be obese and 61% more likely to attempt suicide during their high school years. Children of color are often taken from their families and placed in foster care, a system that provides money to foster-care parents but not the biological parents, who are often living below the poverty line.

These poverty-stricken Americans are demonized in mass culture as bad parents who should not be having as many children. Seventy percent of money owed by “deadbeat dads” are owed by those who make less than $10,000 a year. These men are obliged to pay on average 83% of their income for child support. They lose their driver’s licenses or are jailed when they cannot make the payments. Walter Scott, an African American father, had been arrested and jailed, initially because of a clerical error, three times on charges of failure to pay child support. His jail sentences saw him lose his jobs. When stopped by a policeman for a faulty brake light in 2015 he ran from his car, fearing that another arrest for failure to pay child support would again leave him unemployed. He ended up being fatally shot in the back by the police officer.

Ignore the religious rhetoric and moral posturing about abortion. This debate is not about the sanctity of life. It is about corporate capitalists who desperately need more bodies and intend to coerce women to produce them.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

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