Laura Briggs

All Politics is Reproductive

Air Date: September 16, 2017

Chair of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst Laura Briggs discusses her new book "How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. We do biologically as human beings so must not our politics derive from reproductive rights? That’s the contention of our guest today, professor and chair of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Laura Briggs is author of the new University of California Press Volume, “How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump.” Briggs persuasively connects reproductive politics to public sentiment across a range of significant policy questions. When Donald Trump, vying of for the Republican presidential nomination, first hit the front page of every paper in 2015 and generated Twitter storms, Briggs writers, “it was by saying that Mexico was sending rapists to the United States. By seeming to defend a violated, victimized white womanhood from a racialized other.” This was in our author’s estimation the culmination of age-old welfare wars against perceived African-American dependency, a cycle of black infant mortality, and a backlash against the Supreme Court decision establishing marriage equality. And Laura is here to elaborate, thanks for making the trip from Massachusetts.

BRIGGS: Thanks for having me on.

HEFFNER: I think that last point is where I’d love to start and connect your thesis here about how all politics in effect derives from that reproductive politics. In this most recent Supreme Court decision you wrote, um- “as a reproductive politics issue, same-sex marriage facilitated the privatization of dependency in both a queerly affirming and profoundly conservative way.” And to me, that spoke to how you could start from established marriage inequality and then two court sessions later determine that the owner of a bakery can deny a gay couple a cake. How do you see the Supreme Court decision most recently affirming marriage equality playing into this thesis about reproductive rights.

BRIGGS: So if you look back to the 1970’s you see that gay couples, queer communities were living all sorts of experiments. They were living in collective households and what I’m interested in is not whether gay marriage should exist or not, of course everybody should have all the rights. I’m interested in how marriage became the primary gay issue. So instead of lots of exciting experiments in household structure, what we have is a respectability politics of marriage. But it’s not really just respectability, it’s the absence of a social safety net that has made so many of us turn to the nuclear family as the place where we’re gonna um, where we’re gonna feel safe, be protected in our old age, if we get the flu who’s gonna take care us, if we get seriously disabled who’s gonna take care of us.

And so what we see in the current moment is the, the conservative right has a politics of morality that they’ve been putting forward and putting forward, and progressives on the other hand see economic issues on the one hand, and the, and cultural wars on the other hand. And the Republicans have been particularly good at welding together questions of the economy with questions of morality. And the reality is we all care about morality, we all live in households, we all live connected to each other. And so this question of whether a baker can um, can have, can, has to make a cake for a gay couple so that they can have a wedding- how did that … that’s not a progressive issue right?, that’s uh, that’s the conservative right putting forward this politics where the even, where the evangelical or conservative Christian morality has to occupy the center of politics.

HEFFNER: Right it has to determine in the case of healthcare reform and the Supreme Court decision, not whether you individually can have reproductive care, but the entire population of workers. This question of can religious institutions exempt themselves from reproductive care. Well, maybe they can but when you talk about expanding it to commerce in the way that the baker case would, to me it shows how backwards we really are when something
like that can’t be adjudicated by these people themselves, by the baker by the person buying the cake, or the couple buying the cake. I just wonder how we arrived at that moment, and then when I read here you talk about the privatization of that ruling and that decision um, the marriage issue being kind of in isolation from the society at large. That resonated for me.

BRIGGS: Only some people feel like they get to occupy the center of politics and morality. Right? If a Seventh Day Adventist wants to work in the hospital, you don’t get to, you don’t see a movement to eliminate blood transfusions. Right? It’s the question of why can’t we have private questions or privatize the questions of whether a baker gets to um, make this cake or not, has to make this cake.

HEFFNER: And so when you think of- politics as all politics being reproductive politics, what are you arguing in this book as your central thesis.

BRIGGS: The conservatives have been particularly good at welding together a politics of economics, race, and family. And progressives and Democrats on the other hand, think that we have sort of politics and economics on the one hand, and family and culture and all that messy sex and reproduction stuff on the other. And so what I’m trying to do in this book is say if you wanna understand the changes in our politics, in our political culture in the last forty years, you really have to understand how the place where we’re living our economic circumstances and the place where we’re fighting about politics is really about households and families.

HEFFNER: Tell us. How.

BRIGGS: So we understand that, that abortion is a really critical issue that people vote on. But just as significant have been the broader politics of family and households and communities. Um, I’d start with welfare reform um, or the figure of the welfare queen that Ronald Reagan brought us. Nixon was interested in um, welfare cheats as well, but Ronald Reagan’s particular brilliance was to make that figure female and so to tell us that the social safety net, AFDC, wasn’t there to protect um, families where there’s a divorce or families where there’s domestic violence, it’s not there to feed white kids. It’s there to protect um, the immorality of black women in particular who are um, having- having children out of wedlock, we all know how that … how that got um- played out. And we know from watching Donald Trump’s rise that the politics of demonizing racialized others from black folks to immigrants has been totally critical to the um, to contemporary politics.

