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Free Anthrogenesis: Antiwork Abortion
This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 12: A Ceaseless Storm. Issue 12 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue. Or you can support our work with a digital subscription, and get instant access to all published issues, including issue 12.
Anthrogenesis, n., the production of human beings.
This year on May Day, as usual, labourers all over the Earth massed together and celebrated ourselves as anthrogenitors: the makers of the world and of one another. We gathered as a warning to the ruling classes that we have not forgotten our goal – as a class – of self-abolition; nor have we forgotten that they are the enemies of all life worth living, we being its creators. Then, the next day, we learned that withdrawal from gestating looked set to be illegal in half of the United States within weeks.
Let me remind you. The US Supreme Court is moving ahead to overrule both Roe v. Wade and the 1992 Casey decision that upheld what Roe established, namely, the right to make a private decision with a doctor concerning an embryo in one’s body. The final decision (of which the draft opinion was leaked) has not yet, at the time of writing, been released. But we should and do expect that American states will be permitted to ban abortions. At least half of the states will do so promptly. In fact, in the states where trigger mechanisms are ready and waiting, abortion will become a crime the instant the law allows it. Of the population of Americans who could (based on their age and plumbing) potentially gestate, over half live under forced-birth legislatures.
The Democratic Party has not codified the right to abortion-access, despite holding supermajorities multiple times since 1973. The New York Times says that, in a doomed plan led by Chuck Schumer, ‘Democrats in Congress are trying to protect abortion rights.’ It is difficult, then, to imagine what not trying would look like. Two days after the Supreme Court leak, the House leader, Nancy Pelosi, flew to Texas to back Henry Cuellar, one of the last anti-abortion members of the blue team in Congress, a pro-life ghoul who is running against the Bernie-endorsed candidate Jessica Cisneros.
In his draft opinion overturning Roe – leaked to Politico by an as-yet-unidentified person – Justice Alito criticises a whole web of interrelated privacy precedents. For example, he questions the legitimacy of Lawrence, the landmark ruling that invalidated sodomy laws, and likewise Obergefell, the one that legalised same-sex marriage. Make no mistake: today’s Christofascists desire an end to all forms of nonproductive and nonreproductive bodily autonomy, including exit from pregnancy, certainly, but also contraception, queer sex, and the freedom to delay puberty, shape one’s sex, and use public bathrooms while trans. (This year, in Texas, they came for our trans siblings, and very young trans comrades, first.) To borrow words from Natasha Lennard, what they aim at is ‘the palingenesis of a nation, in which the only rights permitted to stand are those that protect property, patriarchy, and whiteness.’ They’ve been winning for some time, while telling the world exactly what they intend.
Much of the South has been living in a post-Roe reality for years. People who conceive and then miscarry face, at best, inquisitorial suspicion in the emergency room (this is supposed to sniff out illegal actions taken against the blastocyst), and sometimes detention or worse. In the domain of anthrogenesis, as Lennard and other reporters like her chronicle daily, we presently live in an era of overcriminalisation. Federal and state law-enforcement-agencies’ powers of investigation and surveillance are proliferating. The population of women in prison has multiplied seven times since 1980 and now grows at twice the pace of men’s incarceration.
Groups like If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice have already documented multiple cases of cyber-doxing, snitch hotlines, arrests, and murder charges. It is class war. Repro-justice organisers from criminalised industries have not waited, for instance, for Planned Parenthood to respond to arrests like that of Lizelle Herrera (for ‘murdering’ the fetus inside her body) in April 2022: Herrera was freed before PP even mobilised. Sex worker–led legal and advocacy squads like the Frontera Fund and If/When/How are battle-scarred outliers to the mainstream pro-choice movement, where there is typically some discomfort and inexperience around the everyday mess of substance use, black markets, and legal gray areas. There is a life-or-death need for hundreds more groups equipped to do militant ‘lawyering’ in defence of proletarian gestators, right now. It is unclear where they will come from.
