THE BLOG
08/13/2015 03:22 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2016

How Far We've Come from Roe v. Wade

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The sting on Planned Parenthood brings into sharp relief just how far the political discourse has moved since Roe v. Wade. Back then, protecting women's reproductive rights was understood as a means to ensure women's equality. Without policies in place to help women negotiate the difficulties of unwanted pregnancies, women would never achieve the autonomy and independence exercised by men. Women's rights, however, were not absolute. Once the fetus attained viability, the state could intervene.

But that legitimate political debate, legitimate in the sense that each side had a reasonable argument, has been displaced by a spectacle that chills all speech. On the one side, there is the unprotected fetus, abandoned by its host. On the other side, there is a merciless corporation, trafficking in human flesh. It's no wonder that Democratic presidential candidates are not running to Planned Parenthood's defense. The sting video sets a stage on which no arguments can be made.

And yet, what's striking about this situation is that a reasonable argument of 40 years ago, that women required access to abortions in order to achieve the independence and autonomy enjoyed by men, has disappeared. Why is that?

Just as abortion became legal, a particular economic theory, known as neoliberalism or the Chicago School of Economics, began to be implemented in the English-speaking world. First tested under General Pinochet in Chile, neoliberalism promised rapid economic growth by cutting back on public spending and privatizing public wealth. A key component of this theory is that society is made up of individuals. There is no recognition of social groups requiring special laws to ensure their participation in the public sphere. There are only individual decision-makers, who rise or fall on their own merits. "I don't believe in society," Margaret Thatcher famously said, "only individuals."

The notion that we are each responsible for our individual actions aligns neatly with neoliberal policies. Without groups as a recognizable political category, there are no arguments to be made for access to abortion or, for that matter, affirmative action programs. There is also, and this point is crucial, no basis for social rebellion. Without a social group, such as "the poor and disenfranchised," there is no collective action to be taken. Under the logic of neoliberalism the poor and disenfranchised are merely a random set of actors who must have made poor choices. Just like the pregnant mother working two jobs to take care of her three kids, these random individuals only have themselves to blame.

And here we see the disastrous effects of 40 years of neoliberalism: What had been a public matter, worthy of passionate and reasonable deliberation, has been reduced to a private concern in an uncaring market. Political theorist Wendy Brown develops this argument, in her new book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (Zone Press, 2015). "The guarantee of equality through the rule of law and participation in popular sovereignty," she writes, "is replaced with a market formulation of winners and losers." Unable to talk as if we are members of a political community, we are left with the narrow concerns of individuals in competition for scarce resources. If you find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy, you lose.

Planned Parenthood operates in the void created by neoliberal austerity measures and global market forces. They are working with a category that has little political valence (women) and using a grammar in which misery is an individual concern.

What's striking about the most recent video is that the "sting" involves making Planned Parenthood fit the bill of a ghoulish profit-driven corporation, as if no other U.S. corporation trades in human misery.

In fact, the real ghouls behind the scene are the policy makers of the last 40 years who have defunded Head Start, public transportation, Section 8 housing, and have held up precarious jobs in the fast food industry as meaningful work for parents. The real traffickers in human misery are the state legislatures who put fathers in jail for drug crimes and who reduce the political participation of a large portion of the population through felony disenfranchisement. Rather than eliminate the conditions that make many abortions necessary, neoliberal policies have intensified those very conditions and then blamed pregnant women and abortion providers for being too profit-driven.

Groups serve a purpose. By speaking on behalf of women's access to popular sovereignty, the abortion debate was a real debate, not a ghoulish spectacle. Right now the only category of people recognized under neoliberalism is the group known as fetuses. It says something about the state of our politics that the only recognizable category is composed of proto-beings, beings who cannot act and therefore cannot be held responsible for their failures. The only social group worthy of protection is the one which cannot rebel against inhumane policies.