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.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Frankly, I think it’s crazy to believe that abortion isn’t EVERYONE’S issue. If the government can control something as intensely personal as the inside of our bodies and our right to reproduce, that is a dangerous precedent for other areas. Male, female, cis, trans, gay, straight, bi, whatever–we are all impacted when the government infringes on individual rights.

  2. Posted April 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post. You addressed those two concerns wonderfully.

    I am so glad there are folks out there writing, talking and working on this issue.

    And I am excited that feministing can be a place for this kind of radical expansion of political understanding.

    :)

  3. Posted April 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m really glad you’re writing about this Jos. At Exhale, all of our counselors receive training in transforming oppression because we know that systemic oppression has an impact on each individual’s personal experience with abortion; and its our job as nonjudgmental peer counselors to meet people where they are, believe them, and provide validation and support for their lived experience. This training specifically includes addressing the experience of trans and queer people, as well as cismen (which make up about 9% of our calls each year). We are pro-voice because we believe it is the voices and experiences of people who have had abortions that should be driving the debate and at the center of all public discussions about abortion. This includes majority and minority experiences (I’m not talking about race or identity here) – I’m talking about both common and less common experiences with abortion. There is no single story – there are many truths. We must all be heard with dignity and respect. Period.

  4. Posted April 21, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    This is such an important conversation. I think that for people working day to day in abortion and reproductive care, it’s easy to keep doing and keep talking in the same ways, and the conversation about how we should be talking, thinking, and practicing is vital. It’s beyond time to unpack and expand the “women’s issues” bag.

  5. Posted April 21, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    HEAR, HEAR. Building the strength of movement is what it’s all about. We can’t take on our oppressors alone. Thanks for taking this issue on and for expanding the discussion as needed.

  6. Posted April 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    What you describe is a risk-averse philosophy that we better not jeopardize the table scraps we have for fear of losing it all. That kind of thinking drives me up the wall. It’s no way to run any movement.

  7. Posted April 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Well said Jos. It’s great that you, Lori, and Feministing are among the leaders in promoting this conversation. Outpouring of love? You have mine. <3

  8. Posted April 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I love you so much, Jos.

    Can we just talk for a second about mainstream movements under capitalism??? How many times do they end up trying to sell the most profitable package of Who Should Be Liberated and leaving everyone else in the dust. Like the HRC said to transgender people when they dropped us from a civil rights bill: “We’ll come back for you later.” Well like I said at NLNI and like I’ll say again: I’m not sitting around waiting to be Come Back For by people who see my oppression as so “complicated” and “marginalized” and “misunderstood” that it threatens the stability of their movement. I’ve never understood white guilt as a crippling force; I found it energizing to realize the ways I had privilege and the ways it strengthened my analysis around all other parts of my identity. And I don’t understand this whole “if we have to use a word other than Woman for gendered oppression I will lose my ability to function/feel whole.” Or, maybe I do understand it. But I’m over it.

    Thank you so much for your voice. I am so moved by your bravery and your ever-more-demanding visions for justice.

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