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What Karl Marx Can Teach Us about Abortion

What better way to avoid paying for maternity leave, family health insurance, and other perks than to make sure that one’s employees never have children?”

Editor’s note: This piece expands on an op-ed originally published by the author at Intellectual Takeout on October 17th.

Since the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June of last year, major corporations have closed ranks around the now-beleaguered right to abortion. To make sense of their enthusiasm, one must turn to one Karl Marx. The German revolutionary wrote in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 that the “bourgeoisie,” the economic elite in industrialized societies, “has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” 

Such charges would have made little sense at the time of writing. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Victorian-era upper classes were preoccupied with domesticity. Historian Christopher Lasch wrote in 1990 that:

“[n]ineteenth-century philanthropists, humanitarians, and social reformers argued with one voice that the revolution of rising expectations meant a higher standard of domestic life, not an orgy of self-indulgence activated by fantasies of inordinate personal wealth…The obligation to support a wife and children, in their view, would discipline possessive individualism and transform the potential gambler, speculator, dandy, or confidence man into a conscientious provider.”

The urge to preserve traditional mores led to temperance campaigns and the promotion of “republican motherhood.” It also meant that sparing women the hardship of industrial modernity often took precedence over an otherwise laissez-faire approach to economic productivity and freedom of commerce. In the 1908 case Muller v. Oregon, the Supreme Court affirmed Oregon’s law capping the maximum number of hours women could contract to work for on the grounds that preserving maternal health was a legitimate exercise of the state’s police powers, thus carving out an exception to the then-prevailing “economic substantive due process” doctrine whereby the state was otherwise barred from limiting an individual’s contractual rights.

Marx could be forgiven for writing at a time when virtually every Western nation lacked laws against the exploitation of women and children. He was certainly correct in pointing out that the immediate ill effects of industrialization—such as long work hours, poor living conditions, and urban prostitution—were felt most acutely by working-class households. With that said, “the practical absence of the family among the proletarians” was a gross overstatement, and the problems Marx identified were merely incidental to societies transitioning away from feudal agrarianism. They should not be taken as evidence that the bourgeoisie, as a distinctly 19th century social class, were committed to diluting family life.

Instead, contemporary feminism more accurately embodies Marx’s description of the “bourgeoisie.” Consider a 1975 conversation between the American feminist writer Betty Friedan and the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. When Friedan proposed offering women a minimum wage for domestic work, Beauvoir objected on the grounds that it would reinforce gender roles. Friedan argued that wives who have been laboring in the home for years should at least be paid. Beauvoir’s response was that women should not be given the choice of staying home to raise children at all, “precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.” 

Despite their apparent disagreements, Friedan and Beauvoir are two sides of the same coin. Having accepted the notion that all labor ought to be valued in monetary terms, there is no reason why Friedan should not have concurred with Beauvoir. After all, is a career not more lucrative? Is it not the path of least resistance, given that Friedan’s option would have required a complex wealth redistribution scheme that puts the government in every home? And, of course, unless one forces all women to seek economic gain outside of the home, they will voluntarily revive “gender stereotypes,” in which case Friedan’s work as a feminist would have been in vain.

Decades of legally enforced non-discrimination and affirmative action have abetted Beauvoir’s agenda, as businesses have come to rely heavily on female employees. Many are now female-led. As of 2022, close to half (47%) of the American workforce is female. The introduction of a critical mass of women into the labor market made it all but impossible to insulate from family life the market’s tendency to put a price tag on everything. If one’s worth is to be measured through her earning potential alone, careerism becomes a sacrament.

The corporate world gleefully embraced this ethic. “Public policies that restrict reproductive care are bad for business,” said Don’t Ban Equality, a 1,000 strong coalition of abortion-friendly businesses. “They impair a company’s ability to build robust workforce pipelines [and] to recruit top talent across states” because 65% of college-educated workers are allegedly deterred from taking a job in states with stringent abortion laws. Melissa Hobley, OKCupid’s global chief marketing officer, echoed similar concerns: “highly visible, highly competitive industries like tech, law, finance…are all fighting after female talent.” “If you’re operating in a state like Texas, it puts you at a competitive disadvantage,” said Christopher Miller, head of global activism strategy at Ben & Jerry’s. 

Philosopher Nina Power noted that “the specter of the ex-worker at home looking after her kids angers the market even as it depends on biological reproduction to sustain its own future.” The very ability to conceive children inevitably diverts a woman’s energies away from work. Abortion, as a form of contraception, breaches the final barrier keeping her from becoming “female talent,” one who is perpetually “competitive,” which is why “[p]ublic policies that restrict reproductive care are bad for business.” In other words, “business” is the real concern, not the well-being of women. 

Consider the rollback of paid maternity leave. While 53% of American employers offered the benefit in 2020, only 35% did so in 2022. As Kaiser Family Foundation analyst Michelle Long observed, “a lot of these firms are now trying to get back to pre-[COVID-19] pandemic norms.” Corporate virtue-signaling in the wake of Dobbs disguises a concurrent attempt to cut down wellness-related expenditures. What better way to avoid paying for maternity leave, family health insurance, and other perks than to make sure that one’s employees never have children? For that matter, why provide these benefits at all? The founding mothers of feminism had already agreed that it is perhaps necessary to deny a woman the option to partake in domestic life in order to deliver her from wageless slavery.

Marx’s prophesy about the “bourgeois” devastation of the family has come true, as child-rearing becomes an economic calculation rather than something to be valued for its own sake. Capitalism has found its way into the womb, the very factory that produces human life.

Guzi He is a J.D. candidate at the American University Washington College of Law and serves as a legal fellow at Americans United for Life.

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