In this first piece on reproductive struggles in class society we bring to focus some of the facts and dangers surrounding abortion, as well as the family unit and prostitution, two phenomena that Marxists deem to be flipsides of the same coin, and inseparable from the struggle for reproductive freedom. In the following installments of this series we shall make mention of sterilization, the impact that the climate crisis has on us having children, sexual violence in times of imperialist conflict, religion and reproduction, and shed light on bourgeois laws as specific to the needs of capital, noting the consequential damages to the proletariat. Included in our sections on bourgeois laws and religion will be sex-selective abortions, China’s one (now two) child policy, Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran, and Catholic dominated regions such as Latin American countries and Poland – where we have seen another assault on reproductive rights just last month, which again was met with massive protest (although politically chained to the liberal opposition). The article linked here sheds some light on these protests in the meanwhile.1
Even today proletarian women are often denied the same freedom to control their own bodies as their less financially challenged ‘sisters’.2 Sex education is still woefully erratic, as is access to safe and effective contraception. While legal, accessible, affordable abortion is just not a practical option for those who are left to seek out a clandestine (“back-alley”) abortion or are forced to carry the pregnancy to term. These women, many of whom are single or lacking in adequate support networks, are forced to have children without the necessary money or time, as both are monopolized by wage-labor. A large number decide that it would be in their best interest to have an abortion due to this absence of needed resources or the desire to raise a child. When forced into situations of restricted access, many proletarian women give birth to babies who then grow up in environments which lack the necessities required for child-rearing.
Abortion and Contraception Facts and Dangers
Women of the bourgeois class have long had their own private physicians and ability to pay for safe clandestine abortions. On top of this is their adequate access to birth control – leaving abortion for them as purely a backup option. Meanwhile, “back-alley” abortions, sought by working-class women around the world, used to see the most notable tactic be the use of wire coat hangers – Clorox, knitting needles, Coke bottles, and sticks were also often used.3
Today in countries with legalized abortion, the pill RU486 – actually comprised of two pills, known medically as mifepristone and misoprostol – is commonly prescribed for abortions up until 9 weeks gestation.4 After 9 weeks, the procedure of surgical abortion at a specialist clinic or hospital is required.5 When performed by qualified health and medical professionals in hygienic conditions, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures and complications are relatively rare.
Meanwhile in many countries where abortion remains banned or heavily restricted, misoprostol pills are often legally sold in pharmacies for the treatment of ulcers and subsequently sought out by pregnant workers.6 Although much safer than older methods of back-alley abortion, using misoprostol comes with a significantly increased risk of experiencing potential health complications, when taken on its own, rather than in combination with mifepristone.7
The risk of complications also increases the further into the pregnancy that an abortion is needed. These risks include infection or damage of the womb, pregnancy remnants in the womb (incomplete abortion), continuation of the pregnancy, excessive bleeding, and a damaged cervix.8 When safely performed, abortion does not affect your chances of having normal pregnancies in the future. But repeated abortions have been associated with an increased risk of premature birth and potential risks to your fertility and future pregnancies if womb infection develops and is not treated promptly. Many people are able to get pregnant immediately after the procedure, so it is necessary to start using contraception right away.
The only contraception that largely protects against pregnancy, disease and infection comes in the form of the condom. While other temporary measures include: natural calendar based methods, spermicide, birth control pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), contraceptive implants (Nexplanon), hormonal patches, and injections. More permanent forms of contraception include: tubal ligations, hysterectomies, and vasectomies. All of these forms of contraception help prevent pregnancy, come with their own benefits and risk factors, and have varying levels of efficiency.9 For example, birth control pills can reduce the risks of some cancers and pelvic inflammatory disease, but come with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. IUDs are highly effective in preventing pregnancy, but they come with a risk of infection that other contraceptives do not. Some forms of birth control can also have a negative effect on an individual’s mood, weight, libido, or cause physical pain or irritation. In regards to male contraceptive measures, beyond condoms and vasectomies, much more still needs to be done to see such a thing be commonplace and readily accessible.
