As the botched chances and bitter disappointments stacked up late into the fateful night of November 8, 2016, the ceiling at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan was a soaring collateral casualty. Made of steel-reinforced transparent glass and pitched 150 feet above an expansive atrium, the ceiling had been promised a starring role in Hillary Clinton’s victory speech. It was the reason Clinton’s staff had chosen the Javits Center, a hulking, I. M. Pei & Partners–designed convention cavern, for her blowout election-night bash. The first female president-elect of the United States was to sail into the atrium at some reasonable hour, preferably before midnight EST. She would then mount the stage, gesture triumphantly above her, and declare the glass ceiling figuratively shattered. Instead, as midnight came and went, Clinton huddled with advisers in a nearby hotel room, watching results roll in that, over at CNN, had Wolf Blitzer and his gobsmacked band of pundits picking their jaws up off the floor. Clinton never made it to her party, and the ceiling never got its cameo. Her supporters, some sporting gender-proud slogans on their T-shirts (“Nasty women vote”; “It’s a man’s world, but a woman should run it”) milled dejectedly around the atrium, looking not up at the ceiling, but down at their phones.
How, exactly, had this carefully choreographed moment of executive feminist triumph come so disastrously undone, after so much concerted mobilization of Democratic clout and expert planning and largesse over the past two years? To get to the bottom of this catastrophe, we must begin with the many elite-engineered catastrophes that have gone into Hillary Clinton’s storied résumé.
And this requires some careful acts of historical reconstruction, since there is so much Hillary Clinton wanted us to forget. There was her role in helping to bring about the “end of welfare as we know it,” and the disastrous effects of that policy reversal on the lives of the poor. There was the 1994 Crime Bill, which she promoted from the bully pulpit of her historic mid-nineties “co-presidency,” and which coincided with an equally historic rise in mass incarceration—together with that now-infamous clip of her maligning black youth as “superpredators.” There was that ridiculous lie about sniper fire in Bosnia. And there were, of course, the entirely uncontrollable stories about her husband’s multiple dalliances.
Clinton’s famous “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” oration was entirely conventional: she centered women solidly within their families, as wives, mothers, or caretakers.
Still, Clinton and her liberal feminist supporters wanted us to remember one key moment from that same era: her speech at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in China. Indeed, her words from that event were available for purchase, on a T-shirt designed by Tory Burch: “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.”
This celebrated admonition to the Deng Xiaoping regime had a special meaning for Hillary Clinton back in 1995. Three years into her husband’s presidency—and one year after the GOP dramatically recaptured majorities in both houses of Congress—she was struggling with criticism of the activist role she’d played in drafting policy and setting political objectives for Bill Clinton’s White House.
So the rhetorical challenge for Hillary Clinton in Beijing was to hit all the right notes in front of an entirely different audience, one assembled by the leading organization of the human rights–industrial complex. By some accounts, she succeeded. Her speech helped to reinforce her Republican-branded image as a meddlesome, unelected do-gooder, even as it went on to win her plaudits among liberal women and the mainstream press.
The speech seemed radical because she made it in a country that was not yet recognized on the world stage as a superpower and that had, in Western eyes, a long history of oppression of women and girls. In reality, however, Clinton’s oration was entirely conventional: she centered women solidly within their families, as wives, mothers, or caretakers. When she used the word “abortion,” it was not to advance the progressive causes of reproductive choice and expanded economic agency for women; instead, Clinton lamented that women were being “forced to have abortions or [were] being sterilized against their will.” Still, the newsworthy, and putatively courageous, legacy of the Beijing trip was that T-shirt-ready slogan about the universal nature of women’s rights.
Over the ensuing two decades, Clinton’s feminist credentials would come under scrutiny, especially as women—liberal and conservative alike—questioned her allegiance to a husband whose affairs and other sexual exploits were apparently legion. Others would question a feminism that eviscerated income supports and other benefits for the neediest women and children. She would go on to carve out her own formal political career, first as the junior senator from New York, then as a presidential contender and Secretary of State, and then as a harshly rebuffed major-party presidential nominee.
