The reality at the heart of Trump’s abortion punishment statement

Morgan-with-pounamu-pendant_WebThis is the eighth in the blog series by Morgan Healey, immediate past President of ALRANZ, who has recently returned to the US. It aims to bring to life the uniquely absurd state of reproductive rights and justice in the US.

Firstly don’t let the title of this dispatch fool you. I dislike Donald Trump and think that most of his words are drivel. He is a bombastic, bully. But he has proven successful at tapping into the heart of American white nationalism/supremacy. In some ways, he holds a mirror up to us all (and I will include myself in this, as a white privileged American), reflecting back often disavowed ‘truths’ about this country. His racial and gendered diatribes are manifest of a country built off the backs of slave labour, colonized at the expense and blood of the indigenous nations/peoples, and based on misogynist gender binaries, which despite ostensibly gender-neutral language, continues to promote cisgender (particularly non-white) women as second-class citizens and erased the realities of those who do not conform to gender dichotomies.

Insert public safety warning here: As Americans, we would be wise to neither ignore nor underestimate the popularity of Trump’s hatred and fearmongering.

In his ‘telling it like it is’ rhetoric, which apparently was too truthful as he has subsequently stepped back from his abortion comments much like he did when he accepted the endorsement of David Duke of the KKK, the discourse that Trump uses to sell himself as a candidate personifies the repugnance of our racist, classist, and discriminatory past and present. So when he said that abortion should be illegal and women should be punished, he did more than align himself with the antis, bluntly stating what they have always believed (read Jill Filipovic’s article on this here). He brought to the fore (at least for me) a much deeper thread that runs through social laws and mores governing abortion – the constitution and production of gender binaries and the idea that women’s sexual activity outside heteronormative, procreative situations is abhorrent and must be regulated (and yes, these constructions assume a cisgendered body, leaving non-heterosexual and non-gender conforming people well outside the pale and marginalized). This is the root of abortion stigma; the belief that people with anatomical features that allow for reproduction should do nothing more than that. In other words, womanhood equals motherhood period. Socially such beliefs still translate into laws designed to control and prescribe certain gendered bodies: eliding sex with gender, and assuming an essentialist or biologically determined understanding of what it means to be a ‘woman’.

(De)Regulating unruly bodies

Contesting such constructions is at the heart of the reproductive justice movement. What this framework promotes is the creation of allyships between trans/queer/gender non-conforming, anti-racist, labour, disability and reproductive rights activists.


Because non-white, non-cisgender male, disabled bodies are systemically and structurally regulated or controlled, and we need to work together to deregulate them, to contest oppressive discourses to enable justice. For example, aside from the obvious, that transgender people can experience an unwanted or unintended pregnancy and need access to safe, legal abortion care, there are striking similarities between the perception of trans’ bodies and cisgender women’s bodies as being out of control or unruly and thus needing to be regulated. Control might manifest itself in different ways, but the cause is the same – fear. The fear of a white, patriarchal hegemony that utilises gendered discourses to maintain its power structures. To my mind, this is exactly what the recent spate of anti-trans bathroom bills are about. They render trans bodies at once hyper-visible and dangerous. Arguments in favour of these bills are done under the guise of needing to protect ‘women’, thereby marking a firm distinction between ‘real’ women (read cisgender) and trans women (constructed as predatory men in disguise).

What does this do (aside from spreading spurious ideas about trans women)?

It reaffirms the notion that gender is a fixed, natural category with only two options; those who do not conform need not apply.

Isn’t a similar argument used to deny women access to abortion?

Excellent question! Why, yes it is. Essentialist understandings of gender not only deny trans people their rights and dignity, but they are often successfully employed to limit pregnant people’s access to abortion more generally. If womanhood is synonymous with motherhood, then only ‘bad’ women would be spreading their legs outside their matrimonial bed. Enter Donald Trump stage door left.

Abortion stigma and the hierarchy of ‘good/bad’ abortions

And here’s the thing, even within the pro-choice movement, we create hierarchies of good/bad abortions, worthy women vs. those who were irresponsible. This not only reinforces stigma – what is a valid abortion? – but plays directly into gender stereotypes. There are many national surveys that highlight this trend – the old when is abortion acceptable question? Risk of life, check. Risk to mental and physical health, or the result of rape and incest, usually a pretty strong check. Fetal abnormalities, most cases a check, particularly if the diagnosis is fatal. Economic, social or just because I don’t want to be pregnant… well that is complicated. We start to get into ‘moral’ grounds (read pregnant people having control over their bodies just because) and fetal life seems to take on a whole new level of importance (read slutty women should be punished by being forced to carry the pregnancy to term – that will learn them).

Again, sound familiar? Only this time, according to Trump there should be no exceptions. His is an obvious cue for total slut shaming and enforced pregnancy. And while his position (and that of all Republican candidates) does not gel well with most Americans, who support access to safe and legal abortion at least in most of the situations I outlined above, it brings us back to the worth. Who is worthy of safe and legal abortions? And how is this question layered with questions about race and class injustice?

I would say the question of worth is the wrong question to ask (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?). I tend to be (even I have my judgy moments) unapologetic in my wholehearted acceptance of and belief in the right to unfettered abortion access. No law is a good law, particularly if that is backed up by state funded, high quality abortion access. However, I do believe these are some of the questions, we as reproductive rights and justice advocates need to contend with. Are we unknowingly perpetuating abortion stigma because of our own internalization of gender stereotypes? What happens when we compromise on abortion laws? Which pregnant people suffer the most when barriers are erected, ostensibly to ensure medical safety?

And if you don’t believe me, that worth is integral to abortion stigma and laws, then ask yourself this: how do you feel about a woman who wants an abortion at 24 weeks?

Depend on the circumstances?

That is exactly my point.

But don’t we already punish women for wanting an abortion?

Lastly, I want to point out what many others (read here and here on how US states already punish people for abortion) have since Drumpf’s latest gaffe; the fact that despite Roe vs. Wade still being the law of the land, people, particularly pregnant people in the US are already punished for their sexual actions through restrictive abortion laws. Targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, parental consent, wait times, mandatory counseling, gestational limits, these are all designed to dissuade and stop people from accessing abortion. And while Trump yet again broke a cardinal rule when discussing abortion – it is about ‘protecting women’ Donald, not punishing them – he shone a light on this fallacy. A lie, I would add, that reproductive justice and rights advocates/groups have been speaking out and fighting against for years. It is not enough to just have good abortion laws on the books if barriers preclude access. As we have seen in states like Texas and Mississippi, abortion might as well be illegal because only the very well off, privileged women are able to access services. The rest? Well, those that can travel across the US/Mexican border to purchase misoprostol, and the most desperate frantically search their cupboards for something potent enough to end the pregnancy (and possibly their own lives).

And if there is any vestige of doubt in terms of what an all out ban on abortion looks like, then take a look at El Salvador. Making abortion illegal does not stop it from happening. It just puts the lives of women and families at risk.