Abortion in Transnation
Photograph by Shane Conneely
by Jennifer Seaman Cook
As a recent contributor to Kathy D’Arcy’s Autonomy, an Irish creative writing anthology with all proceeds funding Repeal the 8th (a campaign to liberalise abortion laws in Ireland), my work as a cultural historian has come to the forefront of my secondary work as a poet.
Contributions to the publication are as diverse as there are kinds of women, but mine are personal histories rooted in an interest in the idea of history in verse, a practice outlined by Ed Sanders’ in his 1976 City Lights manifesto, “Investigative Poetry”. A recent re-release by Verso of the May 1968 prose poems of Angelo Quatttrocchi, written to document the outbreak of protests at Nanterre and the Sorbonne, show just how uniquely the creative medium can capture a living, human heartbeat within a social movement. The same can be said of the voices outlining women’s experience at the peak of the Repeal the 8th moment in Autonomy.
My own poems in Autonomy began from a kernel of broader cultural history– in particular I had been reflecting on how major American cultural icons like Carl Sandberg (Prairie) and Bob Dylan (Like A Rolling Stone) portrayed women in their writing. However, from there the response was completely encoded in personal histories, ones that I later found relevant to an Irish publication formed around the necessary theme of women‘s autonomy for the Repeal the 8th campaign. They work the concept of history in verse into that old feminist theory adage: “The Personal Is Political”. They also represent the malleability of language: to abstract ideas, to theories, to bodily realities.
My cultural historical interests in Ireland and its current social justice movement are also inseparably personal. I’m a third generation American descended from immigrant families of two predominant white ethnicities (Irish, Polish) that were historically folded into American cultural structures of inequality, regularly done so on the backs of other marginalized groups. Some aspects of this white ethnic racialization, like my grandmother being shamed for marrying a white man who was not a fellow Irishman, have been mostly integrated away.
Some haven’t. American integration of white ethnicity was also attendant to re-inscriptions of patriarchal authority and gender inequality. The ‘fairer sex’ needed white male authority and domestic sphere concealments to protect their purity, to make that overseeing authority legitimate via women’s bodies and social eugenics. Our last state interracial marriage bans were struck down in 1967. Roe vs. Wade was 1973. Same-sex marriage became federally protected in 2015. Yet still implicit today is a culture of authoritative male correction, punishment, fearmongering and violence for people seeking autonomy from gender roles in private and public life. I say “implicit” in that it is widespread on the surface of American society, but we’re not supposed to complain about it.
I myself have had the generational displeasure of experiencing such re-inscriptions of violent patriarchal authority as a white woman in America, and my writing in Autonomy speaks to this. Reflecting back on generational trauma and social division in specific historical and cultural contexts– in my family, and in my personal life, in my niches within the United States and mainstream Western society, in my transnational scholarship on western inequality– it was very easy to see why my experiences in these poems as an American would be relevant to submit to Autonomy as an Irish publication. The West has this unifying way of calling out social violences past its borders, as if they were not sanctioned regularly across their very center.
Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s experimental erasure of the Irish Proclamation of the Republic (Forógra na Poblachta) brings this kind of focus onto the historical issue of women pushed to the periphery in order to center nationalist cultural consolidation, this amidst a politics of colonial racialization that “emasculated” Irish men. In 2018, patriarchal documents still paper words over what women are still losing: their voices, their own bodies, their lives.
— The Collins Press (@CollinsPress) November 15, 2016
How can language help where it’s been used to hurt us, to speak for us, to steal our lives, to render us invisible? Poetry Ireland Review editor and U.S. published poet Vona Groarke once suggested that political poetry has the lyrical rigidity of the street slogan, of screaming slogans in the street—that writing political poetry makes for both bad poetry and is politically futile, and we should just put our politics into voting. As a scholar of cultural production in social movements, I disagree with this notion. Both poetic canons and politics can be rigid, can lose social vitality as they become ‘established’, and can be removed from quotidian accountability.
Please show Vona Groarke: Our slogans can also be poetry. (Artist David Wojnarowicz at ACT UP’s FDA Action protest of the AIDS funding crisis, October 11th, 1988. Research into the sexually transmitted disease was not prioritized when it was seen as a “gay plague” by a conservative administration )
Utopia can ask that we turn a blind eye to subjects that require witnessing in all their historical and present cruelty. The goal, then, is inclusion: not integration on the backs of others, but allowing difference to exist, making amends to amendments that silence that difference. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s beautiful, liminal gesture with the Proclamation suggests that new, affective registers of subjectivity-making are available. We can refuse the often stifling, socially separate ways we’ve come to understand “politics,” as well as the canons we’ve been given to read and follow across invisible bodies.