Throughout all her travails in the public eye, Clinton repeatedly returned to the sentiments of that Beijing speech. As detractors continued to question one or another entry in her policy portfolio, from her arch-interventionist foreign policy to her robust alliance with Wall Street, the speech was transformed into a kind of talismanic reminder that her own core feminist convictions were unassailable. Indeed, the hypnotic appeal of the Clinton image as a rebuker of Chinese patriarchy was so powerful that she retooled it in a speech she made as Secretary of State to mark International Human Rights Day in 2011 in Geneva.
For the most part, this new speech followed the rhetorical design of the earlier one: a list of abstract principles affirming the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere. But in striking contrast to the stirring sloganeering of the Beijing oration, in Geneva the Secretary of State both reached for a rather startling level of specific detail and maintained a tone that was, considering the embattled status of LGBT citizens across the globe, almost aggressively subdued. Here’s the relevant passage:
This morning, back in Washington, President Obama put into place the first U.S. Government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Building on efforts already under way at the State Department and across the government, the President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.
It was unclear on whose authority Obama and Clinton would “combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct” and what was meant when she said they would “respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.”
But in 2011 the country was only four years away from legalizing gay marriage, gays and lesbians were no longer an unseen population but a powerful economic and political force, and no one—except a few of us on the radical queer left—questioned Clinton’s ominous words that plainly hinted at military retaliation. Clinton was newly enshrined as a hero of gays and lesbians everywhere.
We might ascribe Clinton’s changes in attitude to simple political calculation. Throughout her career, she tacked alongside prevailing consensus thinking: that, indeed, is how the former children’s rights attorney wound up colluding in the destruction of welfare and deriding teens of color as superpredators. (Similarly, her leaked remarks to her corporate bosses at Goldman Sachs show her endorsing the need for savvy politicos to maintain a private and a public side to every position—wisdom she attributed, fittingly enough, to liberal piety-monger Steven Spielberg’s epic cinematic celebration of backroom legislative fixing, Lincoln.) Clinton’s record on gay rights was convoluted, as PolitiFact and other fact-checkers have shown. Following her several positions over three decades was a bit like trying to learn a complicated dance step, so often did she shift, turn, and pirouette.
But crass political opportunism does not, by itself, explain Clinton’s rather dizzying dance of righteous political renewal. No, if we home in on the salience of the “rights” phrasing throughout her reformist career, we can espy a curious background logic at work here. Clinton’s positions changed, and subtly recombined, against the backdrop of a shifting political and cultural landscape—one in which “human rights” went from meaning the rights of women and children or the fairly straightforward mandate to pay for wells, roads, and schools to a larger agenda that would incorporate empire-building in a neoliberal age.
Over the decades since Clinton gave her speech, the United States in particular has seen the steady ascent of a brand of liberal feminism far more invested in ensuring that a female candidate like her propel herself through the last great glass ceiling of the presidency than in mobilizing non-elite activism at the grassroots. Increasingly, too, the rise of liberal feminism has meant a surge in carceral solutions to the issues facing women. Over and over, liberal feminists have pushed for longer incarceration sentences, whether in tackling matters like sexual harassment and assault or—disastrously for marginalized women in particular—invented offenses like “feticide.”
On campuses, for instance, instead of calling for greater awareness of how the neoliberal university thrives on the vulnerability of students, male or female, carceral feminists have chosen to expand educational institutions’ ability to surveil and punish students and even female faculty, like Laura Kipnis, accused of Title IX harassment. In response to the supposed rise of sex trafficking (an issue that has been needlessly hyped as a grave danger, despite evidence to the contrary, as sex-work activists like Laura Agustín have indicated), liberal feminists have been corralled into supporting laws that make it impossible for undocumented female migrants to gain any assistance from the state unless they first accuse the people who helped them enter the United States of trafficking. All of this has meant that liberal feminism is, by and large, also a carceral feminism: wedded to the idea that the only way to protect and preserve the rights of women is to turn to the prison–industrial complex as the final enforcer of gender justice.
The Mommy State
On September 11, 2001, we saw two things begin at once: a radical new phase in the consolidation of the national-security and surveillance state; and a newly self-confident, morally assured imperialist mission for the U.S. military. This included the invocation of warmaking as a glorified sort of human-rights crusade—as when Laura Bush famously praised the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan for protecting its women from the Taliban.