While the majority of people who seek to terminate their pregnancy are straight cisgender women – lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers are also heavily impacted by whether adequate contraception and safe abortion are accessible. Increased risk of sexual assault and attempts to combat bullying in school or otherwise conceal their sexual or gender identity can lead to adolescent sexual and gender minorities who are capable of pregnancy, falling pregnant at a much higher rate than their straight cisgender counterparts. Due to this, they are said to be at least twice as likely to seek out an abortion.10
The Bourgeois Family Unit, Domestic Violence, and Prostitution
As Marx wrote in The German Ideology, “The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children”.11 The development of monogamous marriage created the first form of the family, one based on economic conditions and the preservation of private property. Engels added on to Marx’s prior statement that “The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.”. This in no way implies that women and men comprise two separate classes. It simply means that the oppression of the female sex arose with that of class oppression. The husband has a position of supremacy over his wife within the bourgeois family unit; in the heyday of industrial capitalism he was the one expected to support the family through his wages, placing him in a position of financial dominance – giving him the power to make financial decisions for the family, or cut off support at his will. Despite the fact that many women were employed, especially in factories and mills, the standard picture was that women, especially married women, should manage the household. By carrying out their family duties, the proletarian woman is excluded from social production and falls financially dependent on her husband. Thus, the bourgeois family unit provides a basis for the oppression of the proletarian woman.
Male supremacy within the household was and is protected by law. Within the proletarian family, the introduction of women into the labor market allowed them to become the head wage-laborer of the household. In such cases, it would appear there is no economic basis for male supremacy within the family. However, that is not to say that such supremacy fails to exist, either in legal terms or in terms of social norms. The integration of women into the workforce created a dual-dependency; in addition to their financial dependence on their husbands, women were now exploited through the commodification of their labor-power.12
Part of the reason for this is that women comprise a cheap labor force and still today are paid less than men for the same amount and quality of work.13 In addition, many proletarian women spend less time than their male counterparts wage-laboring and continue to take up the non-waged domestic labor of the household.14 Women are here seen as still somewhat excluded from social production, rendering them unable to truly gain economic independence.
Carrying a pregnancy to term largely confines the proletarian woman to the non-waged labor of child-rearing. The time which she spends taking care of her children and running the household is time taken away from selling her labor-power. Thus, she is subordinated to her husband due to his economic supremacy over her, which reinforces the male supremacy within the family. Although proletarian women cannot be emancipated without the abolition of class society, women’s entry into social production was a necessary precondition for this abolition.
Proletarian women are often forced to stay in relationships against their wishes due to unwanted pregnancies and inaccessibility of abortions. This is especially dangerous for them and their children in cases of domestic violence: violence which is often not recognized as such, but on the contrary, regarded as a right to inflict it. Marital rape, for instance, only became fully criminalized in England in 2003.15 Even today, countries such as China, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Bangladesh, and Algeria, still do not fully recognize rape within marriage to be a criminal offense. Another example is Russia, where “non-aggravated” battery was decriminalized in 2017 – an action which has led to a rise in domestic violence, as well as a decrease in the number of cases reported. It has left victims less inclined to try and leave or seek any form of help since their experiences are now largely deemed acceptable in the eyes of the law. In many instances where they do reach out for help, the police do nothing, leaving the victims vulnerable to retaliation for speaking out or trying to escape.16 Here, we could go as far as saying that the cycle of violence is the raison d’être of the bourgeois family unit.
Domestic violence reinforces the victim’s economic dependence on the aggressor, which prevents many women from leaving – especially if there are children involved. Confined to the duties of the household and child-rearing, women cannot escape violent relationships without the necessary economic independence that would free them from the control of their husbands. The aggressor may even prevent his partner from working or keep her isolated to make sure she remains financially dependent on him.17 Even in cases where the victim is employed, the aggressor may force her to give up her earnings, or even steal her paychecks without her knowledge. Thus, she is forced to stay and remain at his mercy.
Research has shown that women who experience unintended pregnancies are often at greater risk of domestic violence. A New Zealand study indicated that 13.4% of women who had an unintended pregnancy experienced physical violence from their partners within the next 6 years, compared to 5.4% who experienced physical violence after having intended pregnancies.18 This could be due to the fact that unintended pregnancies cause additional strain on relationships and the financial and emotional stresses involved in child-rearing could potentially exacerbate abusive behaviors.
