ACM: On attacks on women’s reproductive rights: budgets, no choices, and eugenics, oh my!

By NY Brit Expat

An incident at dinner in Italy during my vacation there and the subsequent discussion has driven me to prioritise this piece. Following a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant, one man decided that it was time for us to listen to his misogyny on women’s reproductive rights. I knew he was saying offensive things as the two English speakers at the table refused to translate what he was saying. Upon my insistence, he tried to speak in English, but what he was saying was so offensive I refused to believe he was saying it. I turned to my husband and the other English speaking friend and they shook their heads yes, that is what he was saying. This man argued that women have to the right to choice but if they get pregnant with a child they do not want, they must be forced to carry the child to term and to give it up for adoption. Those that know me would not be surprised at my angry response in which I spoke of women having the right of property in their own body, spoke of bodily autonomy and reminded him that we were not incubators, but human beings. I concluded by calling him a misogynist and telling him that this was not an opinion but hate speech.

Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978 when Law 194 was passed. While not a perfect law, it was won after intense struggle by the women’s movement. This law not only guaranteed access to abortion, but access  to reproductive health care, contraception, and a whole range of rights for women and these were tied into public health provision. Like in the US (and this has been a failing in both countries), the conscientious objector clause has led to a decrease in the numbers of medical professionals willing to carry out the procedure on religious grounds (and in the US due to pressure from anti-abortion activists). So to hear someone (who is not religious) babbling this crap at me following dinner was way too much. So, who ruined dinner? Was it him or me?

This incident highlighted something that has become extremely obvious and this applies both to women’s rights and to racism. The days when someone who held these offensive positions knew to keep their mouths shut is long gone; instead they pose hate speech as opinion and demand their right to preach it.  Our response must be swift and strong so that these troglodytes are driven back to the primordial soup from which they have barely crawled out from.

In a follow-up discussion on the way to the car park, I told my English speaking friend what just passed the British parliament as part of the Welfare Bill. I told him that the Tories are changing the nature of the social welfare state which covered all women (child-tax credits, child benefits) to only cover the poor and working class. And then I told him about the limits to benefits only to 2 children in the future. I explained that the former made it easier to eliminate benefits totally (why should taxpayers take care of the working class – employed and unemployed — after all?). I explained the latter policy was a form of eugenics and was a neo-Malthusian policy. While he agreed with the former (he is a mainstream neoclassical after all), he was horrified at the latter (maybe because he has 5 children and has benefited from receiving benefits in several countries to help with covering the costs for all his children).

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When women talk about reproductive rights and justice they are not only speaking about women’s rights to not have children. This is an essential part of reproductive rights: the right to choose not to have children, to have access to birth contraceptives abortion and voluntary sterilisation. But we are also speaking of the right of women to have children and to determine when and how many. This right has been most often denied to working class women, disabled women and to women of colour. Sterilisation abuse and forced usage of birth control against working class women, disabled women and women of colour is part of a long-term agenda of eugenics and neo-Malthusianism.

Wealthier white women fought for the right to not have children and to choose when they had them and to demand sterilisation without the consent of their husbands. Eugenics law that promoted the “betterment of the human race” by forcing wealthier white women to have children also led to laws that demanded the use of birth control to access welfare benefits and forced sterilisation for working class women. These laws have been the tools of choice against working class women, women of colour and disabled women and have been used to prevent their choosing to have children and to limit the numbers that they had. In the US, to this day, eugenics laws are still on the books to be used against disabled women; Buck vs Bell (1927) in which the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilisation of the unfit did not violate the Due Process Clause of the US constitution.  This endorsement of negative eugenics has not been repealed and still stands as US law. So to say that to leave things of the past in the past doesn’t really hold up as these things of the past tend to revive. After all, patriarchy is still strong and these arguments are not only a position of patriarchy but of the bourgeoisie that does not feel the need to humour women in their bizarre beliefs that they, not the family, not the church and not the state control their own bodies.

The British Welfare Bill

As is probable most people are not following the transformation of the social welfare state in Britain first under the Coalition government (Tories and Liberal Democrats) and as such are not following the discussion now that the Tories are ruling Britain on their own. Using the excuse of high deficit/GDP ratio, cuts were instituted in both the state sector and welfare benefits available to British citizens. Both governments have carried out attacks on the size and quality of benefits available to British citizens.