By 2008, when Clinton made her first run at the presidency, the nation—together with most of America’s global allies—was firmly settled into a new world-conquering consensus that Chase Madar has usefully called the “weaponization of human rights.” A second front in this weaponization offensive has come courtesy of our celebrity industry. We’ve witnessed, over the first decades of the millennium, the emergence of a new breed of celebrity, one who makes imperial expansion in the guise of humanitarian efforts look charitable and adventurous and, well, glamorous. Think Samantha Power, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Bono—or really, any number of the Clinton campaign’s A-list major donors.
On the social front, the advent of a supposedly “post-racial” world in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election coincided with the rise of a newly professionalized sphere of “social justice” activism—which now emphatically includes the increasingly powerful LGBT community. From the 1990s onward, the mainstream of this community shifted course, trading the urgent exigencies of AIDS and health care activism for a curiously bellicose and socially conservative agenda. Its key demands were all in keeping with the neoliberal expansion of the American empire: hate crime legislation (which would increase the purview of the prison–industrial complex); the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (which would free gays to serve in an imperialist military); and gay marriage (which would in no way serve to challenge marriage’s privatizing stranglehold on health care and other rights).
The causes behind this shift were varied and complex, and included a drive toward respectability. The new generation of gay political leaders shared a manifest desire to be seated at the same table as powerful straight elites. To be fair, even as these new leaders abandoned the loud and angry anti-state activism of prior years, they took quiet aim at discriminatory practices—and they began to reckon with the legacy of the AIDS crisis, which had depleted political energy by eliminating, quite literally, bodies involved in the fight. With something of a political and cultural vacuum developing in the traditional centers of gay activism, and a rising tide of comfortable, neoliberal conservatism, the times were ripe for the ascension of a more affluent gay and lesbian community, one that sought to take its place alongside the existing moneyed elite.
The United States has seen the ascent of a brand of liberal feminism far more invested in propelling Clinton through the last great glass ceiling than in mobilizing non-elite activism at the grassroots.
The Human Rights Campaign, at first an unassuming gay and lesbian nonprofit, had been founded in 1980 and had generally stayed in the shadows. But in 1992 it endorsed its first presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Under Elizabeth Birch, its executive director from 1995 to 2004, the organization greatly expanded its membership and began courting politicians in order to expand its influence. In 1998 it earned the ire of a significant chunk of its constituency when it endorsed Republican Alfonse D’Amato for U.S. senator from New York against Charles Schumer, the Democratic front-runner. This was among the first indications that the organization was concerned less with pleasing its activist members than with aligning itself with politicians who would support its causes, regardless of their political affiliation. D’Amato had privately and publicly gone against his party in standing up for gays and lesbians, as when he criticized the military’s policy of excluding them.
The pragmatism of HRC, the rights-driven gay lobbying concern, perfectly mirrored that of its acronymic namesake, the national politician who embodied nearly every neoliberal feminist cause and ideological reflex. The newly influential gay advocacy organization knew that a say in political battles would work in its favor in the long run as its membership and donor base swelled in tandem. By the new millennium, HRC would become the single most powerful gay and lesbian organization in the world, with an annual budget of more than $30 million. As a group whose signature cause, gay marriage, has gone decisively mainstream, HRC has single-handedly served to forge the respectability-seeking agenda of the gay and lesbian community.
Even so, it’s important to remember that HRC was not a cause of the conservative shift in gay politics, but a symptom. The neoliberal economy was remaking priorities everywhere, and one key change that the apostles of new-economy capitalism initiated was the escalating gentrification of city spaces, where gays and lesbians have historically congregated. (Indeed, neoliberal economic seer Richard Florida, the pet urban theorist of the Democratic elite, has gone so far as to posit a “gay index” that tracks the leading-edge trends in the formation of the so-called creative class.)
