11. 25. 2022

Notes from Argentina:
What’s Under Attack When Abortion Rights are Under Attack?

Paula Varela

(Translated from Spanish by Dawn Marie Paley)

After years of struggle, in 2020 the “
green tide” social movement won the right to free, legal, and safe abortion in Argentina. This historic demand of the women’s movement, which has gained strength since the rise of the #NiUnaMenos campaign in 2015 and the building of the International Women’s Strike, was attained through struggle in the streets. These massive events offer important lessons about what the right to abortion means in our societies, which are undergoing a deep crisis of neoliberal capitalism.

In these brief notes, I’d like to share part of what we learned through this process, so as to reflect on what’s under attack when access to abortion is being attacked by the resurgent right, as we’ve seen with the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the US.


Note #1: The building of the opposition “gender against the People”

One of the most gratifying moments during the struggle for abortion in Argentina came in 2018, when the right-wing government of Mauricio Macri, who himself was openly against abortion legalization, put the issue on the parliamentary agenda. The opening of a debate in Congress had a two-fold effect. Institutionally, it led to two months of presentations by feminists, church members, academics, scientists, artists, jurists, people from NGOs, and so on. Every Tuesday and Thursday over those two months, arguments for and against abortion legalization were filmed and broadcast on TV. In the sphere of civil society, this spirit of debate was multiplied by a thousand: abortion was being talked about in the streets, in schools, in universities, in factories, in homes, on buses, in trains, and in bars. This was a beautiful moment of mass politicization during which “las pibas,” women who were not even 20 years old, tied their green kerchiefs to their backpacks and went out to fight for their right “to decide about their own body.” That was probably the most popular slogan.

At that time, a well-known leader of Argentina’s Confederation of Workers in the Popular Economy (CTEP) made a series of statements that are important to analyze. Beyond taking a personal position against abortion (he is a devoted Catholic and friend of Pope Francis), he said that the debate over legalization isn’t part of the political agenda for poor women, who are worried instead about survival in a country with high levels of poverty and homelessness. On the contrary, he said, abortion legalization belongs to an agenda that expresses the interest of another class, which has been influenced by the “ideological trend” of feminism. In his view, the debate about abortion is part of a middle-class agenda that doesn’t meaningfully impact real power, and that may therefore be considered part of the hypocrisy of progressivism, and in particular of Buenos Aires progressivism, in reference to residents of the largest metropolis in Argentina. 

What this leader openly put into words is a clear example of what I refer to as a slippage from the historic “gender vs. class” approach to an updated “gender against the People” frame. His argument wasn’t just that abortion is not an important concern for poor and working-class women – a claim at odds with all the poor and working-class women who have died due to clandestine abortions – but also that putting abortion on the public agenda is distracting political strategy from the real problems of the people: the millions living in poverty in the working-class neighbourhoods of the periphery.

It is obvious that these types of discourses forge two opposing camps: on one side, there are those who are worried about the millions that neoliberalism has left “outside the system” (a position often described with the far too ambiguous term “populism”); and on the other, there is  middle-class progressivism, which could be summarized as “progressive neoliberalism,” in the words of Nancy Fraser. The right to abortion appears, then, as part of the programme of this hypocritical “progressive neoliberalism.” Paradoxically, the kind of false binary that “left-wing populists” such as CTEP’s leader (and others like him) help to build is one of the main fulcrums around which right-wing populism gains support to attack the rights of women and LGBT people. Leaning on the population’s understandable weariness towards the discourse of “progressive neoliberalism – a weariness that increasingly takes the form of hate – right-wing populism turns access to abortion into a topic of a hypocritical political agenda, as if abortion rights were a minor concern in a world in which millions live in poverty without any future before them. 

The opening of this divide, however, also leans on a much older idea that has even been present in parts of the feminist movement: the idea that abortion is exclusively an individual choice: the right to decide about one’s own body. Based in this liberal (“pro-choice”) notion of the right to abortion, populist discourse has created an opposition between a main political agenda – poverty, or the collective right of the people to not be left outside of the system (which could be expressed in the US as the desire to revive “the American dream” or by the Brazilian people as putting Brazil “above all else”) – against a secondary agenda, the legalization of abortion, which is treated as an individual right that progressive neoliberals strive, hypocritically, to put above everything and everyone else.