Reproductive coercion and control is a form of sexual violence that is prevalent among victims of domestic violence. It includes sabotaging contraceptive methods, coercing a partner to have unprotected sex, and attempting to or succeeding in impregnating a partner against their will.19 According to an Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) survey of domestic violence victims in the US, four in ten women reported that a partner had forced them to stop using birth control or attempted to impregnate them against their will. 84% became pregnant. Another cross-sectional study investigating young women in Northern California found that out of the 53% of participants who reported intimate partner violence, 19% experienced pregnancy coercion, 15% experienced birth control sabotage, and 35% experienced reproductive control from their partners. Pregnancy coercion and birth control sabotage were both found to be associated with unintended pregnancy.20
It is evident that reproductive coercion and control limits the victim’s ability to retain a job or education, since full-time child-rearing creates barriers to working or studying. The majority of the victims in the IWPR study reported experiencing financial abuse from their partners; ⅔ of the survivors indicated that intimate partner violence had hindered their educational and job opportunities, and 83% reported that their partners had disrupted their ability to work. Reproductive coercion and control strengthens the bourgeois family unit by establishing a dynamic in which the victim becomes financially dependent on the aggressor, unable to leave because of a lack of economic freedom.
One of the most concerning things about everything we have mentioned above is that so many people still do not even understand what domestic violence is. In Australia, for example, recent studies have shown that, within the 18-34 age range, more than 4 in 10 men did not consider punching, hitting, or restraining a partner to be domestic violence. Almost half did not believe that controlling finances and forcing one’s partner into economic dependency are acts of domestic violence. These numbers do not even indicate how many must still not recognize psychological abuse and verbal degradation to also be forms of intimate partner violence. Emotional abuse, usually in the form of manipulation and gaslighting – a method of psychological control which involves breaking down an individual’s mental state over a prolonged period of time, causing them to doubt their thoughts, experiences, and even their own sanity – can often be a precursor to physical violence; often, they go hand in hand. Interestingly, it was reported that people across all genders from the older generations were more inclined to recognize domestic violence.21
Although domestic violence victims are disproportionately female and this article focuses mainly on this factor, as proletarians see our living conditions increasingly decline, more and more working men, in both straight and gay relationships, are also finding themselves either trapped in a toxic or violent home environment, that they would rather leave, or left out on the streets at further risk of COVID and other dangers.22 The COVID-19 pandemic, and its subsequent lockdowns, lay-offs, and income decreases, has only exacerbated what were already high domestic violence rates around the world. It has also further impaired the ability for working-class victims of any gender to be able to leave. This is a subject that comrades in CWO and Klasbatalo wrote on earlier this year and one that we are also currently writing about, separate from this series of articles, in order to give an updated view of the situation before and during the pandemic.23
Although the brunt of childcare and the consequences of unintended pregnancies fall primarily on the mother, fathers are also affected by restrictive abortion laws. Proletarian men who are loving and caring partners may have to work greater hours, increasing their dependence on capital as they struggle to support their families. Since the majority of their time is occupied by wage-labor, they may grow distant from their families and become unable to develop proper relationships with their children. Regardless of devotion to their families and partners, an unintentional pregnancy in conjunction with economic burden can hinder relationships, since marriages beginning after an unintended conception have a greater chance of failure.24 If it ends in divorce, the now-single mother is likely to have a more difficult time balancing both domestic and wage-labor in order to provide for her child on her own.
Capital acquires its needs through the law, with restrictions on reproductive freedom reinforcing working women’s subjugation within the household through a division that only strengthens the bourgeois class.
Within the shadows of the bourgeois family unit, prostitution (sex work) thrives, with capital forcing millions of proletarians to resort to selling sexual access to their bodies for the sake of survival. Many others see themselves forced or trapped in the industry in the form of being trafficked: manipulation, threats, physical violence, and withholding of pay or legal documentation (such as passports), these are just a few ways in which this extra level of force can manifest. Although prostitution predates capitalism, it does not predate class society. In the ancient and medieval world prostitutes served as the legal complement to exclusive familial relationships and were tolerated by society.25 With the rise of capitalism, more toiling women were thrust into this form of labor, a direct result of both the exploitation of labor by capital in and of itself and women’s barriers to the legal labor force. Bourgeois society simultaneously encourages prostitution while punishing and shaming prostitutes.
