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Birth Strike: A Review in The Progressive Populist

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
May 1st, 2019

April 2 was Equal Pay Day in the US. Why? The hourly pay gap between women and men workers is a social problem.
First, consider its character. For that, we turn to Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC.

“On average in 2018,” according to her, “women were paid 22.6% less than men, after controlling for race and ethnicity, education, age, and geographic division.

“Furthermore, if the overall 22.6% gender pay penalty isn’t cause enough for alarm, the gaps for black and Hispanic women are even larger. Compared to white men, black and Hispanic women are paid 34.9% and 34.3% less, respectively, after controlling for age, education, and geographic division.”

What to do about the gender pay gap? One policy Gould recommends is increasing the federal minimum wage. It is currently $7.25 an hour, no typo, folks.

Another policy recommendation is for the enactment of HR 7. As federal law, it would “amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes.”

Jenny Brown is the author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work (PM Press, 2019). She, with National Women’s Liberation now and a former editor at Labor Notes, has a bold take on the systematic exploitation of women’s labor in and out of the paid labor force.

“First, when women have kids and,” she told The Progressive Populist in an email interview, “because of lack of paid leave and childcare, one spouse has to leave their job, unequal pay means it is almost always the woman because as a unit you want to keep getting the larger paycheck. That puts her back in the position created by the family wage of dependence on the male breadwinner.”

The consequences of a two-tier, gender-based hourly wage structure has far-reaching impacts in and out of the home. Children of all genders, for example, win or lose based in no small part on the rate of pay that adults receive.

Brown calls for increasing the social wage versus payments in cash, taxations benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or allowances for kids, e.g., taxable deductions. Why? Upping the social wage allows chronically underpaid women and their families to disconnect from the tyranny of the “family wage system” where the boss does not have to be right; s/he just has to be the boss and by force of power rules the increasingly union-free workplace.

By contrast, social wage provisions are universal policy options. That is “they are provided to everyone in the society regardless of marital status, age, or any other characteristic, and therefore are more of a feminist way to go.” No means-testing metrics that allocate social wage provisions based on household income, a kind of divide-and-conquer approach to keeping the working class, women and men, down and divided.

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Birth Strike: A Review in New York Journal of Books

By David Rosen
New York Journal of Books
April, 2019

Is a baby a commodity? Is pregnancy and childbirth work? Is raising a child a job? These are among the provocative questions that inform Jenny Brown’s study, Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work.
Brown is a feminist without sentiment, a Marxist without humanism. In this well-researched work, the author seeks to strip away all sentiment from people’s—especially women’s—understanding of the economic role of the domestic services women perform. She sees such service as a form of undervalued and unpaid labor. These services include pregnancy and childbirth, rearing a child and all the domestic chores required to maintain a household, and taking care of the elderly and infirmed. As the old saying goes, a woman’s work is never done.
This argument is compounded by the book’s underlying thesis, the “baby bust.” She reminds readers that during the post WW-II era of the “American Dream” “the wages of one full-time male breadwinner” was enough to support a wife and kids, but now “two breadwinners are necessary to support a family.” In the face of this historic change, Brown argues, “women are deciding to have fewer children.”
Brown identifies two significant consequences of this development. First, corporate and political “elites are foretelling economic doom if women don’t step up reproduction.” She quotes a conservative writer who asserts, “declining birth rates constitute a problem for the survival and security of nations . . . in the broadest existential sense of national security.” Second, she stresses that the elites are using the power of the state, including the Supreme Court, to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion and limit contraception and birth control information (especially for young girls). The outcome of these developments is a decline in fertility rate.
The decline in the fertility rate is occurring at a time when life expectancy has significantly increased. Brown notes that in 1900, U.S. life expectancy was only 47 years and by 2018 it has jumped to 79 years. Compounding this picture, the Guttmacher Institute reports that nearly two-thirds (62%) of all women of reproductive age use a contraceptive and nearly all women aged 15–44 who have had sexual intercourse used at least one contraceptive method. Equally significant, between 1991 and 2014, the teen birthrate fell by nearly 40 percent, to 24.2 births per 1,000 females from 61.8 births, due to sex ed and use of contraceptives.
Embracing a traditional Marxist analysis, Brown argues that women are part of the “reserved army of labor.” She repeatedly reminds readers that conservative policymakers promote anti-abortion and anti-birth-control policies in order to promote an increase in the birth rate. The increase would help foster cheap labor. She details her critique through extensive discussions of birth rates and women’s work in terms of immigration, race, and labor practices.
She also makes clear that the U.S. is not alone facing the “below-replacement birth rate”; other countries facing a similar decline include China, Japan, Germany, and the UK. She insists that “the fight over the birth rate is mainly aimed at extracting another type of cheap labor: the labor of bearing and rearing children.”
Amidst her rigorous analysis, one small question comes up. In a chapter reviewing the history of the debate over the birth rate, she notes that in the early 20th century, leading radical socialists like Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and V. I. Lenin argued against what they believed was the moderate socialist position promoting the “birth strike” to contest capitalism.
While apparently intellectually and politically identifying more with radicals, Brown argues: “A birthrate slowdown or strike, accompanied by feminist organizing and protest, might pressure the power structure to provide better working conditions for reproductive work, but the problem isn’t too many children to being with.”
Drawing on the experiences of other advanced Western society, Brown recommends that the U.S. needs to introduce a national health care program, free abortion on-demand and birth-control, universal free childcare (and eldercare), parental leave for all, and a shorter work week. It’s unlikely that a birthrate strike will do much to realize these important goals.

David Rosen's most recent book is Sex, Sin & Subversion: The Transformation of 1950s New York's Forbidden into America's New Normal. His articles and book reviews have appeared in such diverse venues as Salon, Black Star News, Brooklyn Rails, Huffington Post, CounterPunch, Sexuality and Culture, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

Buy Birth Strike | Buy Birth Strike e-Book now | Back to Jenny Brown's Author Page

How Anti-Abortion Rhetoric Shapes Pro-Choice Advocacy

By Marie Solis
April 2nd, 2019

Historians and advocates for reproductive justice say our understanding of abortion has been influenced by the anti-abortion movement’s “pro-life” arguments against it.

For several weeks stretching from early-February well into March, President Donald Trump couldn’t stop talking about abortion.
During his State of the Union Address, Trump criticized a law that lifted a longstanding criminal ban on abortion after 24 weeks in New York, saying it allowed fetuses to be “ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” The following week, Trump held a rally in El Paso, Texas, where he told the crowd that comments Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made days before—in response to a question about a bill to ease restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy—amounted to an endorsement of infanticide. “Democrats are also pushing extreme late-term abortion,” Trump said from the stage to his booing supporters.

“Late-term abortion” isn’t a medical term, Anuj Khattar, an abortion provider based in Washington, explained to Broadly last month. He described it as a rhetorical tactic anti-choice individuals use to “create more emotion around the process of abortion and make people feel empathy for the fetus.” Neither is “partial-birth abortion,” a term that has been used over decades to talk about a common second-trimester abortion procedure. "First of all, one can’t be partially born," Jennifer Gunter, a California-based OB/GYN, explained in a 2016 HuffPost column on what she sees as the absurdity of the “partial-birth abortion” term.

If we accept that language shapes our reality, then it’s not just possible but likely that the way we think about abortion, the way it’s legislated and regulated, and the polarized debate that swirls around it, has been influenced by terms like these. In many cases, it’s the anti-abortion camp that has either created the words we use to talk about abortion or redefined existing ones to suit its agenda—a phenomenon pro-choice advocates, abortion providers, and scholars say has resulted in our understanding of abortion care being shaped by an inherent bias against it.

Some argue the implicit message these words and phrases carry—that abortion is morally wrong and shameful—has managed to infiltrate the pro-choice side of the debate as well, meaning even the most ardent feminist activists might find themselves inadvertently apologizing for abortion even as they fight for the universal right to access it.

As federal abortion rights continue to face grave threats from a newly conservative-leaning Supreme Court, the stakes have gotten higher for those against more restrictions. Under these circumstances, thinking carefully about how we discuss abortion isn’t a petty semantic concern, Nathan Stormer, a University of Maine professor of rhetoric, explained: It’s a matter of women’s lives, and their ability to lead the lives they want.

“The secret rhetorical value of abortion is how it allows people to promote different ways of living over others—and that comes on the backs of women,” Stormer said. “And that’s what’s repugnant."

The terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” frame contemporary debates around abortion. The former, which has come to represent the anti-abortion position, dates back to a 1960 text from the famous Scottish educator A.S. Neill, who used it to promote a progressive, “pro-life” approach to parenting. In the later half of the ‘60s, however, anti-abortion activists adapted the term for their slogan “right to life,” later changing it to “pro-life” after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973.

When Katha Pollitt, the author of the 2014 book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, reflects on pivotal moments for the abortion rights movement, she counts this—the moment the anti-abortion side of the debate decided to identify itself as “pro-life”—as its biggest loss. “The anti-abortion movement managed to colonize the word ‘life,’ which is a very big and resonant and powerful word,” Pollitt said in a phone interview. “One thing that’s great about it is that it casts the other side as ‘pro-death.’”

The anti-abortion movement has also found success in that endeavor by making fetal personhood, the notion that a fetus has the same rights as a human being, its linchpin. This hadn’t always been the movement’s focus: Early arguments against abortion largely focused on the moral and social imperative for women to have children as well as maternal safety, according to Stormer, who studies medical literature on abortion from the 1800s to 1960s. In the mid-19th century, he explained, abortion did in fact pose a significant risk to maternal health, simply because knowledge about how to perform one safely and effectively wasn’t widespread. “People [opposed to abortion] would say, ‘Women are bleeding and dying’—and it was true,” Stormer said.