Translations into prose or poetry aside, the social phenomena of mainstreamed inequalities assisting the solidity of what Benedict Anderson called “Imagined Communities” have a language of theory behind them that we scholars use. They describe real consequences of aspirations for western inclusion that scholars attempt to identify and change: “assimilation”; “integration”; “middle class respectability politics”; “sexist, racist heteropatriarchy”; “whiteness”. There was no Enlightenment without its slave.
American heroes like abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Civil Rights activist Tom Hayden (who both spent formative periods of their political lives in Ireland) both wrote proletarian prose kinds of social theory to locate real solutions for American inequality in an understanding between Irish and Irish-American cultures. They arguably advocated a form of “intersectionality”. And while they utilized this transnational relationship to advocate for its potential to culturally bolster unity across progressive social justice movements, the opposite could also certainly be the case.
Currently, American anti-choice organizations have a vested interest in funding and maintaining secondary personhood for women in Ireland, and to uphold and re-establish traditional patriarchy across the West. It is almost as if our current nuclear family power structures– those that pit us against our neighbors (in part by controlling our women), that don’t leverage us enough nationally or post-nationally against neoliberal policies, or that weaken us collectively against the privatizing actions of global multinational corporations– need to become disembodied ideas in order to maintain more of the same. This one has to do theoretically with “postmodernity” recycling the autonomous subject crises of “modernity”, this time without stabilizing structures of the public welfare state, local human connection, or the compulsory, one-income nuclear family that characterized pre-digital life. I won’t even go into that theory.
What I will say, is that many conservatives are looking to fix this fragmentation through social structures that have now had the history done, that we know clearly exploit and harm other people in that definition of community.
Lately it has also become expedient to pit the tradition of familial, aspiring whiteness against current migration crises caused by the accelerating, under-regulated globalisms that once re-centered such families. Such a nationalist closure of willful ignorance within the imperialist pecking order requires alarms of interiority to start ringing. So leave it to additional political reaches within this construction to bring up that ever-threatening War of the Sexes, which–much like the hovering specter of non-Western chaos at the Western door– stands poised to undo the most basic, male controlled foundations of human decency with a “culture of abortion,” an abortion-loving hysteria led by screaming, horny teenaged girls and valium-popping housewives of a pop-crazed, reproductive procedure ‘invasion’. Leave it for this reach of hypothetical specters to appear rational, natural even, even if these constructions are anything but.
Within such debates surrounding the Repeal the 8th campaign, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and faculty of Health & Life Sciences at University of Liverpool (and expert Repeal the 8th advocate) Louise Kenney has recently had to field accusations that repealing the 8th will lead to women seeking terminations based on sex selection, responding that “the idea that we would start embarking on termination for sex selection is offensive to all women.” In fact, it is extreme patriarchal societies that devalue girls and women by limiting them socially, politically and economically— in tandem with enforcing their status as reproductive chattel— which create the conditions for sex selection as a social problem.
The suggestion that women with reproductive choice will sex select is not just “offensive”. Implicit in this is the argument that women will sex select when they control their own bodies, because patriarchal societies that control women’s bodies do sex select. But equity of autonomy isn’t an inverted patriarchy. It doesn’t lead to the social inequities of sex selection. Sex selection happens on the extreme, instrumental end of the cultural selection of people– by sex– for instrumental social roles that are devalued, unpaid, underpaid, and compulsory. This is a profoundly Western problem.
Case in point, consider the recent six-week abortion ban in Iowa that is challenging American women’s federal guarantee via Roe vs. Wade at the state level, probably funded by the exact same groups funding the No campaign overseas. Our states here are often bigger than countries. Woman will long suffer as the legislation is fought through our court process, an unnecessary consequence of the cultural and social permissiveness to pass a law that so undermines constitutional rights in the first place. Many who can’t afford to travel for abortions will become compulsory young mothers and social reproducers of generational poverty, substandard healthcare, desperation, and cheap labor. Many of these poor women will be women of color, implicitly selected for further disadvantage and control by this law within the intersectional relations of power. Our protections for that revered word, “mother”, tend to apply only circumstantially to certain classes of women.
A 6-week ban is also being debated by Repeal the 8th foes as a stop gap because it is absurd, and its language deceives. Reproductively, it is difficult to determine a pregnancy by week six; biological process precludes it as a reasonable measure for cutting off access to an abortion that one could only need once they know they are pregnant. The accordingly sought notion of viable “heartbeat” is a semantic magic trick. This sex difference of reproductive systems being manipulated to politically exploit reproductive autonomy, conscript notions of gender to bodies, and force a condition impacting so many social life factors, is already a kind of sex role selection. It is unequal while refusing to respect–abusing even– an equity of difference. Women’s bodies are different and women demand reproductive equality.
