Resisting Power and Control: Our Interconnected Fight for Bodily Autonomy

As I deepen my commitment to justice and liberation for all, I continue to be taken aback by the weight of the connections to the reproductive freedom movement. Whether it’s the fight for trans rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, or racial justice, I see that what we’re up against comes back to simple yet powerful concepts: power and control.

As a social worker with experience in the anti-sexual violence field, I am deeply aware that sexual violence is not about sex. It’s about power and control. It’s about a sense of entitlement over another person’s body. This is no less true when we are talking about the forces that restrict access to abortion or contraception. At its foundation, it is not about “protecting vulnerable life,” as many in the anti-abortion movement claim. The animating force behind these restrictions is about controlling those who can become pregnant.

One way in which this power and control shows up is in what my former undergraduate professor, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters, conceptualizes and critiques in her book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. In short, a “justification framework” permeates our culture and requires anyone who seeks or has abortions to justify them. It propels the narrative that it’s always other people’s business why someone makes a personal decision to get an abortion. Control and entitlement are ever-present in the justification framework. It contributes to stigma and shame for patients, especially if there is a faith tradition involved. I regularly witness and address these realities in my peer counseling work with Exhale Pro-Voice’s textline

These are also issues that I feel intimately. I’m a financially stable, married, cisgender white woman. I’m in the South, and, as complicated as my feelings might be on the subject, I ultimately identify as Christian. Everything points to not just that I should have children but that I should want them. My conviction to be childfree is usually anything from, at best, surprising to, at worst, appalling to others. The pressure to justify my conviction is something I continually feel, and contributes to the stigma around choosing abortion, particularly for women who are already mothers and/or married. It is seen as a choice to “reject” a proscribed gender role. 

This pressure to justify my own decisions exists in relation to other reproductive experiences, as well, thereby making the reproductive justice framework so important. As cisgender white women of means who have come before me have historically advocated specifically for contraception, abortion, and the right NOT to have children, Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color, as well as poor women, have advocated for the right TO have children. Amidst forced or coerced sterilization (learn about just one example of this here), racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality, a chronic lack of social supports for low-income families, and other ways in which systemic sexism, classism, ableism, and racism have played out, we live in a culture that requires justification to have the families we want. It’s a culture where any reasoning or decision-making that falls outside of what is deemed “acceptable” is subjected to scrutiny, judgment, and–in extreme cases–punishment.

Just as politicians and other leaders have used power and control in the form of this justification framework, misinformation, fear, and more to drive a wedge between voters over abortion access, we see the same thing happening in the attacks on trans rights in NC and across the country. Often under the guise of “protecting children,” we see transphobia at work, whether it comes to medical care, participation in sports, or simply using bathrooms (to name a few). We see the tragic irony that plays out here. By claiming to protect children from harm, anti-trans folks set the stage for violence to occur against transgender folks, including transgender children and especially transgender people of color. By (incorrectly) framing an entire population as dangerous or less than, we make it acceptable in society for that population to be harmed.

Honoring the full lives of transgender people, even by the simple act of asking for and using correct gender pronouns, is, in fact, violence prevention. Just like “pro-life” claims are often a cover for a desire to eradicate feminist gains, scapegoating the LGBTQ+ community as sexual predators diverts our attention from the failure of our society to prevent the rampant sexual abuse against children, abuse most often perpetuated by family and friends trusted by children. 

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), every 9 minutes a case of child abuse is substantiated or suspected in Child Protective Service agencies across the nation. One in 9 girls and 1 in 20 boys will experience sexual harm before they turn 18. And the vast majority know the perpetrator—it’s a family member or other trusted adult. This is the real threat. However, that requires us to look inward at ourselves, at those we love, at those we are close to. It requires us to acknowledge potential trauma, maybe even past trauma that we ourselves have experienced. So, it’s easier to scapegoat trans and gender expansive folks and those of us who are fighting for their rights. It’s easier to jump to efforts to “protect” children from drag queens or “gender ideology,” just like it’s easier to jump to “protecting” women from abortions. It’s not truly about what’s risky or dangerous. It’s about what we don’t want to face and how we want to control others.

If protecting children and other vulnerable populations were truly the goal, I am convinced we would see different approaches and efforts. I often reflected on this in my past volunteer work as a clinic escort, where I was tasked with helping to welcome patients and shield them from anti-abortion protestors. Many of the protestors would shout at patients, asking them to reconsider and offering support—sometimes nothing more than a backpack with some supplies, as if that would sustain someone having a baby. I would watch these protestors and think to myself, “If you really wanted to prevent abortions, there are so many other things you could do.”

Tangible actions that would be effective in a deeper sense include advocating for comprehensive and medically accurate sex education, expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, or pushing for universal childcare and reasonable parental leave policies. And yet, so often, the same folks who aim to restrict abortion are against these very things. I want to be clear: I fully believe that abortion should still be legal and accessible even if these supportive policies were to all be put in place. Reproduction should always be free from policing. My point is merely to further demonstrate that what’s presented as the issue isn’t actually the issue. 

It’s not really about protecting life. If that were the case, we’d see a very different strategy. In fact, I would argue you do see that strategy in many reproductive rights and justice spaces! If we are going to talk about life, let’s talk about the lives of queer and trans people who are villainized, Black birthing people who face higher maternal mortality rates, or immigrant children who are separated from their parents. I am grateful for any and all leaders who see the need to address these issues comprehensively.

Occasionally—although, luckily, not often—I’ll see folks wanting to advocate solely for reproductive issues and not others. But this does a disservice to all of us in these movements. We’re all facing the same oppressive forces. To be clear, this does not mean that our experiences are all the same; on the contrary, no two experiences are the same. And we need to acknowledge our differences, especially those of us who have more privileged social locations and advantages. And at the same time, the overlaps are significant, and we can learn from and with one another as we fight multiple forms of oppression.

It’s why I’m especially proud to serve on the Board of Pro-Choice NC. As an organization, we see these connections. Tara Romano, Pro-Choice-NC’s Executive Director, often points out how those trying to take away abortion rights and queer/trans rights are pulling from the same exact playbook. Spreading lies, playing on fears, and scapegoating vulnerable populations to distract from true injustices—this is what we are up against. We know that the fight for reproductive freedom does not happen in a silo, disconnected from other issues. We see the throughlines. We know that fighting for these causes together is crucial. I am glad to be jointly fighting for these things with others at Pro-Choice NC and our partners. I invite you to join us if you haven’t already. We’re stronger together.

Restrictions on abortion, just as restrictions on all healthcare, impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities more acutely and disproportionately. Unnecessary and political restrictions force these communities and people with low incomes, rural communities, young people, immigrant communities, LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities to bear unjust burdens as they try to access care that is critical to their health, safety, well-being, and economic security. As reproductive oppression occurs at many intersections, we know that abortion access is not the only target and that we must remain vigilant in facing these escalating oppressions. We'll never stop fighting--but we need your help!

Please consider making a small donation and joining us on June 6 at 7 p.m. for our virtual Spring into Action Soiree! Learn more about how Pro-Choice NC applies an intersectional lens to our work and how your support fuels the fight for reproductive freedom for all North Carolinians.

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