Over time, medicine became more sophisticated, abortion became safe, and, in 1973, it became legal. Rather than focusing on women’s lives, the anti-abortion camp found a stronger foothold in rhetoric emphasizing fetal life, which provided the basis for its new “pro-life” designation. Advancements in science also presented anti-abortion activists with the opportunity to further their cause, often by distorting scientific facts to fit their narrative.

Of these advancements, the development of ultrasound technology has been the biggest boon for the anti-abortion movement: Ultrasound machines became commonplace in clinical settings in the early 1960s, the availability of which led to a now-famous LIFE magazine photo essay of a 28-week fetus, “The Drama of Life Before Birth.” In 1976, medical ultrasonics became advanced enough that doctors could pick up the electrical pulses cardiac cells make as they develop—a phenomenon anti-abortion activists have come to refer to as a “fetal heartbeat."

“The anti-abortion movement managed to colonize the word ‘life,’ which is a very big and resonant and powerful word."

Anti-abortion politicians and activists continue to try to make science cohere to arguments against abortion. The typical anti-abortion protest in 2019 might include blown-up sonograms of fetuses developed past the point at which most women terminate pregnancies, or photos of infant children. “Fetal heartbeat” bills, which use the point at which doctors can first detect a “heartbeat”—around six weeks—as the threshold for banning abortion, have become increasingly popular among conservatives, as have legislative proposals concerning “fetal pain,” which seek to ban abortion at 20 weeks based on the scientifically debunked idea that fetuses begin to feel pain at that time.

When Iowa Republican Steve King introduced his version of a “fetal heartbeat” ban in 2017, he used an ultrasound machine to drive home his message. As the sound of a heartbeat thrummed over the speakers, King told attendees of the House committee meeting: “He can’t wait to be born.”And leaders in the anti-abortion movement also made a broader effort to invoke scientific consensus when they themed this year’s March for Life “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” arguing in a mission statement that “life begins at fertilization, or day one, when egg meets sperm and a new, unique, human embryo is created."

“Technology, science, and medical developments provide the means to shape persuasive rhetoric to protect human life,” Clarke Forsythe, the senior counsel at Americans United for Life, the country’s first pro-life public interest law firm, wrote in an email.

That the pro-abortion rights camp would settle on “choice” to counter the anti-abortion discourse wasn’t always a given. In the early 1970s, Jimmye Kimmey, the executive director of a now-defunct group known as the Association for the Study of Abortion, wrote a memo arguing “choice” was the best way to counter the weightiness of “life.”

“‘Right to life’ is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words—an important consideration in English,” she wrote at the time. “We need something comparable. Right to choose would seem to do the job. And...choice has to do with action, and it's action that we're concerned with.’”

Activists in support of abortion rights began to coalesce around the term "choice" in the early '70s.

But even as abortion rights activists began to coalesce around the term “pro-choice,” discussions concerning the merits of the label sprung up in women’s organizations across the country. Years after Kimmey’s memo, a young woman who would go on to lead the National Organization for Women was attending one of her first meetings with the organization, where board members were debating the use of the term.

“We had a big discussion about whether we would say ‘pro-abortion’ or ‘pro-choice,’” Toni Van Pelt, who has served as NOW’s president since August 2017, said on the phone earlier this month. “We determined that we would go with ‘pro-choice’ because our goal was women’s self-autonomy. We didn’t want it to seem like we were pushing abortion on people.”

Van Pelt said she was “agnostic” at the time of the discussion—1989—and NOW ultimately decided to take the mainstream feminist line of using “pro-choice,” thought it has since adopted messaging referring to abortion as a human right. Considering the current threats to abortion rights on the local, state, and federal level, Van Pelt says she sympathizes with the early arguments in favor of taking a stronger rhetorical stance.

“What we’re seeing today is probably why people wanted to use the term ‘pro-abortion,’” Van Pelt continued. “And that’s because there’s nothing wrong with abortion and there’s nothing wrong with using the term ‘abortion.’ It shouldn’t be stigmatized.”

In the fetal personhood discourse, abortion constitutes murder, a crime for which society reserves its harshest moral judgements. And it’s in this context that nearly 1 in 4 women will obtain an abortion in her lifetime, according to Guttmacher Institute. Some say even those who reject the anti-abortion movement’s central premise—that a fetus is a person—can easily internalize its pro-life messaging.

Amid recently reignited debates over abortions later in pregnancy (again, widely discussed using the medically inaccurate term “late-term abortion”), a woman named Dana Weinstein told Broadly about the shame she’d experienced terminating a pregnancy around the 31-week mark, about a decade ago. At 29 weeks, her doctor had showed her an MRI scan of the fetus’ brain, showing gaping parts of it missing. The doctor told her the missing parts of the fetus’ brain meant that either the baby would seize to death moments after delivery, or that it would spend the rest of its life experiencing seizures 70 percent of the time. As Weinstein sought second and third opinions from genetic counselors and specialists, she says there was no point at which anyone present terminating the pregnancy as an option. When she finally asked if having an abortion was a possibility, she was overcome by tremendous guilt.

"I kept telling my husband, 'Please don't think I'm a horrible person,'" Weinstein said. "Of course he didn't—but it was so frustrating that I had this stigma in my face when I was in this devastating situation."

Anti-abortion activists circulate misinformation about abortion all of the time—common claims that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, or feelings of depression, for example, have all been disproven—and that misinformation can impact women’s choices. But so too can the intent behind spreading it, said Diane Horvath-Cosper, an OB/GYN and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Horvath-Cosper hears traces of this stigma all the time in her work as a Maryland abortion provider. “People come in and ask questions about the procedure that makes it very clear to me that the info they’ve received has been misrepresented by anti-abortion groups,” she said.

“Because the messaging is so negative and vile, people come in with an extra layer of guilt and sadness.”

It’s one of the pro-choice movement’s foremost objectives to get rid of that guilt and sadness. But even so, abortion rights activists see a slow creep of anti-abortion ideology influencing their own messaging and approach to advocacy.

“When I started at NOW, we started with: ‘Abortion on Demand, Without Apology,’” Van Pelt, the president of NOW, said. “But the movement as a whole stopped emphasizing that because of the blowback.”

The slogan had been popular in the pre- Roe 1970s, when the pro-life movement was still working to become more unified and organized. And though there are sects of the feminist movement that continue to use it, the rallying cry softened over time, partly in response to the still-pervasive anti-choice narrative that women were getting abortions on a whim. “They would say, ‘Oh, she needed to get her nails done and the pregnancy was an inconvenience to her, so she got an abortion,” Van Pelt recalled, thinking back to the discourse of the late 80s, when she first joined NOW.

Pro-choice activists march in support of safe and legal abortion in New York at a 1977 demonstration.

The Democratic Party under President Bill Clinton pushed the left to reframe the abortion debate when, in 1996, he used the slogan “safe, legal, and rare” to describe the party’s position. This moment helped precipitate what Pollitt calls the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, a central feature of which involves pro-choice advocates unwittingly implying that abortion is something regrettable and unfortunate.

At times, Pollitt says this internalized stigma seems to have penetrated even the highest reaches of abortion rights advocacy. When the Susan G. Komen Foundation withdrew funding from Planned Parenthood in 2012 amid a congressional investigation many thought to be fueled by anti-abortion activism, spokespeople from Planned Parenthood responded by reassuring the foundation that preventative care made up 90 percent of its services. And for years after, Planned Parenthood emphasized that abortion represented just 3 percent of what it provides to patients, the sort of statement Pollitt sees as a missed opportunity to say instead: “Yes, we provide abortions, a legal and necessary service, and we’re proud to do that.” Planned Parenthood did not respond to Broadly’s requests for comment, but on its website the organization states it is “proud to provide safe, legal abortion at health centers around the country.”

Pollitt says she understands what would move pro-choice advocates to make these appeals to the opposition: Planned Parenthood is under constant threat from the Trump administration. And, more broadly, as supporters of choice consider a country without federally guaranteed abortion rights, they’re forced to discuss some of the terrible positions women find themselves in that may necessitate abortion.

“I think pro-choicers are in a terrible bind,” Pollitt said. “You have to talk about rape victims, fatal fetal anomalies, and the risk to women’s lives when abortion becomes unavailable. … I understand all of this softened language, but I wish there were more people out there who used the stronger, prouder language.”

Much of this bolder language can be found in abortion storytelling, which most pro-choice advocates have come to see as the movement’s most effective strategy.

The origins of abortion storytelling trace back at least as far as 1971, when, led by French feminist scholar Simone de Beauvoir, 343 women published a manifesto, declaring: “One million women have abortions each year in France.” The year after, abortion storytelling gained a prominent platform in the US when Ms. magazine published its inaugural issue, featuring a story titled “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions.” The names of 53 women who had obtained abortions appeared beneath the article, including the likes of Billie Jean King, Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem.

One of the contemporary iterations of this phenomenon is Shout Your Abortion, an abortion storytelling platform a woman named Amelia Bonow started by accident in 2015. Following a congressional vote to defund Planned Parenthood, Bonow wrote a Facebook post about the positive experience she had getting an abortion at Planned Parenthood the year before. Days later, she took her story to Twitter, this time tagging it #ShoutYourAbortion; in just two weeks, more than 150,000 other posts cropped up using the same tag. “There’s something about talking about your life on your own terms that’s just unassailable,” Bonow said.