But there have been a whole lot of moments in between from Clinton’s administration um, welfare reform and the beginning of the crackdown on immigration under Clinton. Um, it truly started when his nominee Zoe Baird came under attack for having hired um, people who were undocumented before it was a crime to hire people who are undocumented. And so he watched that issue play out, withdrew the nomination, and over the course of the next eight years really launched us on this immigration crackdown.

HEFFNER: You write in that section of the book, “While we rarely think of immigration to the United States as a reproductive politics issue, that’s exactly what it is. It was a strategy or a set of strategies to make reproductive labor cheaper by offshoring it. A discourse of danger, security, and criminal aliens taken up with great vigor by the Trump Administration not only masks the more ordinary realities of immigrant households and the paid work usually available to their members, but it’s a cover story that keeps immigrant workers underpaid.” Um, you don’t see this going away any time soon.

BRIGGS: It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s going away any time soon.

HEFFNER: I mean from the Nanny Gate to what you described in the introduction as, to borrow Justice Thomas’s words a higher-tech, modern lynching of the Mexican community. Which you note, ironically, brings in more women than threatening men who are potential rapists. So how do you, how do you see the discourse evolving in a way that identity politics can grasp the morality of reproductive questions and empower people to not make a single issue case of abortion or marriage, but to encapsulate the wider equity questions. Is that, how do you, how can the discourse evolve.

BRIGGS: Well the important thing to note is first of all, conservatives have uh, been the real proponents of identity politics. They…

HEFFNER: Thank you for saying that. I- I mean Kellyanne Conway remarking as she did that this was a defeat for the Democrats’ identity politics came to me as a shock.

BRIGGS: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: It was a victory for the other argument of white superiority.

BRIGGS: That’s right. So on the one so the conservative right will say Democrats want to talk about identity, or progressive want to talk about identity. But do they talk about, they talk about the welfare queen and make her black, they talk about um- rapists coming from Mexico, so we’re talking about a politics of immigration that’s focusing on men and the pretense of Latino criminality or immigrant criminality. Um, and so it seems to me that we’re, what I’m trying to do in this book is show us how to talk about families, households, communities again. I think we have, I think there was a strong progressive politics of that in the 1970’s and I think that the right really wrested that language away from progressives.

HEFFNER: What- what do you think was effective in the 1970’s.

BRIGGS: In the 1970’s we had both a rising standard of living and all sorts of experiments in ways of living, from collective households to the possibility that you could divorce somebody if you didn’t love them or if it was an abusive relationship to the possibility that not all sex had to be within marriage, that birth control could work, you didn’t always have to be pregnant, you didn’t always have to be raising children if you were female or even if you were male, and that those politics were closely allied with an economic politics.

HEFFNER: That is the reality today though, all those things that you described that were commonplace in the seventies might even be more commonplace in 2017. But I found it interesting you said the Republicans or the Democrats conceded the language and discourse and the Republicans put it to rest, or, if not Republicans because Nixon, Eisenhower, even Goldwater, were a different breed from Trump and company. But when you say we lost something from the 1970’s, how do you recapture it today.
BRIGGS: Conservatives keep telling us that the important families are um, or the important households are nuclear families, but that’s not the reality of how we live. We live in all sorts of different kinds of households and it seems to me that simply affirming who we really are, um, and what we really want to do. We want to be able to love people, and have sex, and not be raising children all the time, or when we’re raising children to have access to decent schools, to have access to communities that are not terrorized by, by policing.

To have higher education, to have a fully fleshed out politics, not just of being able to give birth or not give birth, which is what the abortion debate is about, but really the politics of raising children. And it seems to me that that’s what progressives have really conceded is that we’re gonna not talk about abortion, kind of embarrassing, kind of upsetting. But abortion is critical, abortion is about the ability of people to, women-people, the ability of women to live in the public sphere without being pregnant all the time. And so it seems to me like when we started talking about minimum wage, we’re talking about households, we’re talking about how do we have the time and leisure um, to have full lives but also to care for people, to care for children, to care for elders, to care for dependents.

HEFFNER: You’ve studied reproductive rights not just from the American perspective. Internationally I’m interested in your insight into, you know how has the discourse evolved um, to bring more equity to disenfranchised communities so that the politics of reproductive rights is one that is embraced and there is consensus and not the kind of um, bullying and scapegoating that is so rampant in this book that you profile. Are other countries getting it right.

BRIGGS: Well a lot of people will point to Europe, uh, and the availability of paid family leave, the availability of higher wages, greater economic equality. Um, but I’ve spent a lot of time studying Latin America and the relationship between the United States and Latin America, and really how I came to understand the politics of reproductive bullying as you put it, um, came from studying overpopulation. And looking at how the United States from um, Truman to Nixon and particularly Kissinger would use this language of overpopulation um- Kissinger really did draft a major report on overpopulation that still governs policy today.

Um- to say hey, those people over there are engaged in the kind of sexual relations that are dangerous to the whole world. If women would stop having so many children, if couples would use birth control, um, we’d have more food, the whole country would have more economic development, and our economic development plans would work and we wouldn’t be confronted with questions of violence and security in the world. Um, that turned out to be nonsense. Right? The population has continued to grow steadily since then and it’s not true that the politics of food or the politics of security or even the politics of um, pollution which was, you know huge in the sixties and seventies um, is really about how many people and it’s about our political and economic systems.