This antinomy, between a collective right of the people and an individual right of the middle class, reinforces the idea of “gender against the People.” And it is precisely against this idea that feminists, and especially those of us who identify as socialist feminists, must sharpen our argument. We must explain that the right to abortion, in addition to being an individual right of women and people who can gestate, is a central part of the political agenda of the class-that-lives-from-labour, as the sociologist Ricardo Antunes terms it. But before I develop those arguments, let me share another snapshot of what we learned in Argentina.


Note #2: It always matters who pays the bills

One of the most progressive aspects of Argentina’s Voluntary Pregnancy Interruption Law (IVE) is that it establishes, on a national level, the obligation on the part of the state to guarantee “totally free care in the public system, as well as in the union health system and pre-pay hospitals (including all studies, medicine and services required).” The demand that abortion be totally free can be traced back to the women’s movement, as it has developed within the annual National Women’s Meetings that have taken place since 1986, and by the National Campaign for Free, Safe, and Legal Abortion, which proposed draft legislation continuously from 2005 to 2020. It is also the result of the struggles of healthcare and education workers against neoliberal privatization since 1990. These struggles have built a tradition of defending public healthcare and education in our country, which has strongly impacted social movements – such as the feminist movement – and which has made it so that today Argentina is one of the Latin American countries where public healthcare and education are still strong (though they are increasingly underfunded). To include totally free access to abortion in the law was to inscribe the right to abortion in this egalitarian tradition whose greatest advocates are public workers, incorporating it into the rights of the people to have their social reproduction guaranteed. This class aspect of the right to abortion has been highlighted in the slogans of the left wing of the feminist movement, who regularly point to the fact that poor and working-class women are those who have died most frequently from clandestine abortions in Argentina. 

In any case, it was the General Workers Confederation (CGT) that most explicitly established the link between the legalization of abortion and the increase in rights related to social reproduction among women workers, and all workers along with them – although not in the way that one would have liked. A month before the bill was to be dealt with in the Senate, the CGT, which is the main workers’ organization in Argentina, issued an institutional communiqué in which it stated that the Confederation would not take an official position on abortion, but that it could not fail to alert the national government, the Ministry of Labour, and the Ministry of Health to “the extremely high costs generated by some rulings that force health institutions to comply with experimental procedures.” This allusion to the costs of treatment, in a communiqué referring to the debate on the legalization of abortion, was a clear reference to the impact that the approval of legal abortion would have on the economic sustainability of the union health system. That system would be compelled by law to expand health coverage for women workers and people who can gestate, by including this new medical practice in the services that the system must provide free of charge. In this way, the CGT expressed something that even the corporate leaders of private healthcare companies hadn’t come out and said directly: that legal and free abortion would raise the costs of the reproduction of the working class for the state, for the union health system, and for private-sector healthcare. And they are right.

Seen from the vantage point of businessmen, state officials, and, sadly, also union leaders who have been transformed into administrators of the union health system, an improvement in the conditions of our social reproduction has been calculated as a cost increase (which is nothing more than an increase in the value of labour power). Legal, free, and safe abortion is thus inscribed in the collection of rights that guarantee dignified social reproduction, alongside healthcare, education, child and elder care, palliative care, assistance for people with disabilities, and so on. As an unintended consequence, the CGT’s reference to the economic cost that the legalization of abortion carries for the health system placed on the table an issue that is central to the debate: we’re not just talking about the right to an individual decision (which it obviously is), we’re talking also about a collective right of women workers – and with them, of the entirety of the class-that-lives-from-labour – to the state guaranteeing the conditions of our social reproduction. Thus, far from being in competition with the demands of the millions who don’t want to be left out of the system in neoliberal capitalism, access to free and safe abortion is a fundamental part of those demands and, therefore, of workers’ struggles.


