Coming Out as Pro-choice
In the wake of passage of some of the most restrictive bans on abortion ever adopted in the United States, it might be difficult for some LGBT people to understand why they need to take a stand in support of abortion rights. After all, we’re already under attack on multiple fronts, and pregnancy, childbirth, and reproductive healthcare really seem to be in the wheelhouse of heterosexuals, thus abortion bans are not our fight. That logic is faulty. Here’s why:
Queers are having repro-sex and children
It might seem counter-intuitive, but a wide range of LGBTQIA people are having (or have had) sexual relationships that could result in pregnancy. Most lesbians and gay men report some lifetime experience with heterosexual sex. In fact, most lesbians’ and bisexual women’s first sexual experiences are with men. Bisexual, pansexual, and transgender people — even if lesbian or gay identified — may have sexual relationships with partners that could result in pregnancy and children.
According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, of the 114,000 same-sex couples raising children in the U.S. in 2016, 68% were raising their biological children. Those biological children result from prior heterosexual sex or relationships, current sexual relationships with different-sex partners, or methods like surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. It’s a mistake to assume that pregnancy, childbirth, and reproductive healthcare (including contraception and abortion) are not queer concerns because “it’s only the straights” who reproduce.
Abortion bans fundamentally violate a person’s right to control their body by forcing them to remain pregnant and give birth. Sovereignty over one’s body — or, bodily autonomy — is fundamental to a person’s freedom, independence, and human rights. It’s impossible to determine the course of your life if your body is subject to arbitrary violation by the state, its agents (like the police or immigration agents), or healthcare providers.
Violations of bodily autonomy are common in the history of LGBTQIA people, in the form of medical experimentation by Nazis; forced institutionalization and subjection to lobotomies, electroshock and conversion “therapies;” eugenics sterilization; non-consensual genital surgery on intersex infants; denial of HIV prevention and treatment medications; and, everyday sexual harassment, physical and sexual assault, rape, and murder. Asserting and defending a fundamental right to bodily autonomy is a concern that’s shared by both LGBTQIA people and abortion rights defenders.
Bodily autonomy is key to self-determination, the ability to guide and direct the course of of one’s life with minimal interference by governments or society. That includes choosing whether and how to have sex, whether that sex potentially leads to reproduction, and the timing of when that all occurs. Control of one’s reproduction allows completion of education, full participation in the workforce, and economic independence, which in turn gives access to housing, healthcare, transportation, childcare, increased life expectancy, etc. It is not possible to fully chart the course of one’s life in the absence of reproductive freedom and choice.
For transgender people, that means the right to control their gender expression and presentation, and to access culturally-competent medical care, including hormone therapy and surgery to gender transition, as well as gender-neutral reproductive services. For all LGBTQIA people, it means the right to engage in consensual sexual activity with partners of their choosing, forge various kinds of romantic and sexual relationships, structure families of choice (including biological or adopted children), and live open, authentic lives free from societal interference, coercion, or violence.
Legal basis of civil rights
The major U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have advanced LGBTQIA civil rights have employed similar language and concepts as that used to recognize a constitutional right to access contraception and abortion.
Terms and concepts like personal privacy, autonomy, and dignity that were pioneered by abortion and contraception cases like Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Roe v. Wade (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) are threaded throughout cases like United States v. Windsor (2013) (which gutted the Defense of Marriage Act), Lawrence v. Texas (2003) (which invalidated state ‘sodomy’ laws), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) (which legalized same-sex marriage). But, because concepts like privacy and dignity are penumbral (i.e. not specifically named in the Constitution, but common-sense extensions of its provisions), they could more easily be diminished or overturned completely — especially by judges that profess and “originalist” philosophy.
Religious and political conservatives have made no secret that the ultimate goal of state-level abortion bans is to create an opportunity for the new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade that recognized abortion rights within the U.S. Constitution. And they’ve openly admitted they will attack marriage equality using the same “playbook.” If that happens, the legal foundation for LGBTQIA civil rights is also likely to be weakened.
That process is already underway with passage of spurious “religious freedom” exemption laws and regulations that will allow open discriminate against LGBTQIA people in healthcare, employment, housing, education, and public accommodations. The Court barely side-stepped legitimizing such laws in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018). And that was before the replacement of centrist justice Anthony Kennedy with the more conservative Brett Kavanaugh.
Abortion bans are fundamentally a (racial, gendered, economic) social justice issue. They’re about making women ‘pay’ for sexual activity in ways men don’t: through forced pregnancy, childbirth, and care and raising of children — still disproportionately done by women. And, given the high rates of infant and maternal mortality among these populations, compulsory birth can also be a death sentence.
All these burdens will be disproportionately borne by young, poor, rural women of color, making it harder for them to complete their education, work outside the home, and forge independent lives. As such, abortion bans help perpetuate a permanent underclass in the U.S. It’s hard not to believe that’s not their primary purpose, despite being framed in the language of religious piety.
The intertwined nature of reproductive and LGBTQIA rights also means abortion bans will harm LGBTQIA people, in both direct and indirect ways. Queer people need to start understanding that and take a loud public stand against abortion bans and for reproductive freedom!
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.