And What They Mean for Reproductive Justice
This post is the first in a series examining the Right’s efforts to alter demographic trends by re-popularizing arguments and ideologies rooted in eugenics (read part two and three). Today, I discuss the ideas of white supremacy underpinning claims that the continuity of hinges on spurring population growth (and thus the cessation of contraceptive use).
Reproductive justice, as opposed to reproductive rights, is often defined as the ability to parent, not to parent, and—if one is a parent—to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. While reproductive rights have often been narrowly understood as the legal right to terminate an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy, an understanding of reproductive justice broadens our analysis in critical ways. It raises up the structural inequalities that render reproductive choice and care disproportionately unattainable for people of color, poor people, undocumented immigrants, trans* people, and other marginalized groups, and it reminds us that reproductive justice is inextricable from housing justice, from food justice, from transit justice. Indeed, the creation of a safe and healthy environment for all parents and all children requires the broad realization of social justice.
Unfortunately, full reproductive justice remains a distant prospect, and it was dealt a significant blow in this week’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have religious rights—rights that were hampered by the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate. In addition to its manifold and ominous implications for civil rights, this decision poses a severe threat to low-income workers’ reproductive health care access. The decision reminds us—those of us with the privilege to be sheltered from a constant barrage of reminders—that attacks on reproductive justice are not confined to standard anti-abortion efforts.
The plaintiffs argued that because certain contraceptives take effect subsequent to fertilization, they are in fact abortifacients: “If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions,” wrote Justice Alito (2).
This argument is not merely a new stratagem to undermine the ACA. For years, initiatives such as the American Life League’s “The Pill Kills” campaign have sought to inflame conservative religious sentiment against contraceptives. Significantly, the Right has also undertaken much more subtle and insidious attempts to limit birth control access. Perhaps surprisingly, these attempts often are not explicitly rooted in religious conviction.
Many anti-contraceptive arguments couched in secular rhetoric are designed to incite fear, even panic, concerning not the deaths of “preborn children,” but rather the demise of entire populations. In her review of a documentary titled Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family (2008), Kathryn Joyce discusses how the film tacitly invokes right-wing Christian morality and ideology to undergird claims posited as “research-driven” and “based on social science alone.” The never-quite-stated thesis Joyce extracts from the documentary is that “birth control and the sexual revolution, and the widespread cultural decision of women to limit their fertility” are the egregious “sin” that will precipitate the fall of civilization. Political prospects such as marriage equality are, of course, easily subsumed into this nebulous menace.
The U.S. Right’s demographic agenda is highly racialized; in recent years, however, the doomsday argument for traditional family values has gained global currency. Its momentum is largely attributable to organizations such as the World Congress of Families (WCF), which has scant visible presence in Demographic Winter but enormous behind-the-scenes influence. Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian right-wing activist who has worked closely with WCF and Family Watch International, espouses anti-LGBTI and anti-reproductive health measures based substantially on tenuous correlations between demographic trends and development in sub-Saharan Africa. In a 2012 interview, Okafor decried contraceptives as superfluous before saying, “It is instructive that Nigeria and Ethiopia which have high fertility rates feature among the fastest growing economies in the IMF 2011 economic survey. The UN data is evidence that population growth does lead to economic prosperity.” Okafor has gone so far as to allege that the provision of reproductive health care in Africa is part of an imperialist Western “conspiracy,” a claim reproduced in the WCF newsletter. (Much of Demographic Winter was filmed at the 2007 WCF conference. On Tuesday, on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision, WCF announced that their 2015 conference theme will be “religious liberty.” The regional conference is to be held in Salt Lake City.)
That Okafor’s politics appear to be lockstep with the U.S. Religious Right is indicative of the latter’s success in imposing their agenda in the Global South. Furthermore, that Okafor cries imperialism while promoting the U.S. Right’s imperial agenda illustrates the Right’s facility with shaping narratives to obfuscate the presence of their own aims. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that Okafor’s work is entirely congruent with, let alone identical to, that of her U.S.-based collaborators. Her stance on demographic winter differs from that of the U.S. Right in one critical respect: for Okafor, augmenting population growth in the Global South is a priority; for the U.S. Right, it is a threat.
Because, as Joyce pointedly shows, nativism and racism constitute another hidden cornerstone of Demographic Winter and the reactionary movement it represents. She observes, “The concern is not a general lack of babies, but the cultural shifts that come when some populations, particularly immigrant communities, are feared to be out-procreating others,” a fear that “permeates nearly all of the current debate on demographic worries.” Joyce names a bevy of books published since 2001 that gravely forecast non-white immigrants supplanting white populations in the Global North. Joyce also cites an assertion made at the 2007 WCF conference by a U.S. anti-contraception activist, who pronounced that the children of immigrants are “too many, and too culturally different from their new countries’ populations to assimilate quickly … They are contributing to the cultural suicide of these nations as they commit demographic suicide.”
The white supremacy underlying demographic winter prophecies is also visible in the work produced by the Population Research Institute (PRI), a right-wing organization run by Steven W. Mosher. Mosher, a Catholic social scientist, specializes in Chinese demography, and PRI aims to dismantle “population control” efforts across the globe. Ostensibly, PRI is a natural ally to activists like Okafor. However, articles such as “How to debunk the myth of overpopulation in three easy steps,” written by Mosher and Anne Roback Morse and published on LifeSiteNews.com, deploy demographic winter rhetoric exclusively with respect to Europe in contrast to Africa, implicitly conjuring up the specter of white supremacy’s collapse. “Africa’s growth,” the authors assure, “is not something to worry about. Europe’s decline, however, is something to worry about.” Eventually, they warn, “the French, German, Italians and British will virtually cease to exist.”
The scare tactics employed by PRI, WCF, and other organizations on the Right exemplify the urgency of reproductive justice work. Right-wing efforts to chisel away reproductive freedoms are not random attacks on uteruses. They are carefully crafted elements of powerful Americans’ long-standing attempts to determine and regulate who ought to procreate and who ought not to.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Supreme Court of the United States. 30 June 2014. SupremeCourt.gov. Web. 1 July 2014.
Joyce, Kathryn. “Review: Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family.” Kathryn Joyce. Web. 01 July 2014.
Mosher, Steven W., and Anne Roback Morse. “How to Debunk the Myth of Overpopulation in Three Easy Steps.” LifeSite. LifeSiteNews, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 July 2014.
Ramos-Ascensão, José. “The African Situation with Regard to ‘sexual and Reproductive Health'” Europeinfos: Christian Perspectives on the EU. Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU and the Jesuit European Office, July-Aug. 2012. Web. 1 July
“WCF Newsletter.” WCF Newsletter. World Congress of Families, Apr.-May 2010. Web. 01July 2014.