HEFFNER: I’m interested in this Kissinger theory, what, tell, tell us more about that.

BRIGGS: Um, Kissinger was part of a study committee in um, 1974 under uh, 1972, the report was finished in ’74, um, that was commissioned by Nixon and it was the national security apparatus. They put together national security memo 200 tthat went on to produce uh, national security memorandum Brent Skocroft um, who was not only for um, Ford’s national security adviser but of course into um- the Bush and Reagan eras. Um- the reason we’re debating- the reason we debate the Mexico City policy um, every time there’s a Republican comes into office, he cuts off family planning money to the broader world by saying oh this is gonna fund people who get abortion or who talk about abortions. And every time a Democrat comes into power they switch the, flip the switch, and they say no we’re gonna, we’re gonna give millions of dollars in family planning money. Well why is the United States in the family planning business at all? Right? What is, what on Earth is that about, and it actually dates back to this Kissinger memo that we’re gonna, the United States is in the family planning business because we need to shrink world population because it’s a threat to our security. Now that’s a minority position in the world right, in um, conservative worlds right now, but it’s still US policy.

HEFFNER: What have you found in all of your research to be the most compelling argument for the sanctity of life by someone who supports reproductive rights?

BRIGGS: So the people I learn, have learned the most from is Sister Song in Atlanta, it’s a black women’s health project um- that has really brought together anti-abortion people, and pro-choice people to talk about the politics of raising children. And so they spent a lot of time hashing out how do we talk about abortion, anti-abortion because there are people who want to affirm life and children and community and so from them I’ve learned about the politics of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is the idea that we should have control of when and under what circumstances we have children, but the most important thing, or equally important thing at least is do we have the resources to raise children, and that, it seems to me, really takes us to the heart of how the conservative revolution has changed things in the last forty years. More and more people don’t have the resources to raise children in safety, security, and with economic opportunities.

HEFFNER: Did advocates of reproductive rights and justice not lose the battle long ago with the linguistic trick of being pro-choice because pro-choice advocates would say they are pro-life too.

BRIGGS: Right. Choice is, choice is a disastrous language.

HEFFNER: It’s still the disastrous language in which we’re mired.

BRIGGS: Absolutely, but the reason it’s a disastrous language is because it’s not a language of rights or this is what I get because um, because I’m a human being. It’s a language of consumerism. Right. I have choice when I go and pick this pair of shoes or that pair of shoes. Um…

HEFFNER: It’s also the language of no gray area: black and white.

BRIGGS: Absolutely. Um- but it seems to me that more broadly, we need to be talking about how the conditions of our common lives together have changed. And here’s an example, so, in the 1980’s the biggest question was crack babies, right? That was one of the moral panics that I’m talking about in this book. Um- and it gives rise to all sorts of policing and incarceration around drugs. And it arose from a fundam- fundamental misunderstanding of a set of medical data. Um, there seemed to be rising infant mortality particularly in black communities. So why was infant mortality rising? Um, in the middle eighties. And people looked at the new prevalence of crack um, in some black communities and said well it has to be crack. And, one, this was bogus from the outset. White people are more likely to use cocaine than black people. But more importantly once um, once medical researchers realized that crack has very little effect on fetuses, um, nobody went back and said so why is black infant mortality rising relative to white infant mortality. And that was a critical question. What we should have been asking was, how are changes in the social safety net, um, the continual decline of real wages particularly for black communities, and rising rates of mass incarceration, how are those things affecting mass incarc… how are those things affecting infant mortality. And it seems to me like if we want to talk about the sanctity of life, we really need to be talking about wages, we need to be talking about how do families, individuals, households, communities get what they need to help elders and children survive.

HEFFNER: And where ultimately does abortion fit into that broader argument for the sanctity of life, in other words if you were to construct a new paradigm in which we disposed of choice and life, what would be the playbook?

BRIGGS: Life wouldn’t end at birth um, in my conception. In other words when, um, pro- pro-life people talk about life, they’re talking about birth. Um- everybody has a right to be born, and that’s not enough. I think we need um, I think we need a politics of um…a politics of human well-being. I mean- what it used to be in the 70s when we talked about welfare as the responsibility of government, we meant it in the broadest possible sense that government has a responsibility for security, economic opportunity, education, and our collective welfare. And what the politics of the Reagan era did was to constrict that notion of welfare. So what I would do if I were talking about life, and I’d ditch the politics of choice, because I don’t think we can talk about that um, anymore. I feel like that language is so full of bad meanings for so many people. Um, a politics of life is a politics of our collective welfare, our collective well-being, and we haven’t talked that much about the ri… about the role of corporations in all of this. But as wages go down, as welfare was eliminated, um, we’ve seen obviously a growing inequality between the rich and poor and our jobs have a lot to do with why that’s the case. Right? And so for me a politics of life would also be a politics that we need to get paid enough, we need a 40-hour work week so that we can take care of our households and our communities. And that’s a politics of life and common welfare.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Laura Briggs, for being with me today.

BRIGGS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.