Even at the height of the Clinton presidency, New York City’s then-mayor Rudy Giuliani got busy “cleaning up” New York, transforming areas like Times Square into Disneyfied playfields for tourists. A major casualty of this campaign was the public sexual culture—a defining feature of queer culture—as detailed by writers like Samuel R. Delany. But the more important changes came in the rising visibility and political influence of a newly affluent group of gays and lesbians for whom prices in real estate mattered far more than prices of medications or rentals.
During his reelection campaign, Bill Clinton, keen to triangulate his way out of any frontal offensive from the cultural right, signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. He took pains to do so at midnight, to dramatize his personal disapproval of the measure. (His wife, meanwhile, took no such symbolic cover; she supported DOMA until she changed her position in time for her 2008 presidential run.) The outrageous federal codification of discrimination against gays seeking to wed also—in conjunction with lawsuits like Baehr v. Miike in Hawaii—helped to create a new cohort of groups like Freedom to Marry, founded by the former Brooklyn prosecutor Evan Wolfson. The fallout from DOMA ensured that marriage would be the leading cause for the gay community for years to come.
To note that people who fought for gay marriage, the end of DADT, and the expansion of hate crime legislation ultimately worked in the service of conservative agendas is in no way to belittle the exclusion they faced. But as queer radicals have argued, these three issues in particular have absorbed massive amounts of attention and resources from the problems plaguing queers and straights everywhere. In demanding that gays and lesbians receive the same as straights (instead of demanding better from flawed institutions like marriage and the military), respectability-seekers have served to shore up a neoliberal social order that grants vital resources only to a few. Take marriage, for instance: following the expansion of gay marriage everywhere, state and private employers have begun to insist that even straight people in civil unions and domestic partnerships who want to keep their partners on their health insurance must get married, since everyone now can.
Hillary Clinton understood this momentum only too well. Like her president, who had similarly revised his position on gay marriage by claiming to have “evolved,” she would now stake her claim to full and complete ally status with the gay community—or at least with its moneyed enclaves.
Today, the well-off gay and lesbian constituencies courted by Clinton, Obama, and the Democratic establishment are in a position to exercise their clout. They are carving out new identities and lives that once seemed inconceivable. One new focus in gay health care activism sums up the dramatic nature of this shift: the quest to identify, and in many cases, to help directly provide, adequate and culturally competent geriatric care that is not homophobic. A generation of gay men is aging without the mortal threat of HIV/AIDS, and that presents a new set of challenges. LGBT activists of the 1990s couldn’t have imagined a time when their successors in the new millennium would have the luxury of such worries. And while it’s true today that affluent gays and lesbians will never have to fret over such dilemmas in any serious way, they have taken up the plight of the majority of LGBT people who age into the last stages of life care dependent on publicly funded resources or philanthropic organizations.
The issue is not simply that many married gays and lesbians are significantly richer than their straight counterparts. Rather, it’s that the mainstream gay community wants to flex its muscles through the time-honored mechanism of philanthropy. While philanthropy has always been one of the most efficient ways for individuals and groups to indicate that they’ve finally arrived, its current cachet in the gay community is unsettling because it marks a complete reversal of the demand in the ’90s that queer health should be the responsibility of the state, as part of the general mandate of providing health care for all. However, it is philanthropy, not activism, that draws politicians and power, bearing as it does the plummy assurance of wealth and big-ticket donations. As the gay community gained prominence on the donation circuit, it also became one of the most powerful bulwarks of the Democratic establishment.
Alongside the changing-for-the-better state of LGBT actuarial tables, we’re witnessing a profound shift in the very idea of what a gay family is. The laws governing gay and lesbian adoption have eased in most places in the United States, and that has meant new ways for gays and lesbians to create families of choice. For lesbian women, the ability to birth children via artificial insemination and other means has made the process of biological reproduction far less onerous than it might otherwise be. Likewise, gay men are now able to employ the technologies of surrogacy to create their own birth families.
The new face of Gay America is, in short, vastly changed. Where the old faces belonged to people demanding radical change—like universal health care—the new faces belonged to people working “within the system” to make the gay world safe for neoliberalism, and vice versa.