Four years later, the hashtag is still widely used, and pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood have launched their own storytelling campaigns to speak out against abortion restrictions on the state and federal level.

“There’s something about talking about your life on your own terms that’s just unassailable."
In the face of pro-choice apologetics, other abortion rights advocates have pushed more to identify as “pro-abortion,” that daunting label NOW and other women’s groups opted to avoid in the 80s. In an August 2018 piece for The Outline, writer Kathi Valeii asserts that “plenty of people are pro-abortion”—so more of them should say so.

“At its core, ‘no one is pro-abortion’ is a message of concession,” Valeii wrote. “It is this kind of rhetorical ceding that makes room for the anti-choice agenda to flourish, which has resulted in the consistent whittling away of people’s ability to access abortion.”

When Stormer considers the possibilities for how shifting language can change the abortion debate, he becomes pessimistic. Even being a rhetorical scholar, an area of study that relies on a belief in the power of words and how we employ them, he doesn’t see how using different ones could ever bridge the divide between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. The slogans, the messaging, the individual words and phrases we use to discuss abortion have changed dramatically since the 19th century, he said, yet the underlying arguments and values have remained the same.

But for Stormer, the goal of recasting the language surrounding abortion isn’t to reach a point of reconciliation—it’s to find a way to put up the best defense possible for the women whose lives depend on access to abortion.

“After all of this time, after all of the people who’ve died over this—why would we be able to resolve the debate?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that we would come to a quick resolution. The short-term thing makes the most sense: Next year, women need to have more access.”
How can pro-choice advocates achieve this? Stormer has thought through many of the possibilities: He can see the pros and cons of framing abortion as a human right, or framing abortion as a form of health care, discourses that have emerged more forcefully in the Trump era. But at the basis of all these, he says, is the overarching idea that abortion is good, which is the most vital part of any argument in favor of it.

“If you frame abortion as a social good, it shifts things a bit,” Stormer said. “And the terrain will shift.”

Bonow can already feel the terrain shifting under her feet. As women continue to use #ShoutYourAbortion to talk about their experiences terminating pregnancies, she says she can see the fetters of shame falling away—one of the most powerful tools anti-choice activists have at their disposal.

“We’re chipping away at stigma and it’s working; it just is,” Bonow said. “One day we’ll get to a place where someone’s saying, ‘I’ve had five abortions; deal with it.’ We’re just not quite there yet. But it’ll happen.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify NOW's current messaging on abortion rights.

Leading voices and organizations in the anti-abortion movement are trying to rebrand their position as "pro-science," despite what medical professionals and reproductive health advocates say is a tendency for key figures and groups within the movement to distort scientific facts to further their cause.

March for Our Life President Jeanne Mancini will try out the new messaging on Friday at the largest annual anti-abortion demonstration, whose theme this year is "Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science," a decisive break from last year's: "Love Saves Lives."

"Being pro-life is not in opposition to science," the March states on its website. "It’s quite the opposite in fact! Medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause—that life begins at fertilization, or day one, when egg meets sperm and a new, unique, human embryo is created."

The March for Life did not immediately return Broadly's request for comment.
Doctors have a different view of how science relates to their work, seeing scientific findings as the basis for providing better care for their patients—abortion care included.

"As an OB/GYN, I find it an honor to take care of women in all sorts of reproductive health situations," Carley Zeal, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells Broadly. "Sometimes, that means they're seeking an abortion. I feel very confident that science really backs me up in providing the most comprehensive care for them."

Zeal is an abortion provider in Missouri, where some of the country's strictest anti-abortion laws have eliminated all but one abortion clinic, Planned Parenthood St. Louis, where she works. Zeal argues that some of the restrictions placed on women seeking abortions in the state are based in ideology rather than science. In order to terminate a pregnancy under Missouri law, women must first receive counseling that can include misleading information about the negative effects abortion can have on their mental health and likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Women are then required to wait 72 hours—the longest mandatory waiting period in the United States—before receiving abortion care.

"What we know is that the National Academy of Sciences, which is a nonpartisan scientific group, affirmed in their report on abortion safety that abortion is safe and effective in all forms and that same report found that the biggest threat to quality of abortion care is the litany of medically unnecessary precautions that raise costs and delay procedures," Zeal said.
The March 2018 report, as Zeal notes, deems legal abortions in the United States "safe and effective," and concludes definitely that having an abortion "does not increase a women's risk of secondary infertility, pregnancy-related hypertensive disorders, abnormal placentation, preterm birth, or breast cancer." Nor does it "increase a women's risk of depression, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder."

"The anti-choice movement's attempt to turn toward science is misleading to women," Zeal said.

It's not the first time the anti-abortion movement has tried to alter its messaging to hew to more widely accepted ideas. Last year, BuzzFeed News reported that the movement was angling for a rebrand meant to evoke women's empowerment after reporter Ema O'Connor attended an anti-abortion convention in Missouri, where booths spilled over with feminist-inspired merchandise.

The event also offered a number of workshops in which speakers cautioned women against the old marketing strategies commonly used in efforts to end abortion. Instead of invoking religion or using fear tactics, speakers at the gathering suggested anti-abortion advocates take on a friendlier demeanor and deploy the girl-power messaging common in mainstream feminism.

“You have fornicated in the sight of God! Come out with your hands up!” one woman with a bullhorn shouted—providing an example of what not to do—at a talk called "Don't Be Weird: Ineffective Messaging in the Pro-Life Movement."

“Yes, this is real!” the leader of the workshop told the audience, according to BuzzFeed News, emphasizing the outdated nature of such an approach. “This is on the sidewalk in the Midwest.”
Anti-abortion activists are capitalizing on what they see as forward momentum for their agenda under the Trump administration, which many of them see as providing them with the ripest opportunity yet to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, has called Trump "the most pro-life president" the country has ever seen. "We're on the cusp of making history," Dannenfelser told POLITICO in May. "This is the strongest position the pro-life movement has ever been in since 1973." (SBA List did not respond to Broadly's request for comment.)

The Trump administration has proven itself to be a loyal ally to the anti-abortion movement, as well as a particularly visible supporter of the March for Life, which takes place every year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In 2018, Trump became the first sitting president to address the march, using his keynote speech—delivered remotely and broadcast at the event—to announce a new policy that would ban federal family planning dollars from going to clinics that provide abortions.

“When I ran for office, I pledged to stand for life, and as president, that’s exactly what I have done,” Trump said. “Today, we have kept another promise."

As anti-abortion ideology continues to pervade the highest reaches of government and inform federal policy, Zeal worries about the March for Life's evolving "pro-science" messaging.

"It’s important for us to keep focused," Zeal said. "We have to ask: 'Where does the scientific evidence support us?' And that’s definitely toward access to family planning."

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San Francisco; Or, How To Destroy A City

By Shannon Mattern
Public Books
March 27th, 2019

In Cities, Knowledge, and the Digital Age, a new partnership between Public Books and SFMOMA’s Public Knowledge project, we seek to understand how technology has changed cities. Today’s article is in conversation with Bik Van der Pol’s “Take Part,” which asks: “Is there room for San Francisco in San Francisco?”

As New York City and Greater Washington, DC, prepared for the arrival of Amazon’s new secondary headquarters, Torontonians opened a section of their waterfront to Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, which plans to prototype a new neighborhood “from the internet up.” Fervent resistance arose in all three locations, particularly as citizens and even some elected officials discovered that many of the terms of these public-private partnerships were hashed out in closed-door deals, secreted by nondisclosure agreements. Critics raised questions about the generous tax incentives and other subsidies granted to these multibillion-dollar corporations, their plans for data privacy and digital governance, what kind of jobs they’d create and housing they’d provide, and how their arrival could impact local infrastructures, economies, and cultures. While such questioning led Amazon to cancel their plans for Long Island City in mid-February, other initiatives press forward. What does it mean when Silicon Valley—a geographic region that’s become shorthand for an integrated ideology and management style usually equated with libertarian techno-utopianism—serves as landlord, utility provider, urban developer, (unelected) city official, and employer, all rolled into one?1

We can look to Alphabet’s and Amazon’s home cities for clues. Both the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle have been dramatically remade by their local tech powerhouses: Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle; and Google, Facebook, and Apple (along with countless other firms) around the Bay. As Jennifer Light, Louise Mozingo, Margaret O’Mara, and Fred Turner have demonstrated, technology companies have been reprogramming urban and suburban landscapes for decades.2 And “company towns” have long sprung up around mills, mines, and factories.3 But over the past few years, as development has boomed and income inequality has dramatically increased in the Bay Area, we’ve witnessed the arrival of several new books reflecting on the region’s transformation.

These titles, while focusing on the Bay, offer lessons to New York, DC, Toronto, and the countless other cities around the globe hoping to spur growth and economic development by hosting and ingesting tech—by fostering the growth of technology companies, boosting STEM education, and integrating new sensors and screens into their streetscapes and city halls. For years, other municipalities, fashioning themselves as “the Silicon Valley of [elsewhere],” have sought to reverse-engineer the Bay’s blueprint for success. As we’ll see, that blueprint, drafted to optimize the habits and habitats of a privileged few, commonly elides the material needs of marginalized populations and fragile ecosystems. It prioritizes efficiency and growth over the maintenance of community and the messiness of public life. Yet perhaps we can still redraw those plans, modeling cities that aren’t only made by powerbrokers, and that thrive when they prioritize the stewardship of civic resources over the relentless pursuit of innovation and growth.