There has been a shift from access due to situation towards mean-tested benefits.  These have shifted the nature of the welfare state from a universal welfare state covering all towards only covering those of lower incomes – in other words, they are shifting the nature of the British welfare state to that which exists in the US.

Describing unemployment as a situation where there is a problem of labour supply (people are lazy, indolent, dissolute) where unemployment is seen as a voluntary choice due to the existence of benefits, they have altered several things.

The first policy is to cut the level of benefits using the argument that those out of work should have a lower income than those in work (Bentham’s principle of less eligibility). The second is to reduce the numbers on disability benefits through forcing those on disability to be evaluated for receiving disability benefits (with the evaluation done by a private firm tasked to reduce numbers and not by doctors or medical professionals); disabled people are either granted full payment, put in a work related activity group (WRAG) or put onto Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) (in the latest change; they have eliminated the different payments between WRAG and JSA), the amount received decreasing due to categorisation. The third part of this attack is to tie this to trying to force people into work first drawing them into unpaid labour (their income is their benefits) essentially working for free for employers (workfare — a present from the US, thanks Bill Clinton) a modern version of the 1834 Poor Law Reform where you get benefits if you work for them – so Bentham had argued both that the government should provide for the poor and disabled rather than private and religious charities which was argued by the Reverend T.R. Malthus (described as the dirty reverend by Marx). Instead he categorised what constituted eligible and ineligible poor and then arguing that all should be put in a workhouses to earn their Poor Relief; that is, income must be tied to work of some kind. The fourth is essentially confining the welfare state to only cover the most destitute.

The ideas and policies of dead white men and how to address poverty and the dangers of population growth (of the poor) – a digression:

Bentham is a classical liberal and the founder of Utilitarianism.   He had written extensively on morality, poverty and its remedies, and how to run penitentiaries (see the Panopticon). One probably wonders why I am talking about dead white men again. Well they are dead, but unfortunately for the working class, their ideas live on.

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Jeremy Bentham

If Bentham was bad enough (the 1834 poor law reform based on his recommendations did nothing to reduce poverty), we now have a revival of Malthusianism. We are not even talking about Francis Place here (who upon accepting Malthus’s principle of population advocated giving birth control to the poor when he himself was the father of 15 children with 10 surviving to adulthood), we are talking straight-out good old fashioned Malthusianism which argued that poverty arose due to the insufficiency of food supply (increasing arithmetically originally and then constrained by the fertility of the soil in his later versions) relative to the increase in population growth (which for some reason increased geometrically; he uses the argument to oppose redistribution of income to the poor as that will, of course, as we cannot control our lustful ways will automatically lead to increases in population which will, of course, lower wages as infants work as Malthus clearly argues that wages depend on the supply of labour relative to its demand by capital for its use in production).

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The Reverend T.R. Malthus

So Malthus is arguing two things: 1) that subsistence production is given, it is constrained by given land resources (this is a significant departure from Smith and Ricardo who argue that what is produced is determined by demand; Ricardo was not worried about producing food, but rather that the rate of profits would fall as so much of the surplus would be eaten up by rents as workers must receive their subsistence); 2) that population has a tendency to rise (for whatever reason) and that that will keep wages at the bare physical subsistence level as any deviation will lead to expanding populations (see lust above) and will lead to population outstripping food supply.

Malthus argued to counter this tendency positively that the working class should abstain from marriage until they have the means of supporting their families.  Place recognised the absurdity of such an idea (as though women’s fertility only rises in marriage and that people will abstain from sex until marriage; he knew it wouldn’t from personal experience) and instead argued for the use of contraceptives for the poor to keep their population under control. He also argued strenuously against William Godwin (one of the early founders of anarchism) as Godwin rejected Malthus’s principle of population and his remedies and argued against private property and for the right of working people to have children.

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William Godwin

The Godwin-Malthus debate on population was one of the highlights of the late 18th and early 19th century’s political discussion; unfortunately, Malthus won that one. Malthus was loathed by the working class while William Godwin was loved; but Malthus had the favour of the ruling class and we know whose ideas survived to this day.

