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Rethinking Reproduction

An incisive new book calls into question the idea of the U.S. as a “pro-family” nation.

Eleanor J. Bader Nov 16

For decades, reproductive justice activists have argued that choice — the right to create well-supported families or safely abort unwanted pregnancies — is the only way to ensure that humans have the autonomy to live fulfilling and productive lives. Of course, this ideal has never been fully realized. Abortion has been under constant attack since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and continues to be hotly contested. What’s more, comprehensive sex education, paid family and medical leave, affordable childcare, accessible healthcare and easy access to contraceptives — necessities for choice to have real meaning — remain pipe dreams for a huge swath of the population.

Reproduction Reconceived examines these obstacles, along the way offering a deep examination of the idea of the U.S. as a “pro-family” nation.

Among other themes, Sara Matthiesen, an assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at George Washington University, dives into entrenched bigotry against low-income people, including those who are HIV+, queer, incarcerated or employed at poverty wages. But while her overarching contention that poor and working-class people lack meaningful choice is undeniable, the book nonetheless perpetuates several falsehoods. The first revolves around the anti-abortion movement, which Matthiesen persists in calling “pro-life,” and her acceptance of the movement’s ostensible raison d’etre: the fetal right to life. 

Yes, some antis are undeniably appalled by the idea of abortion, but as countless feminists have pointed out, the movement’s largely-male leadership cares precious little about unborn life. Instead, the prime goal of anti-abortion leaders is to exert control over pregnant people, most of whom are women, and keep power in heterosexual male hands. As should be obvious, were the antis truly pro-life, they would be on the frontlines pushing all manner of government supports for families, from subsidized childcare to material supports for disabled parents and children. And then some.

Secondly, Matthiesen grossly underestimates the dastardly aims of so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” fake clinics that lure unsuspecting people in by offering free pregnancy tests and sonograms just to berate them and inundate them with anti-abortion propaganda and lies about the deleterious after-effects of terminating a pregnancy.

But despite these flaws, Matthiesen’s claim that “state neglect is a precondition for the fairly common view that having and raising children is a privilege, rather than a right,” is potent.

Matthiesen’s claim that “state neglect is a precondition for the fairly common view that having and raising children is a privilege, rather than a right,” is potent.

Indeed, as she points out, assisted reproductive technologies — relied on by couples experiencing infertility, lesbians or those without partners — are typically prohibitively expensive. In addition, Matthiesen reports that in more than half the states, an unmarried  woman who uses a sperm bank can be subjected to the donor’s demand for parental rights. “Many families continue to parent in the shadow of patriarchal laws that render them vulnerable   to state interference,” she writes. “Informal insemination arrangements comprise nearly half of all LGBTQ families’ journey to parenthood. Many of those families use known donors without physician oversight … factors that compound the likelihood of such families being deemed illegitimate.” 

Even more horrifying, Matthiesen notes that incarcerated women often have little recourse when their children are placed in foster homes or put up for adoption. Typically, she writes, “When a woman is arrested, if she has been unable to make alternative arrangements, her children may be brought within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. Until last year, incarcerated parents did not even have the absolute right to be present at these crucial hearings, nor the right to an attorney.”

Pro-family? Hardly.

But as reproductive justice activists have long argued, policy changes can go a long way in altering how we view childbearing and the raising of future generations. And while access to legal abortion is foundational, so too is support for the many material necessities that make it possible for all families — no matter their configuration — to thrive, from publicly supported daycare centers to subsidized college programs to well-paying jobs. 

Reproduction Reconceived: Family Making and the Limits of Choice After Roe v. Wade
By Sara Matthiesen
University of California Press, 2021
324 pages

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