Nearly 20 years ago, long-time San Francisco resident Rebecca Solnit, in her Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, described the coming gentrification, privatization, and homogenization and subsequent hollowing out of a vibrant metropolis. This prescient book of linked essays, illustrated with photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg, was reprinted in 2018. As we reencounter Solnit’s resonant lament, we meet a host of new San Francisco characters in Cary McClelland’s 2018 Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley. McClelland, a one-time San Franciscan, interviewed more than 150 regional residents and laborers—from angel investors and ER doctors to Uber drivers to longshoremen. His edited transcripts of those conversations offer a prismatic view of this economically stratified and segregated metropolitan region.

While McClelland presents a loosely stitched-together quilt of San Franciscan subjectivities, Berkeley geographer Richard Walker, another Bay Area fixture, has produced the kind of book only an embedded scholar with enviable endurance can create: a deep, virtuosic saga supported by mounds of data and fieldwork. His Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area echoes and updates many of Solnit’s and McClelland’s subjects’ laments, while also explaining, in great detail, how the conditions for their shared concern came to be: how San Francisco became a hotbed of counterculture, environmental activism, and technological innovation, and why those distinctions are now in tension and under threat.

Finally, urban historian Alison Isenberg, in her Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay, turns to a different set of sources—archival records, the alternative press, unpublished manuscripts, and old architectural renderings—to rewrite a chapter of the city’s narrative that can’t be told through economic data, macroscale maps, or tech company profiles. Focusing on a selection of large-scale Bay Area urban redevelopment projects from the 1940s through the 1970s, Isenberg argues that the assemblage of agents and concerns shaping the modern city’s form and character was much broader than what we find portrayed in dominant East Coast development narratives, like Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert Caro’s profile of planning mogul Robert Moses.4 In short, she demonstrates, urban change isn’t driven solely by developers and preservationists.

Solnit, McClelland, and Walker join in celebrating San Francisco’s history of racial and socioeconomic diversity, cultural inclusivity, and technological innovation. “We were a sanctuary for the queer, the eccentric, the creative, the radical, the political and economic refugees, and so they came and reinforced the city’s difference,” Solnit writes. McClelland extends the list, adding a couple of the city’s less noble accomplishments: “It bore witness to the Gold rush, the Transcontinental Railroad, Japanese internment, the Beat poets, the free speech movement, the AIDS crisis and modern LGBTQ politics, and the birth of the semiconductor and motherboard.” This mix of factors—along with the region’s clustering of complementary industries (“agglomeration economies”), its “liberation from rigid corporate culture,” and its mix of cyberculture and counterculture, military contracts and university research, progressivism and libertarianism—made the Bay Area a fertile ground for the growth of Silicon Valley, Walker argues.

Today, Walker continues, “the bay region is one of the prime generators of new wealth on the planet, and home to many of the largest and richest corporations astride the globe. It is, moreover”—still—“a place in the vanguard of many political and cultural movements, sending forth ideas that are changing life far beyond its borders.” Yet such material wealth and intellectual and cultural richness have generated their own problems, both in the world beyond its borders and, especially, at home: sprawl, a dearth of available housing, widespread homelessness, debilitating air pollution, more frequent and deadly wildfires, water scarcity, and insufficient resources for all the low-wage workers—often women and people of color—who support the everyday material operations of the tech industry and the city that houses it. “Think of San Francisco as both a laboratory of the new and a preserve for the old subversive functionality of cities,” Solnit writes. Now, “Think about what happens if both these aspects get bulldozed by the technology economy.”

“For San Francisco to become a place that just provides opportunities to buy pet food online is, to say the least, a decline whose effects will be felt far away,” Solnit says, referencing, the signature “bust” story of the first dot-com boom. The Bay Area’s consumption of resources impoverishes the surrounding region, and its concentration of wealth and talent leaves less for other cities, Walker notes. We also can’t ignore Silicon Valley’s powerful cultural imperialism, whose effects are felt both locally and globally. McClelland quotes Alex Kaufman, who runs a design team at Google: “It’s this messianic tech thing. We’re saving the world mostly making useless products that solve problems that real people don’t have—it’s problems rich twenty-year-olds have.” He laments tech’s widespread “callousness” and “oversimplification of political problems.”

Almost two decades ago Solnit saw that the efficiency-minded tech industry was framing the messiness of public life as comparatively inconvenient and inefficient, and that the sector thus played a key role in “accommodating spatial privatization and speeding up an economic privatization.” What results, she argues, is a Hollow City, one whose colorful Victorian homes and corporate workspaces mask its increasingly monochromatic populations and cultures. Paul Gillespie, a cab driver quoted in McClelland’s book, wonders: “If you are riding the Google bus, and you are looking on your cell phone for stories that are tailored just for you, and at night you are taking an Uber to a nightclub or restaurant with a lot of other people just like you, where is the interaction with everyone else? Where is the knowledge of what other people are thinking or what’s going on in the world?” Walker likewise acknowledges the tech industry’s role as global evangelist for the exploitative sharing economy, the Californian Ideology, and neoliberalism, and its failure to address privacy breaches and fake news and technological solutionism—all of which have shaped politics and economics around the globe.

These authors lament the Bay Area’s increasing gentrification and homogenization, the displacement of the poor, and the increasing marginalization of the unorthodox and the radical within a Silicon Valley monoculture—all common refrains in political-economic chronicles of modern capitalist urbanization. (And all, we must admit, products of some degree of romanticization; Solnit acknowledges that “what one remembers [in a city] is not necessarily primordial, and all cities sit atop erased landscapes.” The “golden ages” whose passing we lament had themselves erased earlier pasts.) Yet we must remember, as Walker does, that the Bay Area is still “remarkably open to new people and ideas; it is politically and intellectually in continual ferment; and it repeatedly reveals new possibilities of human achievement and social justice” and environmental stewardship.

We must also recognize the ferment and diversity inherent in Bay Area urban historiography, even in the chronicles of its large-scale development projects. Isenberg reminds us that even within the institutions and companies responsible for redevelopment, which are often vilified for exacerbating urban ills, we find pockets of heterogeneity and progressivism. Isenberg seeks to supplement the dominant East Coast narratives, which tend to frame urban renewal as a battle between development and preservation.

In surveying a variety of Bay Area projects, from Ghirardelli Square to The Sea Ranch to the Transamerica Pyramid, Isenberg shifts our attention from star architects and planners to less prominent, but no less important, contributors in allied design fields: architectural illustration, model-making, publicity, journalism, property management, retail planning, the arts, and activism. “People who are elsewhere peripheral and invisible in the history of urban design are,” in her book, “networked through the center”; they play critical roles in shaping not only the urban landscape, but also the discourses and processes through which that landscape takes shape.

For instance, debates over public art in Ghirardelli Square—particularly Ruth Asawa’s mermaid sculpture, which featured breastfeeding lesbian mermaids—“provoked debates about gender, sexuality, and the role of urban open space in San Francisco.” Property manager Caree Rose, who worked alongside her husband, Stuart, coordinated with designers to master-plan the Square, acknowledging that retail, restaurants, and parking are also vital ingredients of successful public space. Publicist Marion Conrad and graphic designer Bobbie Stauffacher were key members of many San Francisco design teams, including that for The Sea Ranch community, in Sonoma County. Illustrators and model-makers, many of them women, created objects that mediated design concepts for clients and typically sat at the center of public debates.

These creative collaborators “had the capacity to swing urban design decisions, structure competition for land, and generally set in motion the fate of neighborhoods.” We see the rhetorical power of diverse visualization strategies reflected across these four books, too: Solnit’s offers dozens of photographs, by Susan Schwartzenberg—of renovations, construction sites, protests, dot-com workplaces, SRO hotels, artists’ studios—while Walker’s dense text is supplemented with charts, graphs, and clinical maps. McClelland’s book, with its relatively large typeface and extra-wide leading, makes space for his interviewees’ words to resonate, while Isenberg generously illustrates her pages with archival photos, plans, and design renderings, many reproduced in evocative technicolor.

By decentering the star designer and master planner, Isenberg reframes urban (re)development as a collaborative enterprise involving participants with diverse identities, skills, and values. And in elevating the work of “allied” practitioners, Isenberg also aims to shift the focus from design to land: public awareness of land ownership and commitment to responsible public land stewardship. She introduces us to several mid-century alternative publications—weekly newspapers, Black periodicals, activists’ manuals, and books that never made it to the best-seller list … or never even made it to press—that advocated for a focus on land ownership and politics. Yet the discursive power of Jacobs and Caro, which framed the debate in terms of urban development vs. preservation, pushed these other texts off the shelf—and, along with them, the “moral questions of land stewardship” they highlighted.

These alternative tales and supporting casts serve as reminders that the modern city need not succumb to Haussmannization or Moses-ification or, now, Googlization. Mid-century urban development wasn’t necessarily the monolithic, patriarchal, hegemonic force we imagined it to be—a realization that should steel us to expect more and better of our contemporary city-building projects. Today, New York, Washington, DC, and Toronto—and other cities around the world—are being reshaped not only by architects, planners, and municipal administrators, but also by technologists, programmers, data scientists, “user experience” experts and logistics engineers. These are urbanism’s new “allied” professions, and their work deals not only with land and buildings, but also, increasingly, with data and algorithms.

