By Alexander Sanger
In the last week, Texas moved to criminalize abortion, while across the border Mexico moved to decriminalize it. Granted one (Texas) was by act of the legislature and Governor, while in Mexico it was by a unanimous Supreme Court. What is going on politically to account for such a divergent result?
To get to the politics, I argue first get to the demographics.
It was big news a month ago when the US census date were released, confirming trends that had been apparent for decades. The while US birth rate is on a continuing decline, falling behind that of Hispanics (which is also declining). Hispanics and other minorities are making up a greater percentage of the US population. In Texas, one headline in August 2021 stated that people of color made up 95% of the Texas population boom. In some quarters, in Texas and elsewhere, white fears of becoming a minority are real and not unfounded. In Texas, Hispanics constitute 40% of the population. There was much talk before the 2020 election of Texas turning Blue (i.e. Democratic) – this didn’t happen with Trump holding Texas with 52% of the vote. Still, Texas is getting closer to turning Democratic. White Republicans are panicking.
Commentators have focused on Republicans using abortion politics to cement white evangelical support (and some conservative Hispanic-Catholic support).
What happens when abortion is criminalized? Again, commentators say poor women, especially minorities, are targeted and most affected, being less able to travel to nearby states where abortion is legal. True. But white, poor women are affected too (and middle-class white women as well), their options hampered. Which demographic is more likely to turn to the back alleys? Which more likely to give birth? Time will tell.
This country has been through campaigns to criminalize abortion before. In the 19th Century, states (and the Federal government through its Comstock Laws) enacted measures criminalizing birth control and abortion, which had been legal since our nation was founded. What led to this?
The main factor, I argue, was demographics and immigration and the threat to white Protestant hegemony from Irish Catholic immigration. Hence the creation of the Know-Nothing Party (the 19th Century version of today’s arch-reactionary Republican Party). The Whites noted that their birth rate was less than the fecund Irish immigrants. Just one quote from those times (1874) from a prominent physician: “The annual destruction of fetuses has become so truly appalling among native American (Protestant) women that the Puritanic blood of ’76 will be but sparingly represented in the approaching centenary.” See my book, Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century for a longer discussion.
The physician was talking about white women’s abortion rates. Not minority or Irish. White. Has anything changed? I argue that the Texas legislature can see the demographic handwriting on the wall as did the 19thcentury physician. How to stop the decline of white population? Stop white women from having abortions. Stop the white wives and daughters of the legislators from terminating pregnancies. Grow the white birth rate. Make abortion illegal and arguably white women will obey, or so they hope. Do the legislators care about minority women’s reactions? Not one whit. Probably they hope minority women will go to back allies and lose, if not their lives, then their fecundity. A double victory for white supremacy.
What happened after abortion was criminalize in the 19th century? Did it work? The US birth rates continued their century-long decline. Women found a way. Too often it was to a back alley. Alternatively, a huge black market in home grown potions and abortifacients grew up, some of which may have worked, but too many of which killed the woman.
These days there are a legal drugs that cause a miscarriage. These are dispensed in this country and across the border in Mexico. I can see the cross-border trade ballooning in misoprostol and other abortifacient drugs, especially as the Mexican states eliminate their criminal abortion laws. Women will find a way. But too many women will see their health or life damaged or lost and the birth of an unwanted child.
As for Mexico, more study is needed on their racial politics. They are not post-racial as recent studies have shown. But the stark racial-political division is less evident.
The Texas legislature is playing a cynical game that it can’t win. Women, though, are the losers.