How did it come to this? For decades, Democratic logic has involved a kind of blind faith wager on the survival of Roe – specifically a hollowed-out Roe, a Roe perpetually under threat, perfect for fundraising off the back of – as a vote-stabilising tactic within the eternal genteel dance of two-party power sharing. Republicans, however, instead of coming to their senses as the Democrats trusted they would, again and again embraced gender fascism, anti-democracy, and explicit bloodlust, seeing that doing so had no consequences. Regardless, the blue team kept on waltzing, relying on increasingly terrifying Republican threats to keep voters in line, and ruffling no feathers among their corporate donors. To be sure, they were occasionally – as with the 6 January coup – shocked, shocked, by what the Republicans had become. Still, they kept on waltzing, yelling ‘donate’ and ‘vote’ while institutions were laid to waste. A performance of stern ‘Resistance’ was mounted, larded with reassuring winks at buddies across the aisle. They trusted the process, and now, there’s practically nothing they can do to stop the attack on sexual liberty and reproductive labour integrity in this country. It is absolutely their fault.
But let’s imagine for a moment that the progressives nominally in control of this territory weren’t auto-hamstrung. Let’s imagine they were capable of uttering the word ‘abortion’, which Joe Biden did for the first time – what a great guy – after the anti-abortion draft opinion leaked. Let’s briefly consider: What does the best of the blue team actually offer people living on this land who gestate? Generally, privacy and choice: these represent the limits of conceptual and discursive possibility for this nation’s gestational politics. An American gestates and, for that matter, aborts, on their own dime. In the best-case scenario, they also do so in the privacy of their own sovereign body.
That’s it. There is, discursively, no freedom to withdraw from manufacturing a fetus. There is no real prerogative to decide not to produce new human life. There are no labour rights in the domain of anthrogenesis. One might expect the history books to show a fierce struggle on the part of the representatives of America’s uterus-bearing poor, to insist on such freedoms, prerogatives, and rights, but one would be disappointed.
Whereas women’s liberationists fifty years ago fought for the repeal of all abortion laws, the best that Planned Parenthood can muster today is a vision of regulated legalisation. Whereas the Wages for Housework committee said that ‘every miscarriage is a workplace accident’ insofar as every place is an alienated gestational workplace under capitalism, there is no guarantee that, on a twenty-first century women’s march, one will see a single placard about Medicare for All, or free universal 24/7 childcare, or paid parental leave. And in the wake of the eighties, as recently as two decades ago, the best that American politicians could dream of with regard to fetus-manufacture was that, once embarked upon, stoppages should be – to quote Bill Clinton and Hillary – ‘safe, legal and rare’.
A campaign of refutation and deserved contempt from left feminists succeeded in scrubbing ‘safe, legal and rare’ from the progressive vocabulary in favour of ‘safe and legal’ (or, sometimes, ‘safe, legal and accessible’). Yet, as comments by, most recently, Tulsi Gabbard attest, allegiance to the original ‘rare’ policy principle remains robust among individual Democratic congresswomen and -men.
What came after ‘safe, legal and rare’? The healthcare framing, of course. It is difficult, at this stage, to imagine a time before it was ubiquitous. But it was thanks to the grinding efforts of grassroots movements – especially networks of reproductive justice organisers who come from, serve, and provision low-income, illegalised, racialised, sometimes nonconsensually sterilised Americans towns – that this further rhetorical shift came about.
Best practice in the mainstream pro-choice milieu is now to vindicate abortion in the name of human rights, on the grounds that it is medical. This is great, firstly because we’ve held onto the ‘safe’ part: medicine, after all, is about making our flesh as safe as possible to embody. Secondly, the healthcare framing subtly demotes the idea of ‘legalising’ abortion. After all, healthcare doesn’t usually need legalising. Common sense tilts intuitively, as a result, towards ‘deregulation’ or ‘decrim’ – that is to say, gestational decrim.
It doesn’t matter, though, as reproductive justice activists always follow up and say, that something has been reframed as healthcare, if you can’t, you know, afford healthcare. One can’t choose things one can’t get. So, let’s talk about ‘free’. Our struggle for reproductive freedom must make clear that our freedom is the enemy – not a version – of the double freedom of capitalism under whose aegis princesses and paupers alike may buy repro insurance and consume repro healthcare.