Some critics have argued that the real reason behind Amazon’s nationwide HQ2 search was to gather data from hundreds of cities—both quantitative and qualitative data that “could guide it in its expansion of the physical footprint, in the kinds of services it rolls out next, and in future negotiations and lobbying with states and municipalities.”5 This “trove of information” could ultimately be much more valuable than all those tax incentives and grants. If this is the future of urban development, our city officials and citizens must attend to the ownership and stewardship not only of their public land, but also of their public data. The mismanagement of either could—to paraphrase our four books’ titles—elongate the dark shadows cast by growing inequality, abet the siege of exploitation and displacement, “hollow out” our already homogenizing neighborhoods, and expedite the departure of an already “gone” city.

As Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti muses in his “Pictures of the Gone World 11,” which inspired Walker’s title: “The world is a beautiful place / to be born into / if you don’t mind some people dying / all the time / or maybe only starving / some of the time / which isn’t half so bad / if it isn’t you.” This is precisely the sort of solipsism and stratification that tech-libertarianism and capitalist development promotes—and that responsible planning, design, and public stewardship must prevent.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. 

  1. As Fred Turner argues, in Silicon Valley’s engineering culture, ethics are reduced to pragmatism and functionality, and politics are equated with infrastructural engineering. “Don’t Be Evil: Fred Turner on Utopias, Frontiers, and Brogrammers,” Logic, issue 3 (2018). 
  2. Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Louise Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (MIT Press, 2011); Margaret O’Mara, “Landscapes of Knowledge and High Technology,” Places Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 (2007); Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006). 
  3. Margaret Crawford, Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns (Verso, 1995); Oliver J. Dinius and Angela Vergara, eds., Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities (University of Georgia Press, 2011); John S. Garner, ed., The Company Town: Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age (Oxford University Press, 1992). 
  4. Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961); Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf, 1974). 
  5. E.g., Nick Tabor, “Amazon Is an Infrastructure Company. The HQ2 Bids Were Reconnaissance,” Intelligencer, December 3, 2018.

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Labor Conflict: With Birth Strike Jenny Brown Tackles the Population Decline

By Ann Schneider
The Indypendent
April 3rd, 2019
Issue 245

It took more than a decade of litigation by feminist plaintiffs for RU-486 (mifepristone), known as the “morning-after pill,” to be legally sold over the counter in the United States. The medication, which causes the pregnancy to be expelled, was fiercely opposed by anti-abortion forces.

Why would opponents of abortion also want to keep birth control out of women’s hands? In Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work (PM Press), veteran feminist Jenny Brown, a plaintiff in the RU-486 litigation, argues that record numbers of women are declining to have children because they do not have the social or government support — such as paid parental leave and universal healthcare — to raise children unencumbered. In response, she contends, the corporate patriarchy is trying to coerce them into having more children by reducing or eliminating access to abortion and birth control.

Fertility rates among all women in all major U.S. racial groups hit lows in 2018. The birth rate among Latinas, who have more children than either non-Hispanic whites or African Americans, fell from 97.4 births per 1,000 women in 2007 to 67.6 in 2017.

Who is that a problem for, Brown and her compatriots ask; why have states passed 668 restrictions on reproductive rights over the past decade? In Texas, 82 family planning clinics were shut down by pretextual regulations that made it impossible for them to function. The result, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, was that use of birth control went down and childbearing rose 27 percent for women in the affected areas. So who wants us to have babies against our will, and why?

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has one answer: “Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers, workers and entrepreneurs. No babies, no consumer demand.”

Birth Strike supports its arguments with facts culled from a vast historical survey of the changing legal status of abortion, contemporary interviews, economics and germinal feminism — such as that of the Redstockings, the 1970s New York radical women’s group. In keeping with tried-and-true radical-feminist principles, it relies on testimonials of women who have faced the choice of whether to reproduce or not, and at what price.

That the United States provides so little support for mothering comes as a shock to most immigrants. Around the world, 185 of the 193 members of the United Nations provide paid leave for new parents, five of them for six months or more. Redstockings once organized a speak-out at the UN where women from Columbia, Cuba, Hungary, Costa Rica and elsewhere bragged about what their governments provided.

Keeping women’s reproductive labor unpaid amounts to profits for the 1 percent. It keeps the burden of parenting in the private rather than public sphere. The website gave its review of Brown’s book the headline, “How Childless Adults are Secretly Protesting for American Parents.”

Given that reproduction rates are below the number needed to keep the population level, Brown concludes, “In the U.S., women have not yet realized the potential of our bargaining position.”

This is not “lean in” feminism. For radical feminists, there are no individual solutions.  Rather, they say, tax wealthy corporations and individuals and their offshore tax havens to provide subsidized daycare for all children, and pay the providers (who are mainly black and Latina women) a sufficient wage. Birth Strike also demands the repeal of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, so Medicaid can again pay for abortion in all states.

Women’s refusal to carry children under current circumstances is an undeclared birth strike. Rather than looking at our physical capacities as a vulnerability or a disability, having the choice to carry a child can be a source of political power for women. This is a truly revolutionary realization.

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In the Long Fight for reproductive Justice, Storytelling is a Weapon

By Kaylen Ralph
March 1st, 2019

Kaylen Ralph on how the personal is political in the Abortion Rights Movement

On April 5, 1971, 343 French women signed a manifesto.

“One million women have abortions each year in France,” they declared in the pages of Nouvel Observateur, a weekly French news magazine still in circulation today. “I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I’ve had an abortion. We demand open access to contraceptives; we demand open abortion.”

Led by the intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, and with the backing of a handful of French celebrities, according to Time magazine, the 343 women who signed the manifesto otherwise included everyday women—writers, performers, philosophers, etc. Their manifesto was the first of its kind in the modern era. In 1974, due in large part to the advocacy of the salopes—the French equivalent of “sluts,” a derogatory description the women reclaimed—the French Minister of Health, Simone Veil, introduced a bill that would eventually legalize abortion in France in 1975.

One year after Nouvel Observateur published the French women’s manifesto, the first issue of Ms. hit the newsstands in the United States. Inspired in part by the French manifesto, the magazine’s inaugural issue included a similar declaration. “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions,” promised the allusory cover line.

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Similarly to the French women’s manifesto, the purpose of the Ms. petition was to spark legal change, “not to alienate or to ask for sympathy, but to repeal archaic and inhumane laws,” through the means of sharing personal truth. 

At that point in time, in the thick of the fight to legalize abortion, the mere act of admitting to having had one was revolutionary. As Ms. co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an original signatory of the “We Have Had Abortions” petition, recounted, “Women who got pregnant before Roe v. Wade had very few options . . . Women died. Lots of women died. When I found out I was pregnant, I was in my senior year in college. I would have killed myself. This isn’t hyperbole. If I couldn’t have had an abortion at 18, I would have killed myself—because I couldn’t see how I could possibly live my life. I had to work. I didn’t have rich parents who were going to support me. I didn’t have a husband.”

The fear and inevitability inherent in Pogrebin’s story reflected the rhetoric employed by abortion advocates at the time. The Ms. petition was published in 1972 during a period in which, under the umbrella of the women’s liberation movement, abortion speak-outs and consciousness-raising groups were popping up around the country. In 1969, the New York State legislature’s hearing on abortion law, featuring a panel of 15 so-called “experts”—14 of whom were men—was interrupted as several women, members of a new consciousness-raising group called the Redstockings, attempted to share their own abortion stories. When the hearing was cut short, the Redstockings organized their own hearing, which famously took place just one month later at the Washington Square Methodist Church, during which 12 women shared stories about their own abortions for an audience of 300 men and women.

If I couldn’t have had an abortion at 18, I would have killed myself—because I couldn’t see how I could possibly live my life.

In the midst of the consciousness-raising era of the women’s liberation movement that constituted the late 1960s and early 1970s, these petitions constituted a natural byproduct of the movement’s narrative and mission to legalize abortion thus far. As more and more women shared their abortion stories, whether through the spoken or written word, the abortion legalization movement gained steam and, in January 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Roe. 

Forty-six years later, a person’s right to an abortion is still constitutionally protected. And yet, with each passing day, that right feels more and more at risk as conservative factions do their best to find state-specific footholds for anti-choice advocates. As outlined by #VOTEPROCHOICE on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade last month, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky have all introduced legislation this year with an eye toward the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade by a now decidedly conservative Supreme Court.

In the face of these threats to reproductive freedom, the narrative and literature surrounding the pro-choice movement has evolved, as evidenced in two recent books.

Shout Your Abortion, an anthology co-edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, simultaneously celebrates the storytelling and acknowledgement that defined the reproductive rights movement of the 1960s and 70s while also introducing the reality of what reproductive rights advocacy would likely look like, should Roe be overturned by a now solidly conservative Supreme Court. The book documents a viral social media campaign that began in 2015, after the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood and Amelia Bonow wrote about her abortion in a public Facebook post.

“I am telling you this today because the narrative of those working to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about. Plenty of people still believe that on some level—if you are a good woman—abortion is a choice which should be accompanied by some level of sadness, shame or regret.”

Bonow’s post ended up sparking #ShoutYourAbortion, which was used used in more than 150,000 social media posts in two weeks, according to The New York Times.

Shout Your Abortion includes 40-plus first-person essays by people recounting their abortion experiences in addition to a handful of comics and photographs speaking to the same. In addition to essays and artwork, Shout Your Abortion offers interviews with abortion providers as well as additional resources on reproductive care. The diversity of perspectives and mediums adds an additional layer to the confessional, consciousness-raising narrative of the 1960s and 70s.

“There was a lot of activism before that happened, and there was an abortion storytelling movement that was very much centered around second-wave feminism and . . . New York and abortion speak outs and [figures] like Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine,” Bonow said. “In that era, stories were not as pervasively suppressed . . . there was a fairly broad movement to tell stories.”