Note #3: Our struggle for the right to set the conditions of our social reproduction is a class struggle 

Inscribing access to abortion in the field of our rights, as workers, to establish the conditions of our social reproduction is a dagger in the liberal conception of the right to abortion, and in all populist attempts to build a “gender against the People” opposition. What does establishing the conditions of our social reproduction mean? In order to answer that, I will bring elements of social reproduction theory (SRT) into play.

Establishing the conditions of our social reproduction involves a struggle that takes place on at least three levels. First off, and by now obvious, is the level of the individual right of women and people who can gestate to decide whether they want to carry a pregnancy to term. As Lise Vogel noted, and as was asserted later in the work of Susan Ferguson, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Cinzia Arruzza (among others), the biological ability of some people to become pregnant is a necessary condition for social reproduction, but it is not enough on its own. The individual dimension (which was effectively contested in Argentina by the feminist slogan against the Catholic Church, “Get your rosaries out of our ovaries”) is always already intertwined with the social dimensions that are shaped by capitalism, whose crisis of social reproduction is becoming more and more pressing and violent. A decision “about one’s own body” isn’t made in the void. 

The second level, then, concerns the struggle to establish the social conditions in which the reproduction of life is carried out. They are two sides of the same coin: our demand for the right to abortion is impossible to separate from our demand for the right to dignified conditions for the reproduction of life. And as social reproduction theory maintains, the material conditions of the reproduction of life unfold on three different terrains that are each distinct, but inseparable: that of salaried or paid work (which is increasingly precarious); that of public services like healthcare, education, and care work (which are increasingly underfunded); and that of homes and communities (which are increasingly pauperized in terms of both resources and time). Working-class women and people who can gestate navigate these three terrains on a daily basis, and this has transformed the reproduction of life into an ordeal. To debate abortion without including this social dimension is to de-class a debate that is very much about class. That is why it is unacceptable for the feminist movement that union and workers’ organizations refuse to incorporate free, legal, and safe abortion among their central demands (this refusal is also one of the factors that motivates feminist political struggle). This is not an “individual problem” facing women, and much less a “middle-class problem” as compared to a “problem of the People.” Rather, establishing the conditions of our own reproduction is a fundamental right of the class-that-lives-from-labour. 

That’s why the debate around legalizing abortion – in countries in which it is a right that has yet to be won, or in those such as the US, in which it must be won again after defeats such as the reversal of Roe v. Wade – must incorporate these social dimensions. It should do so in part to avoid being cornered by right-wing populism, which, in a massive display of cynicism, presents itself as a political alternative to this crisis, even as its proponents are the staunchest defenders of the capitalist order. 

However, these dimensions of social reproduction relate not only to material issues but also to the disciplining of subjectivities. The third level of the struggle to set the conditions of our social reproduction concerns this moulding of subjectivity. Restricting access to free, safe, and legal abortion is part of a clear policy of disciplining women workers, particularly the poorest, racialized, and migrant women. There are millions of women workers who cannot access an illegal abortion through the market due to a lack of resources, but also due to the precarity of their legal status. Disciplining is not a marginal aspect of the exploitation of the class-that-lives-from-labour. It is a fundamental one. 

Denying the right to abortion, at the same time as the right to access dignified social reproduction is limited (by miserable wages, non-existent public services, and shattered households), plays a central part in shaping a huge segment of workers (women) who are required to sell their labour power in the worst conditions in order to survive. Any possibility, for these women, of projecting a life according to their desires – whether these desires include having children or not – becomes an illusion. And thus, this enormous segment of the labour force becomes objectively more vulnerable to capital – and therefore more profitable for it.

The ability to shape the conditions of our social reproduction demands not only the individual freedom to decide whether or not to bear children, and the material conditions to do so or not to do so in a dignified way. It demands (or should demand) also the social and subjective conditions to deploy our productive, amatory, playful, and caring capacities to their fullest expression – in the words of social reproduction scholar Aaron Jaffe, to deploy our “labour powers” not as a commodity but instead as an enormous (and yet to be fully explored) creative capacity.

Seen in this way, the right to legal, free, and safe abortion is part of an anti-capitalist program that opposes our right to a full life to neoliberal capitalism’s politics of disposable lives. As Susan Ferguson has said, it sets life-making against death-making.