Quoting William Godwin,

“[…] Thus among the civilized nations of Europe, by means of a territorial monopoly, the sources of subsistence are kept within a certain limit, and, if the population became overstocked, the lowest ranks of the inhabitants would be still more incapable of procuring for themselves the necessaries of life. There are, no doubt, extraordinary circumstances, by means of which changes are occasionally introduced in this respect; but in ordinary cases the standard of population is held in a manner stationary for centuries. Thus the established administration of property may be considered as strangling a considerable portion of our children in their cradle. Whatever may be the value of the life of man, or rather whatever would be his capability of happiness in a free and equal state of society, the system we are here opposing may be considered as arresting, upon the threshold of existence, four-fifths of that value and happiness (Godwin, 1798, Political Justice, Vol ii, p. 466, 3rd edition, as quoted by Place, 1822, Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, AM Kelley Publishers, p. 132).”

Francis Place somehow draws the conclusion that Godwin is arguing that we should practice infanticide (reading the above quote that is not present at all, instead Godwin is arguing for a change in property relations that are causing so many children of the working class not to be born as they cannot be fed in the capitalist system) and correctly calls that uncivilised. Even if Godwin did argue that position facetiously, it seems that Place probably would have thought Jonathan Swift was serious when he argued that the poor should eat their own children in A Modest Proposal). So Place not only misses the point (this is probably deliberate as he was a big fan of capitalist property relations), but make bizarre accusations against Godwin. It seems that character assassination is an old art.

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Francis Place

For those that do not know (and most people do not know), Francis Place is considered as one of the fathers of the birth control movement. This is true, but his birth control recommendations are placed in the context of Malthus’s principle of population. While rejecting Malthus’s recommendations about abstinence, he accepts the principle itself and its conclusions.  The same can be argued of early women’s struggles for birth control and their links to eugenics. While this may have been done (and I have heard this argued) for access to money to increase the availability of birth control for women, it has been an argument which has been used against poor women, women of colour and disabled women for over a century. It is notable that there is never a demand that the women of the ruling classes and the rising middle class need to use birth control (for them it was a question of accessing it without the consent of their husbands), the argument is relevant for the women without property (aka poor women as that is how poor was defined back in the 19th century).

We must support women’s reproductive rights to give women control over their bodies. We must recognise women’s right to bodily autonomy. We need access to education, health care, contraceptives, voluntary sterilisation and abortion. We should never support access to any of these things because of the boogie-man of population and the dangers of working class, peasants and the poor eating us out of house and home. Women must have this right without qualification and that is where we must stand; it is not only an issue of reproductive rights, it is an issue of reproductive justice.

What was in The British Welfare Bill? (and what were Labour thinking?)

This brings us back to the Welfare Bill that was just passed in the British Parliament.  The refusal of the Labour party to oppose the Welfare Bill and instead abstain led to 4 out of 5 Labour members of Parliament abstaining on a bill whose purpose was to destroy the universal welfare state and continue to lower incomes for the working class. On the plus side, 48 members of the Labour party in Parliament actually opposed it. The fact that the temporary acting leader of the Labour party is a woman, Harriet Harman, literally demonstrates the failures of liberal feminism (she claims to be a feminist). Using the pretext that “we cannot oppose everything,” she said that she supported restriction of child tax credits to a two child maximum. Happily, other parties decided to act as an opposition in Labour’s absence (e.g., the Scottish National Party and the Greens).

If you have the stomach for it, here is the government’s ideological justification for their policies entitled a “Fixing the Foundations, Creating a More Prosperous Nation.” I am extracting a part of the discussion for the purposes of this piece as it is concerned with the Welfare Bill:

10: A higher pay, lower welfare society:

Despite progress during the last Parliament, the welfare bill remains stubbornly and disproportionately high. The welfare system should ensure that people are incentivised and helped to find work which is fairly paid, and that the taxpayer does not subsidise low pay or foot the bill for an unfair system where too many people remain on benefits. The government will:

• further reduce the household benefit cap alongside a four year freeze in working age benefits (except disability benefits and statutory payment)

• increase the personal allowance to £11,000 in 2016-17, ensuring that 29 million people will keep more of their hard-earned income next year

• introduce a National Living Wage (NLW) for workers aged 25 and over, to reach £9 by 2020

• reform the tax credits system (and its successor, Universal Credit) to focus it on those on lower incomes and end unlimited support for large families.