The Gay Revolution, Goldmanized
In an April 2016 photograph in the New York Times, R. Martin Chavez looks like a trim Santa Claus. Smiling at the camera, he looks positively jolly, with a fulsome beard and a twinkly smile. He stands in a well-appointed office, his back to a spectacular vista of the city of New York—the first tip-off that Chavez is, in fact, no Santa Claus.
He is, it turns out, chief information officer at Goldman Sachs. The title of the piece declares, “A Gay, Latino Partner Tests Goldman’s Button-Down Culture.” What, exactly, did Chavez test about this culture? Did he provoke some sort of existential challenge to the plutocracy that might bring Goldman Sachs to its knees?
Well, let’s just say the ghost of Tom Joad can continue resting easy. For starters, we’re told, Chavez is one of only six (at the time, at least) Latino partners. Then there’s his beard, still unusual in corporate America. The revelations continue apace: he has Japanese tattoos on his arm, hidden by the sleeves of the button-down shirt he’s wearing. (We’re assured that he “displays” the tattoos “proudly,” no doubt at after-work gatherings.)
As if this litany of confrontational personal stylings were not enough, we’re told that Chavez once straight-facedly proposed a radical act of transparency at Kiodex, a startup software company he founded between stints at Goldman: he wanted to make everyone’s salary public. That singular form of rebellion was, fortunately for all concerned, squelched by his then chief financial officer, Tom Farley, who would go on to become president of the New York Stock Exchange.
Chavez’s sexuality is presented as symbolically (if also indefinably) crucial to the rehabilitation of a company that has been widely vilified for its role in the 2008 economic crisis. Chavez is the literal face of a supposed new culture at the firm, and his former deputy Sean Patrick Maloney, now a New York Democratic congressman, attributes all this to his gay identity: “When you cross lines of difference in life—and you embrace things that to others seem taboo—it absolutely changes the way your brain works.”
Where the old faces of Gay America belonged to people demanding radical change—like universal health care—the new faces belonged to people working “within the system.”
The Times goes on to detail how Chavez quickly became part of a Goldman team that attempted to improve the public image of the firm, personally leading recruitment efforts at places like MIT. The Times notes, decorously, that the number of students applying to Wall Street is falling, “in part because of the perception of the industry as stuffy and slow-moving.” The other part, which the paper leaves out, is that Wall Street is seen as greedy, rapacious, and hostile to any social cause or regulatory policy that might threaten the bottom line. But never mind: the Times focuses instead on the reassuring, placid saga of how Chavez, by sheer dint of who he is, represents a new Goldman and, by extension, a new Wall Street. If Chavez’s gayness indeed represents a “test” to the culture of Wall Street, there can be little doubt but that Wall Street has passed, with flying colors.
What’s more, we learn that Chavez is leaning in to corporate family life: he’s married to a Briton with whom he is raising a son born to them via a surrogate. Surrogacy is an expensive proposition, with costs that can easily reach over $100,000. It is a largely unregulated and global enterprise, with gay men often turning to women in countries like India and Nepal to bring their children to term more cheaply. (Both countries, however, have recently passed surrogacy bans; India banned surrogacy for foreigners, single people, unmarried couples, and gays and lesbians, citing both religious reasons and the potential for exploitation, while Nepal abolished the practice completely.) In such areas, surrogate mothers are usually among the poorest of the poor, leasing themselves out as womb factories for low pay. Reports indicate that surrogates in India, who often don’t read English, sign away their rights to unscrupulous doctors. In several cases, when doctors found that fetuses were not viable, they gave women abortion pills and told them to come back in an hour. The women returned bleeding and convinced that they were responsible for miscarriages, and the cycle inevitably started again.
In April 2015, Nepal suffered a devastating earthquake that left tens of thousands dead or injured. Caught in the disaster were dozens of women carrying surrogate babies for gay men from Israel (where religious laws ban surrogacy); along with them were many of the expectant fathers. But all was not lost: The Advocate, with its careful attention to all things gay, joyfully reported that Israel’s emergency-response agency had come to the rescue and made sure that babies, surrogates, and same-sex couples were swiftly whisked away from danger. The article said nothing about the thousands of Nepalese citizens—gay, straight, or in between—suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake.