In the respectable middle-class feminist world it remains bananas to suggest abortion should cost nothing (even though teens with rich parents call abortion fund hotlines all the time). Similarly, despite the inroads of the Shout Your Abortion campaign, it’s still uncommon to hear it insisted that abortions be entirely ‘stigma-free’, demedicalised, or distributed ‘on demand, no questions asked.’ No longer are pussy-hat platoons enacting the Clintonian strategy of explicitly reinforcing the stigma attached to the very thing you’re supposedly defending. Nevertheless, the tone of pleading, of apology, lingers. We all agree that abortion shouldn’t be used as birth control, ladies, let’s keep it reasonable, okay? Even though it doesn’t involve killing. Which it doesn’t!!! But it’s inherently sad and difficult and traumatic. Most people who do it are mothers already. Listen, this is not a political issue.
Frankly, there is nothing more political. As Laura Briggs declared in 2018, in the US, all politics have become reproductive politics. The more the Political – with a capital P – abjects reproducers, the more the repro-political billows and mushrooms. In the southern states and in other worldwide repro-care deserts, much of the concrete access to the mifepristone and misoprostol pill combo, much of the provision of dilation and curettage, and even late-term abortions, are being organised far outside of electoral politics. In Europe and South America, direct action groups use drones and floating maritime clinics to bring abortions to the people.
In the US, there are several thousand local abortion funds, clinic escort groups, legal defense funds, and community-led drives to teach self-managed abortion. People in need of surgical abortions travel constantly to their clandestine appointments via interstate smuggling networks that are referred to by some (and not by others) as underground railroads.
‘If abortion is a right’, wrote Erin Maglaque in the London Review of Books recently, ‘it is a flimsy one, predicated on the whims of judges and a property relation to the body that obscures everything that is real and radical about gestation.’ Looking back on the governance of reproduction in early modern Italy and on her own experiences of pregnancy and abortion, Maglaque demonstrates the severe limits of ‘privacy’ and ‘property’ as conceptual tools for understanding anthrogenesis. ‘Maybe there is something we can learn from a time when pregnancy was possession’, she concludes, ‘not of but by another; when an unwanted foetus was as precious as a slice of ham, and abortion as cleansing as an exorcism.’
Gestators experience possession by another. The pregnant are possessed by a foreign object. This, after all, is why the placenta exists: to protect the fetus from the adult body’s spontaneous efforts to abort it, while, at the same time, protecting the adult body from fetal cells’ attempts to suck and take all its nutrients. Life is not the ‘default’, to borrow language from Timothy Morton. Rather: ‘life as such is a form of abortion.’ What Morton means by this, I take it, is that the ‘success’ of a process of human gestation goes so much against the grain of what some parts of our ‘nature’ intend that, in a sense, it represents the failure of a failure, a termination of a termination. Births, in short, are always anomalous; always miracles.
Another miracle: thanks to the grassroots science and herbalism of thousands of years, an unwanted fetus can, with care, be extricated and disentangled safely from the human. The design of the human placenta makes it very hazardous to do this, but midwives, witches, and healers throughout the ages have handed on the safest ways. Still today, abortion doulas often conceptualise their work as a sacred vocation. Life not being the ‘default’ is a great reason to celebrate not only the triumphs of life-making but also, in a way, the refusals of life-making that make those triumphs possible.
The logic of capitalism’s deeply naturalised repro-social order is one of anti-life natalism. Its method is pithily encapsulated by Evi Nakano Glenn: forced care. Forced gestating, I submit, is best understood as the most physiologically invasive stratum of people’s coercion into care. In other words, the so-called pro-life camp is crusading (of course) not just for forced gestational care of the fetus by the gestator, but for entire lifetimes of forced, privatised care. It is a source of frustration to me, as a para-academic, that the coercive character of care under capitalism still seems to go under-emphasised, notwithstanding the ‘care turn’ in academia. In some quarters even of this avowedly critical field, it is sometimes insisted, in sub-The Beatles fashion, that what the world needs is simply care, care, care. Inasmuch as care is romanticised, flattened, and abstracted from capitalism, patriarchy, and the state, there can be no liberatory politics around it.