When it comes to sex and power, we become used to arguing about such topics in a field of abstraction, where the illiberalities that we are uncomfortable with outside ‘the West’, such as termination for sex selection, are tokenized to justify our own illiberal legislation of women’s bodies and their positions as second class citizens. Women are born and bred and rewarded under this tokenization, internalize it like classed bricks against other, poorer women, and are assembled to maintain the front wall of privilege. Us out-of-touch social theorists call this anti-woman blinder put on women “internalized misogyny”. I think you know it.
A New York Times article on Ireland’s successful 8th Amendment campaign in 1983 recently recalled that “speakers compared abortion to the Holocaust, death camps in Cambodia, and wars in the Middle East.” The current reach for “sex selection” illustrates yet again how we verbally tokenize barbarisms of gender inequality as if they are threats from those Other places knocking on our door from the outside. Rather, they are on a continuum with the very ideologies of profound inequality that we across the West regularly embrace, rationalize, and throw out into the international world of exemplary policies and ideas. Words have consequences, even where they arrive as all talk: isolationist, apathetic, actionless.
The same New York Times article interviewed an Irish woman who recently left an anti-abortion meeting she had attended in sympathy, describing it as “American” in its adoption of public intimidation tactics. Cultural violence slides into actual violence. As an American (and a scholar of transnationalism), I have elected to contribute my work to Autonomy not just to help repeal the 8th in Ireland, but to simultaneously fight the American anti-choice groups that pour money into Ireland’s No campaign, to destigmatize the equity of women’s comprehensive reproductive healthcare in the West, and to de-popularize Western anti-choice gag rules placed on international healthcare aid elsewhere. Women everywhere are being forced to have the children of rape. This is part of why it works as a (sometimes western-funded) terrorism strategy.
Within the center, the slippery slope of gender devaluation by which women are forced into social reproduction roles are undeniably part of larger issues with women’s labor exploitation, gendered exclusion from forms of public life, and dehumanization of cis women and trans women to the point of murder. That this slope includes slippery things like pseudoscience over women’s lives– such as a “heartbeat” bill suggesting 6 weeks represents any kind of viability to force compulsory reproduction– only furthers our hyper-rational verbal culture towards violent conscriptions of gender that bind controllable ideas of “woman” to certain bodies.
The hyper-rationality justifying women’s violence via forced pregnancy, myriad forms of harassment, and real and social death does not disappear inside a polite, middle-class-aspiring bubble. Patriarchal comforts—once tucked safely back inside private houses of heteronormative, economically viable, male head of household power over nuclear families—will not make the sliding aspects of women’s oppression down to the our level of speech go away. Queue the #notallmen who swoop in to silence critics and make men look better without addressing the crises (the pay gaps, the domestic violence, the street harrassment, the pro sports rapes) women face, spouting things like “well, my wife” and “well, my daughters”, profoundly disparaging how obvious masculinisms might actually call for feminism. Being able to protectively ‘settle down’ with select childbearing women in this unequal sociocultural playing field doesn’t make women’s violence go away. It is the mechanism that maintains it.
It should be no surprise, then, despite how horrific, that the West is currently dealing with a reactionary subculture of incels: misogynist online communities that recycle eugenist-era pseudoscience to produce typologies of women who have been “intersexed” from their proper roles as “women”. It should be no surprise that their arguments attribute this supposed biological degeneration that cheats them of their subservience to women’s increased public sphere activity, dating, and higher education that goes along with a supposedly male right to sexual and reproductive autonomy. It should be no surprise that the threat of Women’s Lib to more complacent patriarchal structures of authority, entitlement, and non-reciprocity banked on ever-present violence would ideologically lead to the reactionary, hierarchical selection of living, breathing women by, yes, sex evaluation, for removal from society– an ideology just recently enacted by a mass murderer in Toronto.
It should be no surprise that just over a week later, we saw that radical terrorist ideology fetishized by a mainstream U.S. newspaper as a “rational” idea of “sex redistribution” away from its inherent social violence, how this similarly happened over an argument for women seeking legal abortions in the United States to be lynched. This intimidation eliminates certain kinds of “women” from the imagined community swimming pool. On a spectrum, forcing sexually active women to have children does this too. Social exclusion that punishes and prevents gender role non-compliance is a form of violence. Toward its extreme on the spectrum, it becomes what we like to call “domestic” violence to imply that this problem is of private incidence, as well as rape, lgbtq hate crime, and distinctly white, western, proto-genocidal terrorisms of sex selection.