In fact, as Time reported, none of the mothers were allowed to travel out of the country, a move that caused an uproar even in Israel. Alon-Lee Green wrote in Haaretz, “How can it be that none of the human interest stories or compassion-filled posts mentioned these women, who came from a difficult socioeconomic background . . . to rent their wombs . . . [and] who now, like the babies they’ve just had, are also stuck in the disaster zone?”
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the film based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, childbearing women are the ubiquitous walking wombs relegated to domestic servitude. Dressed in red dresses and veils, they stand out in vivid contrast to the wives of the patriarchal-fundamentalist ruling elite, who are bedecked in blue outfits, without veils. This is the Republic of Gilead, formerly a part of the United States of America, where 99 percent of the population is infertile because of pollution. The rare woman who can conceive is imprisoned, trained as a concubine, and shipped off to the home of an elite couple. There, her job is to be penetrated by the man, while ceremoniously cradled by the wife, who watches and waits for the rapes to culminate in pregnancy. As long as a handmaid is pregnant, she is coddled and given everything she needs. Afterward, the child is taken from her to be raised by the elite family, and she is placed back in the pool of surrogates.
The steady rollback of abortion rights in the United States, now punctuated by Donald Trump’s triumph, has raised fears that this fictional world is fast materializing for many women. In the New Statesman, Stephanie Boland notes that when Trump proposed to punish women for abortion, he only gestured at what is in fact a reality for many women in the United Kingdom. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, has views on abortion that are rightly considered extreme. Clearly, with two such men elevated to the summit of American executive power, women have much to fear.
But lost in all the justified alarm and outrage over a Trump presidency was the acutely compromised—and deeply class-segmented—state of the actually existing abortion debate. Abortion rights were watered down long ago. Restrictions on access to abortion clinics can be incredibly onerous, requiring some women to make long trips, return for second visits, or observe waiting periods of up to seventy-two hours. What’s more, the steady attrition in abortion rights, and abortion access, has been greatly enabled by liberal feminist abortion-apologists. In the most shocking case of a woman being “punished” for abortion so far, Purvi Patel was charged with feticide under an Indiana law, SB 236, that had been drafted with the support of Planned Parenthood.
It’s hard to see how Planned Parenthood could have supported such a law, but news reports on its background history supply a clue. Indiana lawmakers set the legislation in motion after the shooting of a pregnant bank teller, Katherine Shuffield. Initially, the bill was intended to cover all stages of pregnancy, but that raised the familiar abortion-themed debates over when life began. The preferred compromise was to simply increase the penalty for feticide, to up to twenty years. Indiana state senator Jim Merritt, the Republican who authored the bill, reportedly said that both sides “saw the importance of a stiffer penalty.” Merritt also said that “Planned Parenthood and Right to Life worked with us and signed off on this. . . . Everyone worked toward the same goal, and I think it’s a real achievement.”
In other words: SB 236 was ultimately the result of the collusion between an abortion provider and a right-to-life group to promote the shared goal of greater incarceration—yet one more example of how well carceral feminism can work to strengthen the prison–industrial complex. It had disastrous consequences for Purvi Patel, who tried to self-abort and failed, disposed of what she thought was a dead fetus, and went to the emergency room, bleeding, the umbilical cord hanging from her vagina and her placenta needing to be removed via surgery.
In liberal feminist circles, the sort that supported Hillary Clinton the most, abortion is still cast as something that should be “safe, legal, and rare,” to use Clinton’s preferred formulation. In the vice presidential debate, Indiana governor Mike Pence attempted to paint Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, as extremists on abortion by pointing to their support for “partial birth abortion.” In a piece for Rolling Stone, Bridgette Dunlap rightly notes that this is an incendiary term for later abortions. Indeed, the term “partial birth abortion” signals, well, birth itself, and therefore ascribes personhood to the fetus. But Dunlap then goes on an apologist rant of her own, insisting that such procedures in fact “make many supporters of legal abortion queasy.” She declares:
Women have later abortions when something has gone terribly wrong—often the loss of a wanted pregnancy. But anti-abortion advocates have successfully used their tragedies to garner support for anti-abortion policies. The procedure that abortion opponents termed “partial birth abortion” was a little-used technique for second-trimester abortions called “intact dilation and extraction,” or intact D & E. It is indeed unpleasant, and no one wants to have one. In an intact D & E abortion, the physician would attempt to remove the fetus largely intact. The procedure was preferable for women with certain conditions and fetal anomalies, and having one meant a patient who’d lost a wanted pregnancy could hold the fetus in her arms and say goodbye, which some would-be parents found comforting.
