Abortion, Contraception and the Neoliberal Moment

By Rudi Ann-Miller

University of California, Berkeley Professor Kristen Luker began her talk with a sobering, yet not surprising, truth: “Women’s lives and reproductive capacities are intimately interrelated with what happens in both the polity and civil society.” Indeed there is a fundamental relationship between reproductive behavior, social policy and gender and cultural norms. Luker, this year’s recipient of the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal for excellence in sociology, supposes that a threat arises when the state, the protector of citizen’s rights, subscribes to a neoliberal project that targets vulnerable sections of society such as women and their reproductive rights.

Kristin Luker
Kristen Luker

Neoliberalism emerged after the global fiscal crisis of the 1970s as the basis for the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) implemented in the developing world by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These SAPs aimed to help struggling nations achieve long-term economic growth by emphasizing policies such as the privatization of previously public enterprises. In the ensuing years, the United States also began to adopt a neoliberal mindset. The welfare safety net was reduced as critics of the welfare system saw vulnerable populations as simply the losers in the creative destruction of capitalism.

Neoliberalism views abortion and contraception as the drivers of the second demographic revolution in which women work, choose to marry and have children late, and the institution of marriage declines because it is seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. The second demographic revolution creates a political problem called the care deficit: when women go into the labor force, groups such as children, the elderly and the sick are not cared for. While the rich may be able to purchase care services, others rely on government programs and benefits for support. Unsurprisingly, neoliberalism hates the care deficit because it means creating more socially provided services. As a result, according to Luker, it seeks to restrict abortion and contraception incrementally.

Neoliberalism positions itself as being amoral—that is solely considering rational calculations. But in actuality it ushers in conservative agendas regarding family, gender and sexuality. It strategically serves to manage identities and reinforces patriarchal systems in the places it is adopted, most notably in Spain and Turkey, where religious fundamentalism has added an extra layer to the anti-abortion rhetoric. Although her research is in its early stages, Professor Luker argues that political action is necessary. “When women can control their fertility they can invest… in themselves. Marriage and unintended fertility can be the end for a woman,” she says.

On Yale’s campus, groups like Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale College (RALY) exist that are committed to the promotion of students’ control over their sexual and reproductive lives. In light of Luker’s talk, perhaps RALY can in some ways be seen as fighting against the prevailing neoliberal order.

Rudi Ann Miller is a sophomore in Silliman College. She can be contacted at rudi.ann-miller@yale.edu.