Those on the front lines of forced care would surely be surprised to hear that care is an unalloyed good that we simply need to fund more of. Abolitionists, in my opinion, won’t get far thinking of care in this way. No, the meatiest parts of the politics of care dwell in questions like: care how, care why, care where? And these are necropolitical, not just biopolitical questions. Chewing on them inevitably means asking: who and what shall we withdraw care from? I’m not suggesting voluntaristic action against, say, billionaires, fragile whites, and despotic fetal tissue. I am interested in what we want to see ‘desist’ as part of our, necessarily selective, reproductively ‘assistive’ vision. What lives, households, social relations, worlds, must we unproduce, in order to produce the ones we desire? Because life is inseparable from its opposite. Life is possible, in fact, only because there is death. The good life, insofar as it comes into being at all, is a product of innumerable decisions not to give certain other forms of life breath.
At present, our care is ripped from us. It is bought from us; and we sell it, in large part, because we need to eat. But the flows of markets also warp our senses: as Kalindi Vora delineates in Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor, people all around the world perceive white middle-class American households as genuinely needing more care than do nonwhite working-class ones elsewhere. Meanwhile, fetus-manufacture is celebrated in this white supremacist settler-colony with absolutely demented sentimentality, yet it is almost wholly unfunded, apart from a few so-called pro-family tax breaks and child credits. Far from supported, proletarian reproduction in America is materially abjected. Contraception isn’t publicly covered. Childcare, parenting, healthcare, housing, aren’t publicly covered (except in the most nugatory, humiliating ways). A human conceptus is nevertheless an asset of the state. Even as its care future is privatised entirely in the nuclear household, the existence of a fetal body inside a gestator’s body is radically publicised. Most absurdly of all, this state of affairs sounds to most of us like a description of nature.
I am trying to interest the left in the literal manufacture of humans – that is to say, anthrogenesis – as an underthought sympoetic form of labour that tests our willingness to think about labour and solidarity as, perhaps, always already swimming in and ripping into one another’s blood and guts. I want to tempt the left to think about gestationality as a way of educating our desire for and ability to imagine the self-abolition of the working-class. How does antiwork in the context of care work work? I know it isn’t, or can’t be, but sometimes it feels as though this open-ended rumination of mine is a lonely one. Over the past five years, I’ve tried to write a paean to the sublime, kinky extreme sport of parturition on page one of a care communisation manifesto. I’ve bothered scientists at the ectogenetic research labs down the road from where I now live in Philadelphia; researchers there are busy ‘gestating’ fetal sheep and premature human fetuses in ‘biobags’, albeit for enemy-funded enemy reasons. I’m not the only one thinking about antiwork anthrogenesis. That would be impossible. If you’re out there, comrade, please let’s team up. I’m stalling out, thinking and struggling on my own.
We can start with the basics. Where do people come from? It seems to me worth spelling out that, hitherto (ectogenesis not being a thing yet), people develop from tiny bodies that come out of the bodies of other people. The DNA of these other people is completely different from that of the tiny body, even though the molecules involved in the xenohospitable face-off are the same molecules. Over the course of the face-off, flesh works metabolically in order to make more human flesh, building fetal eyeballs, fetal bone tissue, etc. The bodies are not one, and they certainly aren’t two.
Recall that favourite old feminist talking point, about the etymology of the word individual: that it excludes woman (defined according to reproductive capacity) by its very definition. The western human’s sovereign indivisibility was predicated, it is said, on the othering of uterus-bearing, i.e., potentially multiple, thus divisible, anatomy. In other words, the individual who gets to make claims like ‘my body, my choice’ is by definition not a pregnant person. The gestator is by definition not an individual.
