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Family Values

What Ireland’s abortion fight and the Trump administration’s war on immigrants say about the role of families in conservative politics

John Moore/Getty Images

On May 25, the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment to its constitution. The amendment “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn” and required the Irish state to defend that right. What that had meant in practice, in the 35 years since the amendment was passed, was that abortion was illegal in nearly all situations; that pregnant women had been hauled into court to have any medical decisions that might affect their fetus debated by an attorney for that fetus appointed by the state. It had also meant for years that Irish people had traveled abroad to access the health procedures they could not have at home—by most estimates 170,000 of them.

The 66.4 percent “yes” vote was higher than the most recent polls, higher than the estimates of the organizers I interviewed on the ground, and it came in the face of an extremely well-funded campaign (with lots of American right-wing dollars, as The New Republic’s Sarah Jones detailed) that relied on the Catholic Church’s deep roots in Ireland, on anti-abortion posters with both photorealistic and impossibly caricatured fetuses, on veiled threats and fearmongering about a spiking abortion rate. The safety valve of travel abroad was used in a subtler way to undermine the Yes campaign’s work: “They can just go to England,” an argument that was written into the Irish constitution in 1992 with the Thirteenth Amendment affirming the right to travel for an abortion. People who accept this argument are unwittingly showing their hand: They think abortion should be available, but arduous to access. It’s not about the right to life of the unborn—it is about making sure that abortion isn’t too easy. It is about the behavior of women and their role in the family.

As the Irish voted, the American public was consumed with another story about care and families: the story of the Trump administration ripping apart migrant families at the border. This is not, strictly speaking, new policy for the U.S., but the Trump administration’s strategy of maximizing the cruelty of immigration policies—as a deterrent or as red meat for the base or, more likely, both—has drawn attention to them and heightened their viciousness.

It has become a commonplace for pro-choice activists to note that people who claim to be protecting the innocent and “family values” when it comes to abortion are not at all interested in the welfare of already-born children, and moments like this, with these two news stories competing for headline space, certainly reaffirm that argument. Trump, after all, selected rabidly antichoice Mike Pence as his running mate and told gory fairy tales about the horrors of abortion on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, Trump’s reference to immigrants as “animals” is a way to dehumanize people so that policies like this, of violently separating parent and child, go unopposed by a supposedly Christian base.

But these two stories also remind us that the family as we know it is not a natural institution. It is shaped by the state, which has both affirmed and destroyed families over the years. The family for which so many in America and Ireland remain nostalgic was shaped by the law, and was further shaped by the demands of industrial capitalism. If there is a glaring contradiction in the way that the anti-abortion right treats the family, that is because, in the face of changes in politics and economics, it is consistent in perpetuating inequalities based around the idea of respect for family, nation, or race.

The Irish constitution had these inequalities written into it from the beginning, far before the Eighth Amendment was put to a vote in 1983, the idea that a woman’s place was in the home. It reads: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Similarly, the family was at the heart of the U.S. welfare state in its heyday (even if it always was much stingier than its counterpart in Western Europe). The so-called “family wage”—a wage paid to a presumably male worker with the idea that it would be enough to support not only himself but his presumed wife and children—was based on the idea of a (usually white) nuclear family: mom at home cleaning and caring and cooking, dad at the factory building cars.

The economic necessity that the Irish constitution wanted to prevent in fact disrupted this model, compelling women to seek paid employment as much as a women’s rights movement that saw jobs for women and abortion rights as a move toward liberation. For the Irish that necessity often compelled them to leave Ireland as emigrants, many of them coming to the U.S., though these days never as the locus of immigration-based panic. That panic is reserved for the southern border, for the people Trump never tires of painting as violent gang members even though many of them come to the U.S. to care for American families, as Laura Briggs points out in her book How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics. She writes, “In short, immigration is significantly a question about how household and child care work is getting done in the aftermath of the neoliberal push to get all mothers and other caregivers into the workforce for 40 and more hours a week.”

Economic necessity propelled women into the workforce, and it has propelled women to leave their homes—sometimes with their own families and sometimes without, as Briggs notes, because to travel to do care work for someone else often means separation from one’s own family. American employers have no use for the children of migrant women who so often care for America’s own, and indeed migrant women’s children have been stigmatized for years as “anchor babies,” born on American soil to presumably give their parents a toehold in the States. Yet, of course, plenty of parents of U.S.-citizen children are still deported.

Migrant families from south of the U.S. border are perceived as threats, not only by the current administration, which speaks ominously of “chain migration” when referring to family reunification, but even by previous ones. Briggs notes that the current get-tough immigration regime began in the Clinton era. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, both in 1996, were, she writes, part of “the beginning of the criminalization of the quotidian existence of people who were undocumented and the making of their routes into the United States hazardous and deadly—but importantly, not impossible.”

The same dynamic—arduous but not impossible—played out during Ireland’s ban on abortion. Someone, after all, has to provide the procedure that will allow women to care for themselves and to continue working. And someone has to do the work of raising families. In the United States, this comes at a time when Republicans are trying to keep wages from rising, strip back the social safety net, and push all responsibilities for caregiving onto the individual or the family. This means that there is still plenty of demand for cheap caregivers, and it just so happens that keeping undocumented people afraid and desperate is an excellent way to depress their wages.

It’s easy to have nostalgia for an older period of relative wealth and social cohesion (for white families, at least), when one wage was enough for a single family, when families did not have to outsource childrearing to undocumented laborers, and when abortions were less common. But attempts to recreate that kind of society simply don’t reckon with the world we live in now, and worse, they come at the expense of those who are most vulnerable. Indeed, they end up fostering a dangerous, almost perverse critique of modern capitalism. As the scholar Melinda Cooper pointed out in a recent interview, “you begin to think that what is wrong with capitalism is not the fact that it generates and feeds off all kinds of inequalities, but the fact that it threatens your favorite reproductive order.”

We can point easily to the hypocrisy of a movement that inveighs against abortion out of concern for innocent unborn babies while tearing actual innocent children away from their parents for having dared cross a border. What is harder to understand is that “the family,” as it is used in political discourse, is not an inviolable, unchanging institution. It is the product of historical forces, revealing the way seemingly unrelated policies of immigration and abortion stem from a common source: the prioritization of a certain people, a certain kind of family, as the ground shifts beneath them.