Last spring, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress worked together to pass a bill that would have gutted the Affordable Care Act. That piece of legislation doubled as an ideological manifesto: By letting states waive insurance protections for women who’ve been pregnant, given birth, survived a sexual assault, or experienced domestic violence, the GOP laid out a medical framework that treated women’s bodies as inherently sick, aberrations from the norm.
Over the past several months, the Trump administration has further clarified its theories of the female body. The man in charge of refugee resettlement in the U.S. has gone to court to prevent pregnant undocumented teens from accessing abortion care. The U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly recently used military and economic threats in an attempt to sabotage a resolution promoting infant health through breastfeeding. At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials cut funding to a teen-pregnancy-prevention program that has helped teen births reach an all-time low, shifting resources to abstinence-only education. On Monday, Trump nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who is expected to be the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. And as the government jails children who’ve been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, pregnant immigrant women in detention centers are being denied medical treatment and shackled around the stomach. Many have miscarried while in custody.
Some of these acts may appear incongruous. Don’t the people whose moral compasses point toward fetal rights want infants to get proper nutrition? Don’t they want the fetuses inside pregnant detainees to survive? If children are precious and motherhood is a woman’s “most important job,” as Ivanka Trump has said, shouldn’t asylum-seeking parents get to keep their kids? But these policies aren’t contradictory at all. They are rooted in a consistent worldview that casts women as vessels whose reproductive capacity is the property of the state, and whose pain is fitting punishment for any supposed offense.
The Trump administration and Trump’s surrogates have proved callous to the pain of the children and parents they’ve been dividing up and shipping all over the country. (Listen, if you haven’t already, to former Trump campaign chief Corey Lewandowski groaning “womp, womp“ when informed that a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome had been separated from her parents.) No plea for humanity rang true to the dozens of people behind the “zero tolerance” border policy—not the medical argument that the trauma could harm these children for the rest of their lives and reverberate for generations, not the human-rights argument that people seeking asylum shouldn’t be treated like criminals, not the family-values argument that parents and children should be kept together whenever possible. To justify the policy, Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen invoked the same simplistic rationale. People crossing the border are breaking immigration laws. People who break laws get jailed. People who get jailed lose their kids.
The inaccuracies in this line of reasoning aside—for one, people seeking asylum aren’t breaking any laws—it was a useful bit of evidence that Trump and his cronies view children, and the pain they can cause their parents, as a disciplinary tool. For this administration, the cruelty of the family-separation policy was its primary selling point. In order for the policy to serve as a deterrent, it needed to be so inhumane that potential migrants would be scared into staying home despite the risk of extreme danger. (The fact that migrants haven’t been deterred from crossing the border demonstrates just how horrific the violence is in many parts of Central America.) The fact that children would suffer was a feature of the policy, not an unfortunate side effect.
Deterrence is also a key element of the right wing’s philosophy on contraception and abortion. Some anti-abortion activists argue that permitting women to terminate their pregnancies encourages wanton behavior—specifically noncommittal, unprotected sex. In this sense, the prospect of forced pregnancy and childbirth, and the physical and/or emotional pain that goes with them, is meant as a punishment for the crime of promiscuity.
Denying women abortions isn’t, as anti-abortion advocates often claim, just about saving the lives of unborn children. It’s also about imposing a moral judgment on women for having sex. Pro-lifers tend to frame childbirth as a consequence any sexually active single woman should be ready to assume. The phrase abortion on demand, a popular encapsulation of the presumed position of the pro-choice set, suggests that certain women, by virtue of their reasons or circumstances, deserve abortions more than others. Many, but not all, right-wing politicians make room within their anti-abortion frameworks for exceptions in cases of rape and incest. Their thinking goes something like this: A woman who was raped had no ability to prevent her pregnancy. Every other woman who gets pregnant bears the responsibility for doing so, and their bodies must suffer for failing to accept that responsibility, even if it means bringing a child into a family who is unable or unwilling to properly care for it.
Consigning a woman to pregnancy and childbirth against her will is not a physically neutral act. It is corporeal punishment with lasting bodily impact. A woman who gives birth is 14 times more likely to die during or after labor than to die from complications of a legal abortion. Pregnancy, labor, and recovery all carry with them the inevitability of discomfort and, to varying degrees, pain. When the state forces a woman to give birth, it is extracting pain as a physical penalty—a price no cisgender man who has sex for nonprocreative purposes will ever have to pay. During his presidential campaign, Trump envisioned a world in which women who assert control over their own bodies would also have to pay a price. If Roe v. Wade were to fall, he told Chris Matthews, there would need “to be some form of punishment” for women who get illegal abortions—an “if she breaks a law, she must pay the price” philosophy that echoes the administration’s justification for family separation.