Alexandra Kollontai described prostitution as a social phenomenon necessarily tied to the economic dependence women face in marriage. She stated that the woman sells herself legally to her husband; rendering her confined to the household, and financially dependent on her husband. The wife and the prostitute both have an economic dependence on men; be it inside or outside of legal marriage, each resort to selling themselves for survival. Thus, prostitution could be considered the flipside of bourgeois marriage. This is depicted clearly in the cycle of violence; the proletarian woman who relies on the aggressor’s wages to survive is confined to the bourgeois family unit. In order to escape his violence, she resorts to prostitution to provide for her and her children.
Prostitution is a form of wage-labor which particularly impedes on reproductive freedom. Reproduction on one’s own terms becomes impossible when it is coerced through wage-laboring. For instance, unwanted pregnancies as a result of prostitution often result in the sex worker only becoming further trapped in the industry. As Kollontai wrote, “When a woman’s wages are insufficient to keep her alive, the sale of favors seems a possible subsidiary occupation.”. Unable to access reproductive care, women who have unintended pregnancies can fall into poverty without having the resources to raise a child – especially if they are already at a financial disadvantage. The proletarian woman’s dependence on capital puts her in a position in which she partakes in prostitution to provide for her child. This cycle is perpetuated by the nature of prostitution and limited access to contraceptives – sex workers who have children as a result of their occupation are then forced to remain in prostitution in order to care for their children.
This is the case in many countries in which abortion is illegal or inaccessible to the majority of proletarian women. In Uganda, the penal code allows for abortion in instances where the pregnancy is a threat to the pregnant person’s life, physical, or mental health. However, the laws are vague enough that it is unclear under which circumstances abortion is legally permitted, resulting in many medical providers refusing to perform abortions at all in order to avoid legal consequences.26 Despite the restrictive laws, 314,500 women in Uganda had abortions in 2013, many of whom were sex workers. Contributing factors to low contraceptive use in Uganda and other countries across Africa include: poverty, cultural values, spousal violence and a lack of support, health and sexual education services.27 This helps fuel unintended pregnancies which in turn increases the rate of maternal and infant mortality. This is due to proletarian women delivering their babies with unskilled or low skilled assistance.
Many sex workers living in Uganda have unintended pregnancies due to the lack of knowledge and accessibility surrounding contraceptives and sex education – along with men typically not wanting to use condoms. Some accounts tell of sex workers being unaware of abortion medications and instead, nearly dying from the use of washing detergent and tea leaves as alternative abortion methods. Other accounts tell of workers who were raped by clients, attempting to have an abortion by ingesting local herbs or taking homeopathic medications – all of which were unsuccessful, forcing them to give birth against their wishes. Much like criminalizing prostitution does nothing to help those who have no other options nor those who are forced into the industry against their will, criminalizing abortion does not stop abortions from happening – it simply makes the procedures more dangerous and, in many cases, fatal.
Similar to Uganda’s penal code, abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape, fetal abnormality, or if the mother’s life is at risk.28 Despite these laws, one in five women by the age of 40 reported that they have had at least one abortion. In 2015 a study among sex workers in Brazil showed that more than half of those surveyed had obtained at least one abortion in their lifetimes; the most common method used was misoprostol. Those who used more invasive methods of abortion, such as needles and uterine probes, faced greater medical complications such as hemorrhage and infection. Although the majority of sex workers who used misoprostol went to the hospital to confirm the completion of the procedure, most refrained from disclosing the abortion to medical professionals – likely to avoid punishment or legal consequences. Furthermore, many sex workers who induced abortions themselves received misoprostol from illegal drug distributors, which included counterfeit pills that took larger amounts to ensure that the abortion would be successful.