11: More people with a chance to work and progress:

“There are still too many people for whom there are unfair or distorting barriers to work – including women and disabled people, whose high levels of skill are too often underused. The government has set out stretching ambitions to increase employment and halve the disability employment gap: the government will therefore:

• double the free entitlement to childcare, to 30 hours a week for working parents of three and four year olds

• expect parents claiming Universal Credit to do more to look for work when their youngest child turns 3, and to prepare for work when their youngest child turns 2

• reform Employment and Support Allowance to ensure the right incentives and support are in place for those capable of taking steps back to work, by ensuring that new claimants who are placed in the Work Related Activity Group receive the same rate as those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance

• introduce a new Youth Obligation for 18 to 21 year olds on Universal Credit (pp. 11-12).”

To clarify, the “youth obligation” has to do with being in employment, in an apprenticeship or work-related training. They are demanding women to start to work when their children are over 3.

If you want to know how badly this will impact upon British citizens as it is not only the working class that is losing benefits, Andrew Hood of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has done an analysis of the distributional impact of these budgetary changes.

These include £12 billion pounds of benefit cuts by 2019-2020. A four year freeze to working-age benefits (4.8% real cut in benefits given projected consumer price index changes) with 13 million families losing £260 a year on average (and 7.14 million in work will lose on average £280 a year). This freeze comes on top of the 1% increase freeze in benefits since 2013. Cuts to tax credits and universal credit are being introduced. From 2017, tax credits and universal entitlement credits will be limited to only the first two children; subsequent children will not be covered. As Hood points out, “currently 872,000 families are getting an average of £3,670 a year of support for third and subsequent children (548,000 in work).” They are also abolishing the family element in child tax credit from April 2017 which provided extra money for the birth of the first child and the increased costs to help cover this addition to the family (… ). Needless to say, these policies will make poor children even poorer.

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Iain Duncan Smith (Minister of Works and Pensions) Celebrating the destruction of the universal welfare state at the Summer Budget

According to Hood, the biggest changes are the cuts to work allowances. There is a large reduction in how much families can earn before tax credits/universal credit (UC) start to be withdrawn. Under the new law tax credits start to be withdrawn once family earnings are above £3,850, rather than £6,420 which they are currently. Universal credit is also withdrawn much earlier (straight away for non-disabled households without children).

Then, of course, there are the changes to benefits themselves:

“Reduction in the benefit cap

• Total annual amount of benefit out-of-work families can receive limited to £26,000 (£18,200 for single adults without kids) – Only 23,000 families currently capped

• Benefit cap cut to £23,000 (£15,410) inside London and £20,000 (£13,400) outside London from April 2016 – Saving only £200m in 2020-21 after other changes – But maximum loss of £6,000 (£3,000 in London)

• Evidence that small proportion (c.5ppts) of those affected by current benefit cap responded by moving into work – Very few responded by moving to a cheaper property

Other benefit changes

• Abolishing work-related activity group premium in ESA for new claimants: £640m in 2020-21 – Currently 488,000 claimants receiving £29 a week premium (20% of all ESA claimants) – Weakens incentive to get into the WRA group (rather than JSA), strengthens incentive to get into the support group

• Changing support for mortgage interest from benefit to loan: £250m in 2020-21 – Significant strengthening of the work incentives of home-owners

• Entitlement to housing benefit removed for most childless 18-21 year olds who are out of work: £40m in 2020-21 (… ).”

You probably have noticed that they are introducing a new minimum wage of £7.20, but Hood points out that this will not compensate the loss of income from benefit cuts. In fact, it is a loss of income and a codification of lower wage levels and is a con.

According to Damien Gayle of the Guardian (the article was republished by Welfare Weekly), the changes in the welfare cap will impact strongly upon single parents caring for a child under 5 years of age; invariably these are women. Childcare costs are rising which are forcing women out of work. Rising rents in London are leading to social cleansing due to the insufficiency of social housing (sold off under Thatcher and not replaced), the increase in buy-to-let (which means that people buy houses for the purposes of letting them out to make an income off of the rents) and housing speculation (buying houses for speculative purposes as prices are rising). Moreover, rising rents are leading to a rise in housing benefits which are going into the hands of speculators and it also means that large amounts of income are now going to paying rent. The Tories have introduced a new wave of right to buy for those in social housing and to add insult to injury have introduced a social rent cap for social landlords (housing authorities and councils) in England which will impact maintenance of social housing (see Joe Halewood‘s excellent article for a fuller discussion of the impact on social housing and families); even more so, the rent increases go to the treasury, not the local council if your landlord is the local council. There is also the pay to stay part of the Housing benefit changes; that is, if you earn more than £40,000 you will have to pay market rate rents to stay in social housing; this reinforces that social housing is only for the most destitute people (in its beginnings, social housing was for all working class people).