Most women of childbearing age will eventually find their bodies offered up as governable property. Access to contraception, whether funded through public or private health care plans, is subject to the push and pull of legislators. Many states, by law, will void the living will of a pregnant woman to ensure that if she’s later declared brain-dead, her body will be sustained through artificial means to serve as an incubator for her fetus. Other laws require medical practitioners to report pregnant women to Child Protective Services if they suspect they may be drinking alcohol. But few women give up their rights to bodily autonomy as completely as those in the carceral system. The shackling of pregnant inmates or detainees, a practice allowed in the vast majority of U.S. states but prohibited by international human-rights treaties, endangers the health of both women and their fetuses. But law-and-order types find it easy enough to shrug off the pain they suffer or the health problems they incur: If women didn’t want to be shackled, they shouldn’t have gotten themselves thrown in detention.
Besides that, Trump administration officials have argued, the treatment pregnant women get in detention is superior to what they could provide for themselves. “It is much better care than when they are living in the shadows,” Nielsen said in a May congressional hearing, claiming pregnant women in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement get separate housing and prenatal care from specialists. (None of the several legal-aid workers BuzzFeed interviewed for a recent report, all of whom had worked with pregnant detainees, had ever heard of a pregnant woman getting special housing.) Defending his decision to deny undocumented immigrant minors their legally mandated access to abortion care, Office of Refugee Resettlement head Scott Lloyd said he was acting in one 17-year-old’s “best interest“ by refusing her request to terminate her pregnancy, which she said was the result of a rape. In his ruling in the case for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the teen, known as Jane Doe, needed help to make the “major life decision” of not having a baby, adding that the state was “protecting the best interests” of the minor by delaying or preventing her from getting an abortion. Doe, who was less than a year from legal adulthood, had gotten permission from a judge to get an abortion (a requirement for minors in Texas when there’s no parental consent) and said she was likely to harm herself if forced to carry the pregnancy to term. The notion, shared by both Lloyd and Kavanaugh, that it is in a detained immigrant teenager’s “best interest” to have a child against her will, even if it drives her to suicide, rests on the certitude that pain is the appropriate punishment for the transgressions of having sex and crossing the border.
Men like Lloyd and Kavanaugh and Trump don’t see Jane Doe or women seeking asylum as rational decision-makers, so they attempt to guide female self-determination through regulations. Depending on the states where they live, some women seeking abortions must wait a day or three between their first abortion appointment and their actual abortion, giving them time, right-wing policymakers say, to really, really think over their decisions. These legislators also worry that with too much information, or information of the wrong sort, women will be influenced into poor behavior. They want employees at crisis pregnancy centers—tricksters who try to manipulate women out of terminating their pregnancies—to be left entirely unregulated. Actual abortion providers, meanwhile, are required in many states to straight-up lie to their patients about the risks of abortion. One such law compels doctors to tell women who’ve taken abortion-inducing medications that they can stop the process with a shot of progesterone. This is called “abortion reversal,” an unproven medical theory that Lloyd considered testing on a teenage detained immigrant against her will.
This persistent disregard, or relish, for the pain of women and immigrants is directly connected to white America’s dehumanization of black and brown people. The impulse to make migrant parents and pregnant teens suffer, and to look away when brown children wail for their parents, is the same impulse that led Trump to call immigrants “animals,” that led Darren Wilson to call Michael Brown a “demon“ with superhuman strength, and that leads doctors to prescribe black patients fewer pain medications at lower doses because of the belief that black bodies don’t feel pain as acutely as white ones. Transcending politics and party, this warped mindset has found purchase in the American criminal justice system, which separates parents from their children every day for all manner of minor offenses. Of the women in U.S. prisons and jails, more than 60 percent have children under the age of 18.
Although women have always endured institutional degradation in this country, there’s something new about the cruel paradigm adopted by this administration. On Trump’s watch, women are simultaneously infantilized and demonized, seen as both desperate for government guidance and unworthy of its support, forced to give birth but reviled when they do, and deserving of physical suffering for almost any perceived infraction.
Trump encapsulated this posture in an anecdote he recounted at this year’s State of the Union address. The president told the story of a police officer who came across a pregnant homeless woman who was about to inject herself with heroin. The officer told the woman she was “going to harm her unborn child.” (Those were Trump’s words; a video of the encounter showed the cop saying, “It’s going to ruin your baby. You’re going to kill your baby.”) The policeman then produced a photo of his own wife and four children. He ended up convincing her to allow him and his wife to adopt her fetus.
There was no policy implication attached to the story Trump told—nothing about the need for better drug-treatment options, affordable housing, accessible contraception, or maternal health care. Nothing about how a pregnant woman was living without shelter in one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. Nothing about the coercive impact of an officer of the law approaching a woman as she committed an illegal act and asking her for the rights to her forthcoming child. There was only a woman unfit to make the right decisions for her baby and her body, and a man, an agent of the state, who showed up just in time to tell her what to do. Trump showed America the baby, who was sitting in the audience that night, but made no mention of how her biological mother had fared—viewers would have had to read the news to get that information. Any pain she suffered was penance for her own poor decisions, her hardship a plot point in a story about the heroism of a police officer. That nameless woman was less a person than a body, a reproductive receptacle that only matters when it’s full.