There’s no reward at the end for keeping your head down and not causing a problem.

But when the right-wing moral majority began to establish a Congressional foothold in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a person’s right to abortion was reframed, even by pro-choice politicians, as a non-ideal option, which reproductive rights advocates said contributed to a sense of shame around the procedure.

“We saw the progressive leaders of the late 90s, and even into the early 2000s . . . basically saying, ‘Abortion is a necessary evil, and we will ultimately defend a person’s right to choose, however it’s not a thing we’re down with, and you really shouldn’t talk about it, and if you do, you should express a lot of contrition and shame,’” Bonow said.

In the 1970s, prior to Roe v. Wade, to say, “I’ve had an abortion,” was to show the verisimilitude of an illegal act. In the eyes of pro-choice advocates at the time, doing so was a necessary step in legally securing the right to a procedure that was already happening around the country every day. Today, as anti-choice advocates work against those efforts, those moved to share their abortion stories are doing so with an urgency reminiscent of that which was yielded by the salopes, the women of Ms., the Redstockings, and others, and they’re sharing those stories alongside resources for legal reproductive care, a move that would have been impossible before.

Also tackling the possibility of a post-Roe America from a proactive perspective, Handbook for a Post-Roe America by Robin Marty is a guide to pro-choice advocates’ worst-imagined future. One chapter comprises a state-by-state dossier of abortion laws, including analyses of what would happen should Roe ever be overturned or weakened by the Supreme Court. Another is a self-reflective quiz that allows you to gauge the level of civil disobedience you feel personally comfortable engaging in by answering questions like: “Am I the only one who can help?” “Is my privacy important?” “Am I worried about my family?” There’s a section that breaks down the ins and outs of self-managed abortion care, including where to find the necessities for a medication abortion, how mifepristone and misoprostol work to end a pregnancy, and what to expect through the process of termination.

Handbook mirrors the covert systems of information dissemination that a group called The Jane Collective utilized in order to share information and perform abortions pre-Roe. A group of (mostly white) women in their late teens and twenties, the Janes offered counseling for people seeking illegal abortions in addition to performing first- and second-trimester abortions themselves.

Shout Your Abortion and Handbook demonstrate that storytelling and sharing information, including around abortion, is never a fruitless endeavor. “The impulse to stay silent is sort of based on some desire to conform to respectability politics,” Bonow said. “We’ve seen in the past few years there’s no reward at the end . . . for keeping your head down and not causing a problem. We’re totally fucked, so you might as well tell the truth about your life.”

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Pictures of a Gone City Reivewed in Antipode Journal


By Sarah Knuth
March 2019

It is a timely moment to have a left geographic conversation about Richard Walker’s recent book, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area. The book hit shelves this past spring, amidst a wave of US political narratives pitting “the West Coast versus Trump”. That project is an animating concern of Walker’s big book, which synthesizes a career’s worth of grappling with the complex political economy of the San Francisco Bay Area, from its frequent internal upheavals – all too often inflicted from the top against everyone else – to evergreen hopes that the city and region might drag the United States back from right-wing political turns.

The aftermath of the 2018 congressional election has seen a host of Democratic Party leaders scrambling to contain a rising grassroots left, while more or lessopenly yearning for a return to neoliberal business-as-usual. As I write this, such repressive and regressive politics have been recently evident in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s and California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s respective dismissals of left Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal. They are similarly clear in mainstream critiques scolding New York City activists for their defeatof Amazon’s mooted headquarters relocation to Queens. As Walker would say, it is no accident that these self-assured avatars of the US Democratic Party establishment hail from the San Francisco Bay Area. Nor should it surprise that those finger-wagging Amazon’s rejection channel familiar truisms of Bay Area-brand capitalist success: the supposedly self-evident benefits of a high-tech-led economy in well-paying jobs produced, urban vibrancy, and economicresilience.

The bulk of Pictures of a Gone City, and the core contribution of the book as I see it,is dedicated to a deconstruction of such power-imbued tech narratives, and a deep dive into the far more complicated – frequently, deeply exploitative and ugly – material geographies that undergird them. Pictures is not a perfect intervention, as I will discuss, within urban geography’sincreasingly polycentric radical-progressive project or for the California and US national movements that are its most natural political audience (though the book seems equally destined to become a staple in Bay Area and California studies curricula – at multiple levels, given its popular framing and readability). Yet this rich work powerfully argues for the value of ambitiousgeographical political economy and its indispensability within a left political toolkit: applied as itis here, the analytical lens continues to provide irreplaceable insights into urban transformations, the possible future/s of global capitalism, and what is to be done about all of the above.

Surveying Pictures’ roadmap, Part I of the book introduces the political economy of Greater Silicon Valley – which for practical purposes now stretches beyond Palo Alto and San Jose to encompass the Bay Area writ large. It rehearses and critiques familiar narratives of visionary tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, “disruptive innovation” (Schumpeterian creative destruction for the 21st century), utopian techno-futurism, and legitimate/d billion-dollar “unicorn” corporate valuations and super-profits. Synthesizing his own long-term work and contributions from other critical scholars and activists, Walker exposes the myriad hidden geographies concealed within the Bay Area’s epochal neoliberal success story: Silicon Valley’s long history of government and defense industry support; sharply bifurcated employment geographies in and surrounding tech companies – which entangle class, race, and gendered difference in amplifying feedbacks of misrecognized exclusion and inequality; the vast geography of fundamental yet sidelined non-tech industries and laboring geographies that keep the Bay Area running. More deeply still, the section tracks the Bay Area’s constitutive entanglement within US uneven development. This is expressed both in the long decline of regions like the Rust Belt, as they fell in part through the rise of places like the Bay Area, and in the hidden costs of the Bay Area’s chronically volatile boom-bust economy. This steep bill for decades of leading edge techno-capitalist success (so far) has included the chronic production of mini-Rust Belts and shockingly deprived populations amidst the Bay Area’s (high-)rising neighborhoods and surficial regional success. Perhaps above all in this section, Walker unpacks the geographies of surplus value that Greater Silicon Valley mobilizes and richly profits from, indelibly relies upon, yet has through no form of tech alchemy produced. Tech corporations and their financiers extract such surplus from workers both “at home” and in a global geography of manufacturing from Mexico to (especially) East Asia. They extract other rents from competitors and consumers via the monopolistic gatekeeping and capitalist state-sanctioned rents of intellectual property law. In still other ways, they glean such surplus from the public sector and its decades of subsidies, from a wealth of inherited urban infrastructures and institutions, and from exploited natures of all kinds.2 Meanwhile, all of the above are enabled by sustained speculative buy-in globally, notably from a host of yield-starved institutional investors facing secular stagnation.

Part II of the book expands the above story of hidden dependencies, brittleness, and consequences to a nuanced, sometimes exhaustive exploration of the Greater Bay Area’s urban form/s and their producers: major real estate developers, financiers, and investors past and present. In the process, it unpacks a long history of housing and land development struggles. Theurban region now encompasses a vast geography from Napa in the North and Sacramento in the East to Watsonville in the South. These spaces are now bound up in a broader metropolitan economy, its boom and bust dynamics, and, notably, its long-unspooling crises of housing accessand affordability, class-race displacement, urban sprawl, and new environmental destabilizations such as the regional effects of global climate change.

This picture of the Bay Area’s deep-seated, under-recognized troubles sets the scene for Part III’s speculations on the uncertain future of Bay Area politics. In this final section, Walker argues that such dark sides of the Bay Area’s capitalist success throw into question the region’s hoped-for role as a social and environmental leader, as they undermine hard-won political achievements of the past and threaten future organizing capacity. The section moves on to highlight broader contradictions of Bay Area politics within a state in flux. It narrates how the “left coast city” of bohemian and laborite San Francisco and the radical East Bay of the 1946 General Strike, Blank Panthers, and Free Speech Movement3 were harnessed as a symbolic enemy by (especially) Southern California neo-conservatives, from Nixon and Reagan to the organizers of the tax revolt that swept in Proposition 13. It considers California’s long 3
subsequent struggle with such neoliberal fetters and austerity politics – including a resultant unhealthy appetite for real estate-tied fiscal financialization, and recurrent subjection to its speculative disasters.

A key takeaway from Part III, and Pictures as a whole, is Walker’s exploration of how the Bay Area’s left-progressive political tradition has been eroded by successive waves of high-tech in-migrants – technological entrepreneurs and their higher-wage salaried employees, exploited and self-exploiting – and the oppressive side of its concentrated wealth. He argues that one locus of this weakening lies in the region’s ongoing gentrification and displacement of its workers and communities of color. Notwithstanding resistance struggles from Occupy Oakland and Black Lives Matter organizing to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, this ongoing evacuation has attenuated the Bay Area’s historically generative foment of class-racial mixing and radical-progressive activist alliances. Another locus lies in what remains, as the Bay Area becomes ever more a place of and for (very) wealthy white men.4 Walker argues that the region’scapacity to resist – and interest in resisting – the US’s right-wing slide is increasingly compromised by this re-segregation. Meanwhile, its tech leaders are increasingly complicit in unleashing a host of tools for popular misinformation and surveillance, including by the right. The region’s social and political shift is perhaps most notable around intersectional questions of race, gender, and class, and in broader questions of economic justice and transformation raised within today’s Green New Deal debates. Greater Silicon Valley’s political representatives (a tasktech titans increasingly take on themselves) chronically fall prey to the region’s self-hype, propagating notions of their own technocratic genius (remarkably uncritical), libertarian skepticism of governmental effectiveness (deeply ahistorical), and a healthy sense of entitlement to their own super-profits (all-too-blind to the infrastructures and exploitations that undergird their good fortune). All raise cautions about the Bay Area’s capacity for leadership and alliances in the radical-progressive struggles to come.