Dunlap’s depiction of women who have the procedure mourning for their fetuses echoes a larger impulse among even pro-abortion-rights feminists to present abortion as a “tragic choice,” as Clinton has often described it. Like many liberal feminists, she uses apologist and elitist rhetoric to insist that abortion is typically a matter of regret for women. She ignores the fact that many women don’t regret their abortions at all, and that they should be able to access safe and legal procedures regardless of their feelings toward the fetus, and at any stage of the pregnancy.
Liberal feminism is, by and large, also a carceral feminism: wedded to the idea that the only way to protect the rights of women is to turn to the prison–industrial complex.
But liberal feminists like Clinton and her supporters are not the women who most need to worry about access to abortions at any time. Women like Patel, or like Bei Bei Shuai, charged with murder and attempted feticide in Indiana in 2011, must worry too, and their reproductive rights have been jeopardized by the neoliberal feminist drive to dramatize the politics of abortion regret. Currently, thirty-eight states have anti-feticide laws on the books. It’s unlikely that well-off women will ever be targeted as Patel was—hers became the case it did precisely because she did not have easy access to a clinic and wasn’t able to take time off from her work for the procedure.
And this brings us back to the reputation-making moment that launched Clinton into the empyrean of liberal-feminist policy sages. In 1995, Clinton carefully avoided advocating for abortion rights in a speech aimed at the worlds women, granting only that women had the right to give birth. But when reproductive rights don’t include the right to safely terminate pregnancy—whenever they choose and for any reason whatsoever—more than half the world’s people are effectively refused the right to determine their own political and economic futures. In the years after Beijing, Hillary Clinton would, working alongside her husband, go on to destroy welfare, which would in turn further marginalize poor women—especially mothers. (This record, by the way, might help explain the stunningly anemic showing of the Clinton 16 campaign among non-college-educated white women, who backed Clinton in early exit polls at just 34 percent, compared to Trumps 62 percent.) Dorothy Roberts has demonstrated that welfare reform meant that African American women in particular would spiral toward greater rates of incarceration, forcing them to relinquish their children to foster care or adoption. As “gay rights” became synonymous with making and creating families, those children would increasingly be placed in gay and lesbian homes, with parents praised for their willingness to take on kids with “troubled” pasts. In other cases, surrogacy and transnational adoption meant that children would be taken away from their birth parents under circumstances of social and economic duress.
The discourse of rights, the sort so often raised by Clinton and her fellow liberal feminists, lays out a fictitious claim to “equality.” (On National Coming Out Day, to take just one recent example, Clinton tweeted that “every single American deserves full equality under our laws—no matter who you are or who you love.” She then offered up a quotation from an op-ed she wrote for Orlando’s LGBT paper after the Pulse nightclub shootings, “I’ll never stop fighting for your right to live freely, openly, and without fear,” neatly sidestepping the inconvenient truth that she had starting fighting in earnest for that right only around 2012, when opinion polls started tilting in favor of gay marriage.) Over the years, Clinton succeeded in amalgamating her claim to be a feminist with her claim to be a gay ally. She wasn’t wrong in either case, but the questions need to be asked: Which feminism? And whose rights?
Who gets to carry their children to term by choice? Who is forced to give up their children? Who has the real, substantive right to abortion? Purvi Patel is free today, but her case is an indication of things to come. We live in an era of worsening economic conditions—which means that women like Patel will be forced to carry their fetuses to term while rich gay and straight people can carry on making the families they want. Its easy to rant against the open misogyny of Trump and Pence, but we urgently need to confront, and defeat, the embedded sexism and elitism that deny to the poorest among us even the semblance of choice. As we face a newly emboldened cultural right, we may just need less talk about the shattered glass ceiling—and many more robust defenses of the broken social contract.