Note #4: The family as a haven, the re-privatization of social reproduction, and the risk of romanticizing communities and the commons

The fact that neoliberal capitalism has made social reproduction an ordeal has also been integrated into right-wing populism’s cynical discourse. Of course, the right-populist program does not consist in improving wages, providing more and better free public services, or reducing the working day and socializing care work so that homes don’t shatter to pieces. That program consists in a re-privatization of the work of social reproduction and the exemplification of the family as a haven. This discourse, which is taken to its extreme by Christian churches (Evangelical and Catholic), is rooted in an objective fact: under neoliberal capitalism, the home appears as a sphere that escapes the logic of the commodification of life. In a world that is increasingly dependent on what can be bought or sold on the market (and therefore, on who has the means to do so), the family appears as a refuge and women as its guardians.

I do not want to dwell on the wholly conservative character of this discourse, which transforms forced maternity into a kind of crusade against the politics of disposability. Rather, I want to analyze the idea of the family as haven, which some left-wing populism has reformulated and recapitulated, framing homes and communities as sites of refuge. As Tithi Bhattacharya points out with great clarity, the home and the community, integral to the circuit of social reproduction, don’t respond to the same rules as the circuit of production and the market: there are no foremen controlling the work done there, there is no buying and selling of commodities to obtain the goods to survive, there is no exploitation of labour power as a commodity. In this sense, they can appear (and at times, do in fact function) as refuges from the hostility of cannibal capitalism

However, that doesn’t mean homes and communities are independent of what takes place in the circuit of production and the market: time that is spent at home is defined by labour-time outside the home, the resources available in the home are defined by what can be obtained on the market or vis-à-vis the capitalist state, and bodies and spirits are exhausted by what the circuit of production has taken. The relations built in homes and communities, including those based on care – in which part of the work consists in creating subjectivities that are apt for sale as labour within the market – are determined indirectly by the “other circuit.” The logic of disposability is a fully capitalist logic and does not exist only within the sphere of production and the market. It is the pursuit of profit-making over life- (and nature)-making that constitute capitalism as a system that discards “lives that do not matter.” That is why it is critical for the feminist movement and the workers’ movement not to romanticize the home and communities as if they were, per se, anti-capitalist trenches. The idea of the construction of “the commons” that some currents of feminism sustain runs the risk of romanticizing the home and communities, breathing life into a series of dichotomies that can be turned against us.

On the one hand, there is the false dichotomy between an “inside” and an “outside” of capitalism, which creates the illusion that the home and communities are a kind of oikos [traditional social unit], as feminist scholar Silvia Federici terms it, that must be returned to in order to escape the logic of capital. On the other hand, there is the false dichotomy between the space of production and that of social reproduction, as if it were possible to exercise our right to set the conditions of our social reproduction without fighting against the rules of capitalist production that reduce our labour power to a commodity. Finally, we encounter the false dichotomy between the working class as a whole and the women whose work reproduces life at home and in communities, a framing that romanticizes the role of working-class women in care work, as though those were the only capacities and subjectivities we can and should develop.

On the contrary, our struggle for our right to create the conditions of our social reproduction is a struggle of the entire class-that-lives-from-labour against the ways capitalism amputates our development and our potential futures. That is why the terrains of this fight are workplaces; public health, education, and care-providing institutions; and homes and communities. This is a struggle in which working-class women are leaders, and for which the political agenda should include free, legal, and safe abortion at its core.

Paula Varela is a professor at Universidad de Buenos Aires and a researcher at CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council), Argentina. She is a socialist and a Marxist feminist activist and scholar whose published work includes articles on social reproduction theory, class struggles, unions, and the new feminist wave. She is the editor of the book Women Workers: Bridge Between Production and Reproduction. Workplace and Activism in the New Feminist Wave (2020, CEIL, available online). Varela also coordinates the “Observatory of the Workers During the Pandemic” in the newspaper La Izquierda Diario. She was born and lives in Buenos Aires.

Dawn Marie Paley is a journalist and author of Drug War Capitalism and Guerra neoliberal: desaparición y búsqueda en el norte de México.