Abortion as a Capitalist Institution
Abortion has been a topic of interest recently in my town, with the conservative government in New South Wales granting the passage in the lower house of a bill to decriminalise the termination of a pregnancy at any stage up to birth.
As passions ran (and continue to run) high either to or for this bill, one question for me was how it came to be that it was under seemingly conservative governments that the most socially libertarian pieces of legislation (abortion at a state level, and previously, same-sex marriage at a federal level) were passed.
To this question, the commenterati have said “something something something THE LEFT something something”.
Trouble is, the label “the left” obscures far more than it reveals. Adrian Pabst, Reader in Politics at the University of Kent suggested one intriguing answer in a lecture organised by the Institute of Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
In that lecture, Pabst made a mention of one of the apparently indispensible planks of conservative governments, at least in the English speaking world at the present moment. This was the libertarian tendency to champion deregulated market capitalism. Pabst suggested that because a completely free market in a capitalist system is predicated on a kind of individualism that eschews any kind communal or moral bond, it would only be a matter of time before that economic libertarianism would seep into a social libertarianism.
In other words, a moral libertinism is an accepted corollary of a completely free market.
However, another question arises: exactly how does this acceptability of morally permissive practices arise in a capitalist context? I wrote about this in a downloadable article on the acceptability of abortion, which was published in Solidarity: A Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics.
In that piece I relied on the insights of Michel Foucault to speak about an “epistemic conquest” by capitalism, in which economic imperatives come to frame the way we think morally. In the same way that Foucault speaks of relations of power normalising categories of thought (you see this in his masterful works A History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish), the seeming freedom of the free market is actually a product of institutionalised power relations, which normalise certain modes of thought as natural givens.
When things become normalised in Foucault’s terms, we come to think that things are “just the way they are”. What is more, these institutions frame certain categories of things as either existing or not existing. These institutions work on the way our bodies move, operate and disseminate these normalisations, and fall under what Foucault calls “biopolitics”.
In the article I explored how abortion becomes acceptable because of knowledge claims that have become normalised in a free market context. Chief among these, at least I claim in the article, is the normalisation of commodification, the turning of the things of this world into units of exchange for maximum economic efficiency. When the logic of economic efficiency seeps into our thinking in all spheres, then the elimination of any form of economic drain, such as children, becomes acceptable.
I then argue that the logic of commodification out into other normalisations that in turn feed into the practice of abortion. These include the elimination of risk, which includes the risk that children pose to economic stability and efficiency (this was touched upon in an episode of the podcast This Catholic Life on morality and mortgages). This risk requires forms of insurance, which a normalised practice of abortion provides.
The final fruit of commodification that I explore is visibility as a criterion of existence. For that segment, I used the foucauldian notion of “the surveillance society”, in which we are not only under the watchful eye of everyone, but enjoy being watched by everyone. In fact, we crave it so much that to not have that attention is the social equivalent of non-existence.
I recall that when the article first came out, a critique said something to the effect that I was promoting communism, where abortions were practiced just as prolifically. The article made no such lofty claim, since my inquiry was confined to how certain practices become normalised in the context that we are in, a context framed by the dominance of the free market.
If anything, the first step required is an act of interrogating ourselves and why we think the way we do. We must ask ourselves if we have, as soon-to-be St John Henry Newman once wrote, given assent to things contrary to the Gospel and woven them into how we think about the Gospel.
Indeed, what I had hoped to do in that article was to bring Foucault to bear on and give flesh to a passage from the letter of St James (5:3) that says “Your gold and silver are corroding away, and that same corrosion will stand as a testament against you, and burn your flesh like fire”.
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