In studies conducted across Iran29; Russia30; Colombia31; and Zambia32; it was found that a large amount of sex workers reported to having at least one abortion in their lifetimes, many of which were induced. In most of these countries, little to no contraceptive methods were used. These results indicate that a restriction of legal access to abortions has little to no impact in stopping women from seeking them. However, it is clear these that laws target working-class women, who are then forced to resort to dangerous, and even potentially lethal methods to perform these abortions themselves, often seeking little to no medical care to avoid any legal repercussions.33
In countries such as the United Kingdom, where a fifth of the population now fall below the poverty line, there has been an increase in “survival sex”, particularly among workers at risk of homelessness.34 The housing crisis in the UK has prompted the rise of “sex for rent” situations, in which landlords prey on the vulnerable by offering a room in exchange for sex.35 Often, those who refuse to partake in this are punished; in some cases, landlords proposition sex to struggling tenants as an alternative method of payment, to which the tenant may be evicted if they refuse. With capitalism inherently necessitating the exploitation of most of the human race, it is not simply a matter of having a broken system as bourgeois reformists claim. The capitalist system has come full circle and resulted in more and more unemployed and precariously employed proletarians being coerced into providing sexual access to their bodies in exchange for food and shelter.
This article contains a lot of information that we wrote before the current COVID-19 pandemic hit and only worsened conditions. With lockdowns and other restrictions coming and going, many sex workers have seen themselves face the same sorts of struggle as all other workers. They have either been put out of work due to the health risks of the pandemic and legal repercussions of breaking lockdown or they have had to continue working under these extremely risky conditions. Laws and restrictions on prostitution in Canada have resulted in many sex workers unable to even access government assistance.36
As Engels wrote, the abolition of the family is necessary for the abolition of prostitution, as both are rooted in private property and the dependence of women on men.37 This can only be done through the abolition of class society, through an international proletarian revolution. Upon the realization of a world which has abolished all the components of class society and meets everyone’s needs, there will be no channel for the commodification of women’s or anyone else’s bodies to exist. Children will no longer be brought into the world through prostitution. Women who wish to have children will be able to do so without being confined to the household. Children will be raised communally, the brunt of the labor no longer falling on the mother. People would no longer be forced to partake in unwanted sexual acts in order to survive, nor could they prey on others in that situation, and instead would be able to enjoy consensual sex for mutual pleasure. Only upon this abolition taking place will there be true reproductive freedom and the liberation of all of humanity.
EL (IWG) & EK (ICO)
6 Julia McReynolds-Pérez, “Argentina’s abortion activism in the age of misoprostol” Global Dialogue: Magazine of the International Sociological Association, vol 1., iss 1., accessed May 26 2019, globaldialogue.isa-sociology.org
20 Elizabeth Miller, Michael R. Decker, Heather L. McCauley et al., “Pregnancy coercion, intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy,” Contraception 81, no. 4 (April 2010): xx, doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2009.12.004
29 Mohammad Karamouzian, Ali Mirzazadeh, Mostafa Shokoohi et al. “Lifetime Abortion of Female Sex Workers in Iran: Findings of a National Bio-Behavioural Survey In 2010” in PloS One 11, (11) (Nov 2016), dx.doi.org
30 Michele R. Decker, Eileen A. Yam, Andrea L. Wirtz et al. “Induced abortion, contraceptive use, and dual protection among female sex workers in Moscow, Russia” in Int J Gynaecol Obstet, 120, (1) (Oct 2012), dx.doi.org
31 Christian T. Bautista, Alfredo Mejía, Luis Leal et al. “Prevalence of lifetime abortion and methods of contraception among female sex workers in Bogota, Colombia” in Contraception 77, (2008): 209–213, dx.doi.org
32 Michael M. Chanda, Katrina F. Ortblad, Magdalene et al. “Contraceptive use and unplanned pregnancy among female sex workers in Zambia” in Contraception 96, (3) (Sep 2017): 196-202 doi:10.1016/j.contraception.2017.07.003
33 Alberto Pereira Madiero and Debora Diniz, “Induced abortion among Brazilian female sex workers: a qualitative study”
37 This refers to the family as an economic unit, the bourgeois family unit.