Chikako Takeshita has coined a noun for grasping this situation: the motherfetus. She offers an alternative ontology of the pregnant body – one which collapses the material distinction between the ‘maternal’ and the ‘fetal’ – and insists that we must learn to think the ‘motherfetus-holobiont’ as a boundary-breaching cyborg figure who is engaged in symbiotic and symbiogenetic co-production. Takeshita’s intervention points us, I think, beyond the discursive gridlock whereby feminists have sought, decade on decade, to fight a more-than-human liberation struggle – the struggle of motherfetus-holobionts – on humanist terrain.
After all, why not say it loud? The freedom from forced labour abortions afford is a feticidal freedom. It is in killing the fetus inside them that the motherfetus ceases to be ‘dividual’, and re-enters the sphere of putative ‘individuals’. Abortion is self-evidently, empirically, an act of killing. It is also, without a doubt, healthcare, and certainly a sine qua non of bodily autonomy. We should stop infantilising ourselves by pretending there is nothing there in an abortion to kill. There is something there: not a person, but a proto-person, a creature like a butterfly, an opossum, or a whale. And abortion does kill that creature. It is also incredibly good for people when this is allowed to happen. Abortions are not regretted. Even though they consist of killing something, abortions are, verifiably, overwhelming producers of happiness.
Killing any creature – even a tapeworm in one’s gut – is something to take seriously. As such, I actually agree with the fascist proponents of forced gestation that giving ethical consideration toward fetuses is something to have on our list of things to get to. As part of my anti-fascist repro-utopianism, I want to arrive, one day, at the as-yet-unthinkable place where giving fetuses ethical consideration has become possible, perhaps thanks to gestator-controlled ectogenetic technologies. It’s not a big factor driving me, but it’s on the list.
For now: denying that abortion kills something that is alive only cedes ground to the proponents of forced gestation, forcing pro-abortion fighters into bizarre contortions of euphemism, apology, and self-sabotage. Let’s learn, then, to speak the anti-violent language of non-nonviolence that is required. Abortion does kill; and unlike the vast majority of forms of killing, it is an indispensable technology in the collective making of the good life. We should be as free to kill proto-persons living uninvited in our bodies as we are to kill bacteria, protozoans, parasites of all kinds.
Dragging abortion onto the terrain of healthcare should be recognised as a superb victory precisely because, like many forms of healthcare as we know it, it involves killing. Think of the word anti-biotic. Unlike the vast majority of killing, abortions, alongside antibiotics, are a public moral good. If humanism can’t accommodate this central, banal reality about the millennia-old practices of our species, then gestational communists must make a break with humanism.
Anthrogenesis must and will be free. I admit that the view from where I’m standing is full of terror. A vast thicket of uterine and more-than-uterine suffering and coercion lies ahead. But, as Jenny Brown says, unpaid gestators and potential unpaid gestators in the US have not yet realised the potential of our bargaining position. A reproductive freedom movement fiercer than all of its ’70s forebears may rise, all summer long, from the ashes of Roe. In the years ahead, I ask that our collective imaginations spend a little time speculating what – besides the right to make private gestational choices, or the right to healthcare – gestators might demand. What freedoms might gestators together articulate, and seize?
Let us, together with our non-female cyborg-holobiont comrades, carefully learn to wield the productive and also anti-productive (destructive, even!), loving and violent, worldmaking and -unmaking, amniotechnical powers of anthrogenesis, which do not end with pregnancy, but extend throughout the web of life.
The horizon of free anthrogenesis calls us to consciously manufacture life in particular, which is to say, making and caring for some bodies while consciously unmaking others by withdrawing care. Let us learn to celebrate, without recourse to healthcare, necessity, or special pleading, the beauty and power of a gestator’s ‘no’. Antiwork anthrogenesis deromanticises care and denaturalises the human by practising solidarity: vindicating withdrawals of gestational labour-power for any reason and none.
Sophie Lewis is a writer and para-academic living in Philadelphia who teaches courses at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and publishes her essays in magazines like n+1 as well as peer-reviewed journals like Feminist Theory. Sophie has an affiliation, albeit an unpaid one, with the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer and Transgender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. You can support her on Patreon at patreon.com/reproutopia and watch her talks at lasophielle.org. Sophie is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family and of Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, forthcoming from Verso Books and Salvage Editions. She tweets at @reproutopia.