Pictures of a Gone City is not a perfect book. Walker owns upfront that the account is a treatise by a proud Bay Area native, one who is enduringly fascinated by the urban-region’s 4
successes and “exports”, technological, sociocultural, and political – notwithstanding the deep caveats raised above. Disclaimers notwithstanding, that ambivalence can make for a sometimes-contradictory political read, while hometown partiality occasionally translates into a running list of Bay Area achievements and “firsts”. More substantively, perhaps Walker’s unique local knowledge and his decades of writing on the Bay Area occasionally encumbers the analysis: one gets the sense that Walker did not want to leave anything out of his long-awaited “Bay Area book”.5 This endeavor for comprehensiveness succeeds in holding impressively many strands in the analytical mix. Despite the book’s firm situation within geographical political economy and classical Marxian questions of labor exploitation, surplus value extraction, and uneven development,6 it clearly makes an effort to incorporate more polyvocal and intersectional political economic work on race and gender. Nonetheless, this would-be catholicism also introduces recurrent unevenness and inevitable silences, in subject matter and analytical lenses taken up.

Notably, fractures emerge between Walker’s own new research and updated/popularized past findings and his broad surveys of other academics’ and journalists’ accounts. The former remain startlingly original and powerful – hopefully, too-often-neglected past insights will find a new audience here. Particular conceptual standouts included Walker’s exemplary treatments of the geographies and temporalities of surplus value extraction, the ways in which such concentrated surplus frustrates “supply-side” affordable housing policies (e.g. “YIMBYism”), and the book’s incisive treatment of the oft-neglected question of building “cycles”.7 Surveys of others’ scholarship and praxis are frequently more descriptive and at-worst surficial. For example, readers with a reasonable working knowledge of contemporary debates on tech surveillance and data abuses may not learn much new here, while scholars in search of deeper engagements with, say, critical race theory would do better to look to the book’s (extensive) footnotes and bibliography. The book clearly attempts to make sure that key movements, regional actors, and achievements all receive a mention in the Bay Area’s broader story, but suchlistings do not always translate into a deeper understanding of how such struggles work, have worked in the region’s past, and might work today – political and political-geographic questions largely beyond the remit of this account. As such, those in search of tools for reversing the political declines that Walker chronicles will likely come away with a more comprehensive historical materialist understanding of the structures arrayed against them, but will need to go elsewhere for fuller insights into such depredations, tactics for resisting and overturning them, and possibilities for imagining-otherwise the place and its future.

Moreover, scholars working to advance a more polycentric urban geography may find frustrations in the book’s project of interpreting contemporary capitalism in and through developments in a “commanding heights” urban-region. In this case, Walker’s account is notablyrich in particularistic regional detail and reasonably careful about the dangers of totalizing narratives when treating a sector like contemporary high-tech. Caution is particularly warranted given the sector’s plethora of uncritical champions, including urban academics such as Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser. These far less conflicted boosters have actively set about disseminating universalist storylines about the benefits of tech creativity and the preconditions for tech leadership. Such prescriptions are highly dubious in a chronically uneven capitalist space economy, in which the vast majority of such tech competitors must inevitably lose. Nevertheless,the account here remains partial in the way of past analyses of cities-of-the-capitalist-moment/imagined future, from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago to London to Paris. Adding, say, a Shanghai to this evolving succession is only part of the ongoing decentering task facing urban geography: such constructions still leave us overly preoccupied with “special” cities and their role in producing innovations, narratives, and models for export elsewhere. A particularistic book about the Bay Area needs little self-justification, while researchers and activists must still work far harder to defend similarly rich accounts of many other places – again, the “ordinary” cities of both the Global South and the “flyover” North. Besides neglecting the host of places and experiences meriting urban geographers’ attention, as discussed at length by other urban scholars, such lenses present a truncated sense of political possibility. Accounts like this one of successful places and the past successes that led them to 6
power risk missing windows for contingency and political surprise. For example, such accounts in the contemporary US political moment may overlook the left political possibilities of many “non-special” places in Rust Belt and Southern regions – despite their genuine achievements in movements such as today’s ongoing wave of teachers’ strikes.

The most powerful rejoinder to the critique leveled above is, of course, that power-laden narratives of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area remain so very influential in the contemporary moment. This is particularly so in the US national discussions surveyed above, including ongoing debates over the prospects for a Green New Deal. Problematically for that potential intervention, however, Pictures of a Gone City contains a curious gap in an account that does treat (and sympathetically critique) the Bay Area’s environmental record, including its growing engagements with climate change. Despite the book’s tech focus, Silicon Valley’s own failures as a self-professed green leader get surprisingly little play in the book. These flaws go beyond the spillovers and “externalities” like traffic congestion treated here to more constitutive deficiencies in the region’s model of innovation. Notably, Silicon Valley’s failed “cleantech” boom in the late 2000s/early 2010s warrants more attention.

Such examinations are critical in growing a Green New Deal that avoids mistakes of the recent past, when the Obama-era version was in part mired in Silicon Valley techno-political breakdowns.

Finally, however, in the broader sense Walker’s account speaks generatively to a central assertion of Green New Deal activism – that fundamental problems like climate change require not just technocratic uptake of technological “fixes” and policy instruments, but far more ambitious, holistic grappling with economic development and its embedded inequalities, raced, classed, and gendered, spatial and infrastructural.

This holism echoes in many ways the core insights of Pictures of a Gone City, and the distinctiveness of its critique of tech. Its political economic treatment offers an un-enchanted, wide-ranging view of today’s high-tech capitalism and its bases/biases. Such ongoing challenge is imperative for left-political programs grappling not only with the complex legacy of the New Deal, but with a broader eco-modernism and futurism that are still unfamiliar terrain for much environmental and social justice activism.

While offering genuine promise for more just and survivable futures, these campaigns must keepa clear eye on the risks of techno-futurist and neoliberal capture, both material and imaginative.

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Soccer vs the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics by Gabriel Kuhn

By Andy Hedgecock
Morning Star (UK)
March 25th, 2019

A timely and entertaining read on the history and development of the ‘beautiful game’

THERE is a widely accepted idea that football emerged from working-class culture, went through a golden age as the people’s game and then sold its soul to Sky, Adidas and Coca Cola.

But Soccer vs the State, Gabriel Kuhn's lively and painstaking examination of the sport’s hidden history and competing cultures, reveals a more complex narrative.

The book is full of surprises. In the early 19th century football was played by future captains of industry and administrators of empire, though this changed in the 1880s when professionalisation attracted young men seeking an escape from factory work. With professional players came working-class crowds keen to watch their mates.

Another revelation concerns women’s participation — we are currently witnessing a revival, not a genesis. Women participated in medieval village matches and were excluded only when public schools appropriated the game.

There was renewed interest in women’s football in WWI and in 1920 Dick, Kerrs Ladies from Preston beat St Helens Ladies before a record crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park. The response of the FA was to introduce a ban, not lifted until 1971, and to encourage international prohibition of women players.

Kuhn highlights the tension football provokes between workers and bosses on every continent, using archived pamphlets, manifestos, interviews and news clippings and a complex picture emerges of a Jekyll-and-Hyde sport.

There is evidence of it being a counter-revolutionary activity fostering greed, corruption, sectarianism and nationalism but there are also examples of teamwork on the pitch promoting working-class solidarity. An example is the late Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, who said that the Greek and Croatian soccer teams of Adelaide were the first groups to recognise him as a person.

The book provides fascinating snippets of information on activism, racism, anti-fascism, corporate influences on accessibility, bigotry and internationalism yet the author’s impressive archive and interview-based research, and his rich and varied presentation of information, is slightly compromised by the book’s structural flaws.

The thematic similarity of some chapters leads to repetition of ideas and makes it hard for readers to refer back to specific information and narratives. But Kuhn offers a cornucopia of anecdotes, facts, life histories and extracts to create a fragmented yet fascinating picture of a sport facing profound risks and possibilities.

This new second edition covers the development of feminist clubs, the contribution of ultra fans to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and the impact of the Fifa corruption scandal and it is an invaluable resource at a time in which football risks destruction by the greed of club owners and their corporate partners.

At the same time it celebrates the game’s potential for building social cohesion and alternative forms of community.

Soccer vs the State is published by PM Press, price £15.99

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How Childless Adults Are Secretly Protesting for American Parents

By Patrick A. Coleman
March 8th, 2019

Family planning expert Jenny Brown argues that the declining American birth rate is a push back against unrealistic economic expectations thrust on mom and dad.

The US birth rate is at its lowest point in three decades and sliding. The population shrinks daily even as the private sector struggles with a labor shortage and politicians promised GDP growth incompatible with a contracting workforce. Though they rarely get credit for it, parents grow the economy by raising the kids who wind up participating in it. When adults opt out of parenthood en masse — there’s a fine example of this in Japan — economies sputter and stall. So it behooves both policymakers and private sector leaders to consider why Americans in prime child-bearing years are opting out of procreation. And it turns out there are some concrete and fairly obvious answers.

The economic strain of parenthood has increased. The social strain of parenthood has increased. The professional strain of managing multiple incomes has increased.

