“Reproductive Carcerality and the Politics of Abolition Feminist Abortion Care”

Katie Von Wald
6 December 2023

In the aftermath of the Dobbs decisions, abortion care and services are increasingly vulnerable. In the U.S reproductive life is shaped throughout carceral techniques, and the criminalization of abortion now renders pregnancy as punishment. An abolition feminists vision of abortion centers care, community, and accessibility to resists the ways that carcerality threatens reproductive liberation.

In April of 2022 Jessica Burgess ordered abortion pills online for her pregnant teenage daughter, Celeste, who at the time of taking the pills was 17 years old. Police subpoenaed Celest’s private medical records—proving she was pregnant—and used the information to obtain access to the two’s “private” Facebook messages discussing plans to carry out the abortion. After pleading guilty, Jessica Burgess was sentenced to two years in prison and her daughter Celeste was given 90 days in prison and 2 years of probation.

If you are familiar with the United States’ dismal track record of criminalizing pregnancy and abortion, this instance where women come into contact with the judiciary system might not seem out of the ordinary. In fact, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women sites an increase between 2006 and 2020 in cases where “women but for their pregnancy, would not have been subject to legal charges.” Apparently, the condition of pregnancy has become “an increasing risk factor for interaction with carceral institutions.” The timing of this case is significant because only a month before their sentencing the Dobbs decision passed in the Supreme Court effectively reversing the nearly fifty years of Roe V. Wade and quickly changing the landscape of all reproductive and abortion services in the United States.  

How are we to understand the current reversal of Roe as part of the matrix and legacy of reproductive control in the U.S? What I term reproductive carcerality, is the ways that reproductive life, specifically abortion, is (and has been) a site for the expansion of carceral technologies. It is not only that reproductive bodies increasingly come into contact with carceral institutions, but that the womb itself becomes a prison used to justify ideologies of discipline and punishment. Having a womb, regardless of personal reproductive intention, results in various types of carceral sentencings and threats. 

We can think of reproductive carcerality as how carcerality shapes reproductive injustice. Carcerality refers to the increased industrialization of incarceration and an ideological culture where “punishment-oriented responses are [assumed]… effective ways to manage a society.” [iv]  In the United States punishment largely orients reproductive life when health services are regularly denied. The criminalization of abortion makes pregnancies a type of punishment to be carried out in unsafe and hostile environments.

One of the major characteristics of reproductive carcerality are fetal protectionism policies which intend to establish the rights of fetuses at the expense of pregnant people. States with the strictest of abortion bans use fetal protectionism as paternalistic measures to intervene into the lives of pregnant people, often resulting in their incarceration. Such policies are indicative of carceral care strategies which on the surface claim to provide services to pregnant people all while subjecting them to violent institutions where care is largely neglected.

In addition, reproductive carcerality increases surveillance of pregnant people and enlists those beyond the police to monitor their behavior. Under this system, health care providers—

who are also increasingly surveilled themselves—become deputized law enforcement completely undermining any notion of doctor/patient confidentiality. In Texas under Senate Bill 8, even private citizens can take up policing and sue anyone who aids or abets an abortion.

Lastly, reproductive carcerality has resulted in geographies of isolation where pregnant people are isolated from services. Since Roe’s overturn, abortion clinics across the U.S have been shuttered requiring people seeking services to travel long distances, at times even crossing state lines. “Maternal health deserts” are those spaces where there are virtually no reproductive health services including prenatal, gynecological, and even labor and delivery care. Such care deserts continue to widen as states now consider travel bans with the intention of prosecuting anyone traveling to access abortion services.

Abortion cannot continue to be thought of as a private, isolated, anonymous affair. It is a public, communal, and caring act in defiance of an uncaring, carceral state which shapes reproductive labor through discipline and punishment. If the womb is made a prison under reproductive carcerality, then we must consider abortion as an act of abolitionist praxis as it resists the confining logics of carcerality. If abolition is the movement to eliminate imprisonment, policing, and surveillance, then it follows that abortion accessibility is key to such goals.  

An abolitionist vision of abortion care understands it as outside of state and federal control and as part of community health and healing. Organizations like The National Network of Abortion Funds, which provide financial and logistical resources for people seeking abortions, and the increased availability of abortion pills online through the mail, are examples of such visions which work to make abortion self-managed and accessible despite carceral networks. Abolitionist abortion care practices reimagine life. Abolitionist care in its most simple form is the ways that communities “keep each other alive,” [v] by resisting reproductive carcerality abolition feminist abortion advocacy challenges violent state policies.

As abolition feminists, we must commit to imagining and acting towards a different world. Our feminist response to reproductive unfreedom must account for the carcerality implicitly and explicitly shaping reproductive life. We must resist the policies which mutate meanings of care for the service of continued carceral expansion. We must fight for the end to all prisons, including those unseen. Abortion is transformative, just as all reproductive autonomy is, without its limitless access there is no liberation.

The image is licensed in creative commons. Source: Flickr. Author: Elvert Barnes

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