Expanding abortion care and gender politics

Lori’s coverage of the Transfeminisms panel I spoke on and post about abortion as more than a “women’s issue” has generated some pretty intense conversation. This issue came up in a discussion directed at folks within the reproductive health, rights and justice community, so I’m not too interested in engaging with the attacks of ultraconservative essentialist gender defenders. I don’t even know what to do with Lori, my friend and ally, being called a “moron” on Fox for quoting me. Something that hasn’t come into this space much is the outpouring of love, appreciation, and support from trans and gender non-conforming folks and allies. I have certainly not been alone in bringing up the fact that more people than just cisgender women have abortions, either. There was a pretty deliberate effort by a number of my college organizing friends, including a number of trans men and gender non-conforming folks, to push this conversation into the center of the reproductive justice movement this year. And it’s something I’ve been moved on, too – I’ve certainly written and spoken in the past in a way that framed abortion as just a “women’s issue.”

What I want to address here is some of the pushback from folks who do support abortion rights, particularly in the comments here on Feministing. There’s a couple trends in responses that I want to speak to: the notion that our approach to abortion should be built around cis women because they have the majority of abortions and the idea that our abortion politics should be built around cis women because anti-choice politics are about hating women.

Yes, the majority of people who have abortions are cis women. Recognizing that not everyone who needs to access the procedure is a woman does not erase this fact, or do anything to make abortion less accessible to this majority. I certainly do not want to see women taken out of the discussion at all – I just want to see it expanded to include everyone who’s lived reality includes abortion. But the idea that abortion politics should be focused on cis women because they are the impacted majority is pretty much the opposite of a social justice stance. It’s the people in the margins – usually a minority – who most need their voices and concerns lifted up. Because they are the easiest to forget about, the easiest to exclude. This isn’t just some hip, good politics exercise. Excluding everyone but women from our understanding of the group of people who have abortions is dangerous. It makes the procedure less accessible to people who already fall into the margins around health care access. It makes clinics less accessible, potentially a hostile place to male or masculine presenting folks. It makes health information less accessible because folks don’t see themselves reflected in informational materials.

You better believe lack of access leads to dangerous situations like attempts to self abort or simply not getting the preventative health care someone might need. There are trans men, intersex men, and a whole range of gender non-conforming folks who need access to pregnancy, abortion and birth related health care, to pap smears, to a range of procedures that we talk about in a very gendered way. My friend Finn pointed out to me that in the world of medical science most language is pretty non-gendered, but when it comes to what’s understood as “women’s health” the language is about, well, women. Hmm, wonder how this plays into the exclusion of “women’s health care” from health care? We don’t need to stop talking about cis women’s needs for health care at all, but to exclude other folks with similar needs out of a misguided attempt to protect the majority is fundamentally unjust and extremely dangerous.

The notion that we should build our abortion politics based on the abortion politics of anti-choicers, based on their hatred of women’s sexuality, sounds like giving up to me. Accepting that abortion politics are about whether or not you hate women and their sexuality is accepting the ground of the debate laid by those who want abortion to be inaccessible. I am so grateful to the work of Exhale, which offers an approach to give us peace from the abortion war, pushing a “pro-voice” frame that says our abortion politics should be centered on the lived experiences of actual people who have actual abortions, in all their diverse, messy, complicated realities. And the reality is, not all these people are women. Again, this does not mean we push cis women out of abortion politics, it just means we expand the group that’s inside. Hard, scary work – building solidarity and organizing for inclusion always is – but work that needs to be done, that will make us stronger and more beautiful.

The gender politics we’re stuck in as a whole are accepting the ground of the debate from gender oppressors. Because we accept that the debate lives inside the rules of the compulsory gender binary, the forcing of everyone into the boxes male and female. One very small box for people with gendered power: men, one slightly bigger for people to oppress along the lines of gender: women. And way too many of us who fall outside the acceptable rules of either of those boxes because of a whole host of intersecting systems of oppression – race, class, ability, sexuality, etc and gender identity are all reasons we’re told we don’t fit. This binary gender system is used to consolidate power in a few white cis male hands and to oppress cis women and everyone else. Wanting to keep abortion politics inside the narrow box of cis women, inside patriarchy’s acceptable box of gender oppression, ain’t the way to liberation – or even good health care.

As my friend Kim said to me in a conversation following the reproductive justice conference, I don’t see how expanding the number of people involved in our politics hurts us – it builds our strength. There are tons of trans and gender non-conforming folks in the reproductive health, rights and justice community. This makes sense to me – we have a personal understanding of the harm of gender and reproductive anatomy-based oppression. And we are constantly being pushed out by folks who think they need to uphold a forced binary gender system to hold on to any little power they’ve gained. I’ve come close to leaving the movement too many times, and I’ve fought my way back in over and over.

And dammit this is where I belong. Because my oppression is tied to your oppression. Because reproductive oppression and oppression based on gender isn’t just experienced by cisgender women. Because to get at this reality we need an expanded understanding of gender oppression and an expanded politics built on solidarity among all people experiencing oppression through the same and interconnected systems. And an important step towards achieving this reality is expanding our understanding of one of the issues at the center of politics around gender, sex, reproduction and health: abortion.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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