Jenny Brown has watched both these trends and family planning trends. As a National Women’s Liberation organizer, Brown led the campaign to make the “morning-after pill” available over-the-counter and discovered that couples were putting off having children not out of disinterest but out of fear. They understood the difficulty of providing for and educating a child in a hyper-competitive culture. They understood they would receive minimal government support. They were making informed decisions to either not have kids or to have fewer kids. The un-childing of America was underway. 

In her new book Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work, Brown documents this phenomenon and posits that until the government starts supporting families with social programs that help make child rearing easier, adults will eschew parenthood and parents will skip the second or third kid. Fatherly spoke with Brown about this emerging dynamic and what fathers can do to navigate what is, in a literal and figurative sense, a confounding labor market.

I want to make sure that this gets represented accurately. You’re arguing, essentially, that because the American government doesn’t provide meaningful support for parents, we’re seeing a decline in birth rates, which you’re calling a birth strike. How did you come to that conclusion?

We were involved in a campaign to get the morning-after pill over the counter and we talked about how difficult it is to have kids. Many of the members of our group had had one and we’re stopping because they didn’t have access to paid leave, or the amount of time off that they had was laughable — maybe a week or two weeks. They had health insurance issues, trouble paying just for the birth. Even when they had insurance there were a lot of other costs involved. Then there was paying for after school and summer programs and just the exhaustion of working eight hours a day, at least, and then coming home and trying to have a family life. They just decided they couldn’t handle having a second.

What about the women who didn’t have kids?

Many of us didn’t have kids but wanted them. We were facing financial instability and inflexibility by employers and the cost of childcare. In other countries, there are subsidies or wraparound services or very long paid leaves. But we were mostly taking unpaid leave. And then we started to see the headlines about the birth rate going down and that’s when we made the connection.

So, when it’s harder to raise kids, people have fewer kids. Makes sense. And you’re certainly right that America subsidizes parents a great deal less than most developed nations. Why do you think we’re so reluctant to help American parents when it’s clear they need more help?

Well, I’m not sure it’s reluctant. At least on the part of just ordinary people. But I do think it’s reluctance on the part of the employers.

After World War II, the sexist ideal was to have a family wage. That meant that one breadwinner would support the family. They would support the children and a spouse who made it their full-time job to do the care work in the family. And so that was 40 hours a week to support a family. Now it takes 80 hours or more a week to support a family. But employers have not added anything for that family care job.

Employers now get 80 hours, at least, of labor so there’s less eagerness on the part of couples to do additional domestic work. That resonates with me, but I wonder if there’s a solution. 

For the unionized section of the workforce, there used to be an idea that the employer’s paycheck had responsibility over what is possible in a family. In our group, we say rather than the family wage we need a social wage. That’s the European term or all of these programs that cover everyone, including long paid leave, long vacations, health care, child care, and elder care. We have to reckon with what happened in America. We had a system. That system is gone but it wasn’t replaced with another system.

That system has traditionally been understood as “bad for moms.” But it strikes me as pretty damn bad for dads as well. What is the advocacy role for fathers here?

Men worry about the economic situation. They worry about healthcare, child care, and housing. The same pressure is applied. So the birth strike is definitely not just something that women are deciding. It’s something that couples are deciding. We’re in a different situation than the 50s because dads are really doing tremendously more. They see all of the same things that women see when they’re doing care.

With that visibility that fathers have, and those higher stakes, will that help?

I think creates the possibility for more political cohesion when parents go to make these demands.

If the difficulty of parenting is leading to a decline in birth rates, that will ultimately affect the GDP and shrink eligible employees. It looks like the private sector is working against it’s best interests. What’s the deal? Do they just not get it?

Well, for the last 20-years they have been getting away with it. Until recently families have been taking these burdens on themselves. They have been paying out for the child care and struggling and enlisting grandparents to fill in the gaps. We sort of blame ourselves. We figure well, you know, we knew what we were getting into when we had kids and so we’re just going to have to make do. We don’t see it as a system which is reliant on our labor as parents doing the very careful and important job of raising the next generation.

I think a lot of parents feel that isolation.

There’s an ideology that goes along with this where it’s really all on the parents. You are responsible. It’s almost as though kids are a luxury item as opposed to the next generation of our society. And because we blame ourselves we haven’t been able to create the political pressure to, you know, get Amazon to pay taxes so we can have a child care system in this country. Because if an individual employer says, okay, we’re going to have six months paid family leave they’re suddenly at a competitive disadvantage. So it’s very hard for employers to do that.

And so it seems clear we need a government-wide solution. But, right now, so many politicians are talking like social welfare programs are somehow evil. Can we get past that?

Well, we should look at solutions we’ve already had in this country. During World War II we needed women in the workforce. Suddenly. We were able to come up with childcare centers and extensive support. Also, we already have the equivalent of an allowance for children. If a parent dies Social Security gives income replacement so that the child will not be destitute. We have a system, you just have to die to get it. Still, socialist programs are not all that alien from things we’ve done in the US.

I’m watching President Trump shadow box with the idea of socialism in front of roaring crowds. Do you still think that’s true?

I think the fact that people are now complaining about socialism is a sign that we actually have made politicians understand these programs are politically viable in the US. They’re reacting to that political viability by denouncing it.

What’s the breaking point going to be?

By pushing forward this idea that we’re on the informal birth strike, people will start to get a sense of just how bad it’s gotten. It’s not just an individual issue. This is something we need to have a collective solution so our kids don’t have to go through this.

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Why Toledo Just Gave Legal Rights to Lake Erie

By Nicole Javorsky
March 1st, 2019

Lake Erie provides drinking water for 11 million people, and an unusual tactic to protect it was just adopted in Toledo, Ohio: On Tuesday, Toledoans passed the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” in a special election, with 61 percent voting yes on a ballot measure that could allow citizens to sue polluters on behalf of the lake.

“This is the first in the nation in terms of rights-of-nature law being adopted by a municipality over a certain ecosystem, and I think it’s the beginning of more things to come in that area,” said Thomas Linzey, executive director and chief legal counsel for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helped local activists draft the bill.

The ballot measure will amend the city’s charter to establish that Lake Erie has the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The goal of giving the lake legal rights, Linzey said, is for activists to be able to do “a survey of who’s the biggest polluters into the lake” and then bring lawsuits “to stop that pollution,” he said.

“This is the first in the nation in terms of rights-of-nature law being adopted by a municipality over a certain ecosystem.”

Runoff pollution is a major cause of Lake Erie’s algae blooms, which can make water toxic to fish, wildlife, and people. This kind of pollution occurs “when rainfall washes fertilizer and manure spread on large farm fields into streams that flow into Lake Erie,” according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Past problems with Lake Erie’s water quality prompted organizers to think about new ways to safeguard it. Back in 2014, the City of Toledo issued an advisory for residents not to drink municipal water after chemical tests found unsafe levels of an algal toxin. The toxic algae bloom left 110 people sick and nearly half a million without tap water. Ohio even declared a state of emergency.

“For three days in 2014, we lost access to our drinking water, and we didn’t see any action come out of that,” Markie Miller, an organizer for Toledoans for Safe Water, told CityLab. “We wanted to do something for ourselves.”

The concept of giving rights to nature originates, at least within the U.S., from an article by Christopher Stone published in 1972 in the Southern California Law Review, “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” Since then, the idea has gained traction internationally. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize rights of nature in its national constitution. And in 2010, Bolivia’s legislative assembly passed the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.”

The basic principle is that of legal standing: Under the U.S. Constitution, to have standing, one needs to show direct injury to oneself caused by some entity, and there must be some redress, or remedy, that can be found in court. Activists hope that with these new rights, Lake Erie will have standing in court without needing to demonstrate injury to a human.

The U.S. Clean Water Act addresses point-source pollution, from a confined and discrete source. But a significant percentage of what plagues Lake Erie is diffuse, non-point-source pollution, such as excess fertilizers from agriculture and urban stormwater runoff.

The fact that Toledoans endorsed such an unusual means to combat pollution reflects an understanding that current regulations aren’t sufficient, said Madeline Fleisher, senior attorney in the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Columbus office. “The citizens of Toledo are clearly and rightfully frustrated. I understand why they’re trying novel approaches to try to get those issues addressed.” (As is common in local special elections, turnout in Toledo’s was low; just shy of 9 percent of registered voters cast ballots.)

The proposal has been contentious. The board of elections in Lucas County (whose seat is Toledo) voted to block it from the ballot in the November 2018 election. After several months of debate, the board ultimately voted in December to add it to the February special election because of an Ohio Supreme Court decision, as the Toledo Blade reported. One board member said he still believed the measure was “on its face unconstitutional and unenforceable.”

Opponents of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights are concerned about the costs of litigation for farms and businesses. The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation already pledged its support for a lawsuit farmer Mark Drewes filed in the Federal District Court for Northern Ohio Wednesday, challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

“Farmers want and are working toward improving water quality, but this new Toledo law hurts those efforts. Mark Drewes understands this, and it’s Farm Bureau’s job to back his important actions on behalf of Ohio farmers,” the executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, Adam Sharp, said in a statement.

The suit contends that the measure violates federal constitutional rights, including equal protection and freedom of speech. Additionally, it argues that the bill of rights violates Ohio state law in several ways. For example, it contends that Toledo as a local government cannot override the Ohio state governing structure of Lake Erie, since the Ohio Department of Natural Resources governs the lake under state law.

“One of the biggest challenges that the [Lake Erie] Bill of Rights will have is moving from vision to enactment,” said Cinnamon Carlarne, an Ohio State University law professor. “That is part of a larger conversation trying to advance the role that law plays in protecting ecosystems for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is that we are as humans fundamentally dependent on them.”

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