There’s a real disconnect at the heart of our generalizing the rational individual away from his cultural (and real) casualties in the social body. Too often, his selective statements aren’t accountable either to real lives or credible sources. I find that the permissive, mainstream detachment of this abstract individual’s rational ideas from the impact of his entitled social experience far exceeds any accusation of detachment typically tossed around to discredit intellectualism or unfamiliar theory. Theory describes that impact. More plainly, how exactly does one distribute compulsory sex or reproduction based on biological difference (the status of being “cis women”) if you are not enslaving unwilling bodies to certain processes? Look no further for the staircase to that slippery slope than the endlessly re-conceptualizing, backbending logic manipulations of anti-choice groups over women’s reproductive equity and autonomy.
The abuse of rationalizing bodily violence is right here with us across the Western political mainstream, including the way we treat women like pleasing and status-increasing consumer products, like agreeable sex and labor machines, like inevitable baby factories (or socially delete them for better upgrades). We do this as if the reproduction of this economy and class pacificity through comfortable, well-integrated working-class white men in their castles depended upon it. There’s a theory for that one too. It’s called the “One-Dimensional Society” , and it’s part of a whole school of thought that tried to look honestly at why classic notions of revolution consistently, physically failed to follow through.
As the black, lesbian, feminist American poet Audre Lorde argued in Sister Outsider, we see social truths despite the repression of mainstream recognition. We know them in our bodies and experiences, in ridiculed forms of human knowledge deemed “feminine”. The trick is to put these truths to language, and to use language to grow a politics of difference that includes, values, and prioritizes these marginalized voices in our communities, that expands the community anew. Compare this to the daring, revolutionary move to coin the term “marital rape”, or to say that abortions already happening need public protections, not private desperation. Language tied to reality attends to our consciousness raising. The Personal Is Political. Sometimes, all the way up to the legislatures, the needle for women actually moves.
U.S. President Harry S. Truman was publicly known for his own slogan: “the buck stops here”. He commanded a unit of immigrant Irish and German Catholics in World War I (a long history of anti-Catholic military discrimination was part of John Riley’s rebellion), and later desegregated the military by “race, color, creed or national origin”. Truman also intentionally killed civilians as an “ends justifies the means” strategy in a second world war against…killing. If my irony seems too salty, makes me an unpalatable, expendable woman sometimes, it’s also because I’m an American who understands exchanges of theory and history across the Atlantic; I take all isolation built upon hypotheticals of fear and control, like some violent “culture of abortion” waiting in the wings, with a grain of salt. I want to know where the buck of violence stops in Ireland, here, now, realizing that the buck is also simultaneously the grease of American money and ideology in a machine that grinds up women.
Before James Connolly said that the worker is the slave of capitalist society and the female worker is the slave of that slave, he took the Green Atlantic to America, where his work exposed him to specific women’s labor issues articulated by Mother Jones, and he learned to advocate black intellectual critiques of racisms used for capitalist exploitation around the world (that was called “Pan-Africanism”). Connolly corrected white male activists with this. Ireland influences America, and America influences Ireland, but we are not alone.
The lines of globalization have irrevocably been laid. We ridicule them like tired nationalists while simultaneously benefitting from their comforts, kicking out their international by-products of interculturality, and desiring their complicit luxuries every single day. The whole world is watching the public intimidations of the No campaign. They look a lot like American ones. Sex selection and other bogeymans aside, Ireland’s own example of past and present brutality currently hangs in the balance. Ireland can help the West choose the right side of history. America needs your example. Repeal the 8th.
A poem from Autonomy:
Fire at the County Fair
by Jennifer Seaman Cook
One day my great aunt said belts made her nervous.
It was all the rusty smirk and silent implication needed
as she pincered it distastefully by the tail,
snake in the carpet, brass buckle teeth rattling
the storm warning, that knowing look telescoping
a line of inheritance that could strap ourselves
in at the chest for a ride anytime.
Suddenly his hands could be braced
around your neck, not knowing whether
you had stopped breathing on
your own or not, and you pitched up against
a dresser, or the door–I can’t exactly remember–
but when you later considered it
at a distant window, hands folded at the table,
a calm wind would let the cut flowers
weep their wasted pollen on the linens.
Who knew this falling, yellow silence could be
truth and consequences enough
to understand that the lost Prairie lament
had nothing on any of us, or that we would
smile wide open, strike our fingers,
and spark a poem together?
Note: the positions stated here do not reflect those of the publisher, editor, or contributors of the Autonomy anthology.
About the Author:
Jennifer Seaman Cook (@Histouroborus) is an American Studies scholar across the arts, media, and transnational cultural and social movements. In addition to her academic scholarship, her essays have been published by 3:am Magazine, Furtherfield, PopMatters, Salon, and Verso (forthcoming). Her poetry has been published with Berfrois, Cedilla Literary Journal (archived at University of Montana), Lunch Ticket, New Binary Press, Queen Mob’s Tea House and more. Jennifer has also consulted for documentaries produced for PBS, The Science Museum of London, and The Royal Academy of Arts.