Perhaps there was no more fitting of a backdrop for the announcement that the Supreme Court appears to be planning to overturn Roe v. Wade than the simultaneous coverage of the Met Ball’s Gilded Age red carpet last night. While celebrities, oligarchs, and the world’s richest man-baby showed off custom outfits that took skilled craftspeople thousands of hours to complete, in remembrance of a time period that rivals only our own in terms of wealth inequality, POLITICO published a bombshell report that included a leaked copy of the Supreme Courts’ likely majority decision in Jackson Womens’ Health Organization v. Dobbs. The glitzy excesses of the Met Ball paired with this sobering news created a horrifyingly on-the-nose tableau of the ways that capitalist exploitation and excess has always been dependent on the control of (certain) people’s bodily autonomy.
While leaks of Supreme Court decisions are virtually unheard of, there is good reason to believe that the leaked decision, written by Justice Alito, will be the outcome in the case. The decision contains language that would not only overturn Roe but would also upend the Constitutional right to privacy altogether. Barring unforeseen changes, this decision would open the juridical door to jeopardizing not just the right to abortion, but also contraception access, marriage equality, and even the right to have sex with any consenting adult you wish. While this ruling would seemingly leave decisions on such rights up to individual states, people in safe liberal enclaves should not rest easy—Republicans already have a plan to target abortion access nationwide.
This calculated, coordinated, decades-in-the-making assault on abortion rights is not just a localized political phenomenon that can be explained soley by the partisan ideological commitments of the American right. The control of reproductive health has always been a baked-in feature of capitalist society. As an economic system that entire governmental, civic, and cultural institutions could be built around and made to support, the rise of capitalism demanded a continual supply of workers to increase production and profit, a demand that is often pointed to as the driving force behind the state’s interest in controlling reproductive rights. The dynamics at work can even be observed in the increase of witch-hunt trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, which often focused on persecuting women and people who assisted women in efforts to control their reproductive health. (It is not a coincidence that Justice Alito’s draft opinion cited a 17th-century jurist who presided over the execution of at least two women for witchcraft.) These trials, along with the increased prosecution of women for crimes like infanticide, coincided with the rise of mercantilism and capitalism as the increasingly dominant economic systems around which much of the Western world was being organized.
Of course, it is also impossible to tell the story capitalism and the class war over people’s invididual bodily autonomy without reflecting on the role of chattel slavery. Enslaved women were used by their owners to “breed” new generations of laborers to be funneled into the insatiable maw of the slave system. All attempts by enslaved people to control their reproductive lives were met with extreme resistance and brutality. The ownership and control of enslaved people’s reproductive capacities was seen as essential for the continuation of the slave economy in particular and of capitalism as a whole. Long after the abolition of slavery, this desire to control the reproductive capacity of Black women persisted, and remnants of this dark past can still be seen today in the language and tactics used by anti-abortion activists.
The persistent attack on bodily autonomy is not only due to capitalism’s unceasing need for new generations of workers to feed into profit-driven engines of production; it also highlights capitalism’s need to control pregnant people in order to ensure that domestic and reproductive labor are done at no cost and pose no threat to the overriding system. Because social norms and economic supports have seldomly allowed for other options, pregnant people are often ejected from the sphere of public life and relegated to the private sphere, where they are separated and estranged from one another. Even for people who work in jobs outside the home, the inability to make decisions regarding their own family planning can leave workers so overwhelmed by paid and unpaid labor that they have no time or strength to organize.
In her essay “Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex,” written prior to the Roe decision, Evelyn Reed argues that capitalism has pushed women to their lowest status ever in society by confining them only to the family unit, excluding them from a communal society, which has caused them to be isolated and unable to organize themselves. “Despite the hypocritical homage paid to womankind as the ‘sacred mother’ and devoted homemaker, the worth of women sank to its lowest point under capitalism. Since housewives do not produce commodities for the market nor create any surplus value for the profiteers, they are not central to the operations of capitalism. Only three justifications for their existence remain under this system: as breeders, as household janitors, and as buyers of consumer goods for the family,” she writes.
Reed echoes the claim made by Frederich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that “to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor.” Reed argues that the fight for abortion rights, which allows for the escape from the domestic realm, is central to this emancipation, and to the freedom of all people from the grasp of capitalism.
Perhaps this analysis points to one of the central reasons Democrats have been so ineffective in fighting back against the attack on abortion rights: the liberation of the working class is not important to them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Roe v. Wade has never ensured abortion access for all pregnant people in the United States; it has merely ensured that members of the upper classes with the money, resources, and time to navigate the confusing world of reproductive health could do so. Even the Democrats’ last gasp at protecing abortion rights, the Women’s Health Protection Act (which could not pass Senate) was merely a plan to codify Roe, not to ensure abortion access for all.
It is clear that the fight for abortion rights should neither be led nor controlled by the Democratic party, or any of the liberal institutions that have shown time and time again their willingness to sell out people’s permanent right to bodily autonomy for temporary political gain. Rather, we should embrace the working-class movements, particularly those led by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, to fight for reproductive justice by any means necessary. Without a plan to actually attack the system that seeks to control our reproductive health, we will ultimately fail. Rosa Luxemburg’s writing on the suffrage movement of the early 20th century seems particularly apt today: “The current mass struggle for women’s political rights is only an expression and a part of the proletariat’s general struggle for liberation. In this lies its strength and its future.”
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