The removal of housing benefits to unemployed 18-21 years old means that those living at home with parents will not get money if they want to move out of the house and start living on their own if they have no job. Moreover, if they are not in training, apprenticeship schemes, and work-related training, they do not get housing benefits. There are also usually very good reasons why adult children cannot go home to live with their parents sometimes logistical due to insufficient room in the family home, and then there is often a situation where children have fled the family home due to a history of abuse. Where will they go with no housing benefit until are employed? Given high levels of youth unemployment will our children never be able to move out of our homes due to the costs of housing?

Eugenics rears its head (yet again)

Kitty Jones has written an excellent piece on the welfare budget describing it as “eugenics by stealth.” I think her analysis of the universal welfare state and its aims is very good. I do think she is a bit optimistic as the welfare state cannot solve the problems of poverty brought about by an economic system relying on inequality, but it has made a real difference in the lives of the majority suffering under the system. Moreover, since (unlike the US) it was a universal welfare system ensuring support to those working as well as unemployed, it provided genuine support to women who have lower wages (due to job segregation and part-timism due to family responsibilities), it helped to cover some of the costs of child-rearing (of course, in the absence of full child-care support it did not remove that responsibility from women totally), provided income and the chance of independent living for people with disabilities (it covered some extra costs associated with being disabled under the disability living allowance and also provided income for family members serving as carers. My one disagreement is that I think she is being too nice, I would argue that it is not eugenics by stealth; rather it is straight-forward eugenics.

A Parliamentary bill eliminates (from 2017 onwards) tax credits and housing benefits for families with more than two children. While the Tories are arguing it is not affecting children born already, rather it is impacts the number of children in the future, the reality is that this bill will limit the choices of women in terms of how many children they decide to have (or can afford to have). The number of children women choose to have is not independent of their income or means (or that of their partners), it is not independent of their religious beliefs and it is not independent of the laws of the state.

While this bill lowers the income of all women, clearly, women with private property or wealth and/or higher incomes are less dependent upon child-tax credits. The bill is aimed at those that are essentially dependent on this additional income and it is a bill which, at its heart, accepts the idea of controlling women’s reproductive choices especially those of the working class (employed and unemployed).

I am not feeling especially grateful that the bill does not call for sterilisation of women after the second child or demands that women that have two children must use birth control if they want to get benefits; both of these were used in the US at various times in their histories and used invariably against working class women, women of colour and disabled women.

Sterilisation abuse and forced use of contraceptives to get benefit income would probably have triggered outrage in Britain of today (while the British establishment has worked very hard to get people to oppose “luxurious” handouts to the unemployed, disabled and working poor, this would be a little over the top and much harder to justify). Moreover, it would invariably be ruled in violation of European Human Rights Law and would play hell with Britain’s so-called “democratic traditions” (how well would this sit in the year of the Magna Carta which had little or nothing to do with the rights of the majority).

So subtlety is in order, but subtlety is not stealth. If you are effectively saying that if you have more than 2 children we will no longer give you tax-credits and benefits, you are saying that women that rely on these tax-credits and benefits are out of luck if they want to feed their families and live in a home big enough for these families if heaven forfend they want more than 2 children.  This reeks of the “welfare queen” nonsense so beloved of Ronnie Raygun which was used as a stick to beat women of colour and poor women in the US in the 1970s. Look they are driving Cadillac’s while hard-working Americans have to make do with Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs (or somesuch).

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This is a government telling women how many children they can have and limiting the amount of assistance made available to women (unless they can afford to pay for it themselves). This is on top of our lower wages, lower pensions, the destruction of our communities due to social cleansing due to the lack of social housing and rising rents, cuts to domestic abuse and violence support, and complete lack of support to raise our children through full provision of child-care (and the last is not due to austerity).

We need to call this as it is; this is negative eugenics attempting to discourage working class and poor women from having more than 2 children while hiding behind an economic necessity. We need to demand our reproductive rights; only we can determine if, when and how many children we have. This is not a role for the state, nor for the church, these are our reproductive rights they are playing fast and loose with.

Just when you think that Malthus is dead and gone, when you think that Eugenics and Social Darwinism has been totally discredited thanks to the Holocaust, we are once again reminded that dangerous ideas survive and still damage our lives.