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To be pregnant in the United States is now more dangerous than ever. This is not simply due to rising maternal mortality, a broken health-care system or the fact that criminalizing abortion renders pregnant women or other pregnant people acutely vulnerable. These facts are compounded by the perilous combination of pregnancy, policing and digital surveillance in what is now a post-Roe America.
Recent headlines have focused on how contemporary digital surveillance renders seeking abortion care intensely fraught in the shifting post-Roe legal landscape. Data, experts note, can be easily acquired and weaponized against anyone who does not carry a pregnancy successfully to term. This is neither a dystopian hypothetical, nor is it a new trend. The criminalization of pregnancy has been steadily on the rise for decades, intensifying acutely alongside the rise of U.S. homeland security culture.
While the policing of pregnancy and the homeland security state may seem unrelated, they are in fact intimately enmeshed. Reproductive surveillance, coercion and control is a durable and devastating pattern in U.S. history — and one that has historically intensified alongside nationalism and perceived threats to the nation.
Our dystopian present is deeply rooted in how motherhood has long been imagined as a vehicle for the nation. Consider a few examples from history. The strict regulation of reproduction proved critical to the founding of the U.S. republic as a white-supremacist colonial state. Historian Linda Kerber notes that, in lieu of enfranchisement, wealthy White women were to perform citizenship through mothering — to birth those who would inherit and shape the fledgling nation. Early Colonial bans on interracial marriage and the strict enforcement of White women’s fidelity all but ensured a growing White population.
White women’s compulsory motherhood stood in stark contrast to the sexual and reproductive abuse of Black and Indigenous women in the early republic. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts documents how enslaved Black women were denied motherhood. Their children were born into bondage and designated enslaver property by law. Thus, White men’s rape of enslaved Black women was a key weapon in perpetuating slavery and establishing White wealth across generations. The colonization of the Americas more broadly relied on sexual and reproductive violence, with White colonizers leaving detailed accounts of rape and murder of Indigenous women, attesting to its centrality in the broader project of White nation-building.
The mechanisms of reproductive control shifted alongside social and political changes, but reflected enduring investments in the United States as a White nation. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the establishment of Native boarding schools destroyed Indigenous families and communities through forced child removal. Widespread anxieties over White women’s sexual freedom in particular prompted passage of the draconian Comstock laws in 1873, which prohibited the circulation of information related to sexual and reproductive health. At the turn of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt famously decried “race suicide,” centering a decline in White birthrates in his domestic agenda as the popularity of eugenics and scientific racism rose precipitously.
After World War II, the White suburban baby boom was greeted with widespread pronatalist enthusiasm. This happened even as cultural panics erupted regarding “overpopulation,” fueling the expansion of state eugenics programs that targeted women of color, people with disabilities and immigrants in particular. More than 60,000 people were sterilized against their will in the United States during the 20th century. Latinas, Black women, Indigenous women, queer people and people with disabilities were disproportionately targeted. As middle-class White women’s reproductivity was lauded as an emblem of postwar patriotism, poor women and women of color struggled against a state that forcibly curtailed their capacity to bear children at all — another example of reproductive regulation in service of a narrow vision of the nation.
In the 21st century, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks ushered in a new era of security in the United States. It prompted seismic shifts in the formal architecture of the state and the proliferation of surveillance and policing in the name of protecting the “homeland.” Among other changes, the 2002 Homeland Security Act initiated the largest restructuring of government in more than 50 years, creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) central to its operations. Federal expenditures dedicated to homeland security skyrocketed, and a lucrative security industry has grown exponentially in the decades since, with global revenue projected at $172.5 billion this year alone.
With unprecedented scale, investment and technological capacity, the homeland security state became a point of proliferation for modes of surveillance and policing that have long been imposed on poor communities and communities of color in the United States. Despite the fact that far-right extremists pose the greatest terrorist threat to the United States, and have for some time, DHS continues to target Muslim Americans and immigrants for surveillance and punishment. An increasingly militarized police force is deployed to stifle the cries of unarmed protesters from Occupy Wall Street to Standing Rock to Black Lives Matter — even as the violence of white supremacy is afforded ample license to threaten the very core of our democracy.
This takes place in a cultural context of surging White Christian nationalism that rehearses familiar tropes about “anchor babies” and stokes fears over being “replaced.” The policies and technologies at DHS’s disposal have been entwined with the same concerns that long drove reproductive control: making the United States a White nation.
The state’s obsession with security in the DHS era has helped drive the uptick in and uneven distribution of pregnancy surveillance and prosecutions in the United States.
In recent years, pregnant women have been criminalized for falling down a flight of stairs, disclosing substance use disorders, refusing a Caesarean, miscarrying in a high school bathroom, suffering stillbirth and attempting suicide. These stories point to a disturbing pattern of state abuse that especially targets women of color, immigrants and low-income women for pregnancy criminalization and punishment — holding individuals simultaneously responsible for and powerless over their pregnancies. It is a logic that positions pregnant individuals against the fetuses they carry, diminishing the rights and needs of women and pregnant people as the state claims a vested interest in fetal protection. All of this was evident even pre-Dobbs. Which is to say: All of this took place in a world where pregnancy termination was still recognized as a constitutional right. The criminalization of abortion in the homeland security state will both aid and sanction these trends.
The recent history of the homeland security state provides the broader cultural context for a new era of reproductive violence that includes, but is not limited to, the evisceration of Roe. For example, we have witnessed the cruelty of an immigration system that forcibly sterilizes women in ICE custody and separates children from their primary caregivers at the U.S.-Mexico border — a policy implemented as a strategy of migrant maternal deterrence specifically, but one that draws on a long pattern of family policing more broadly.
The presence and the force of homeland security as a powerful mechanism of the state and a mode of thinking justifies intrusion and violations of privacy in general — and, as is the case in Dobbs, the denial of a right to privacy altogether. We tend to think of homeland security in fairly narrow terms — and specifically, vis-a-vis the war on terror — but it has long since included reproductive coercion and control.
History tells us who will suffer most. Women, immigrants, poor people, people of color and LGBTQ people will continue to bear the brunt of reproductive surveillance and punishment. All of this is deeply anti-democratic. The loss of bodily autonomy and the expansion of state policing coincide meaningfully with other forces that diminish the political power of the people, including attacks on voting rights, gun control and freedom of assembly. In this way, the loss of Roe in the homeland security state is not simply the loss of an essential right to reproductive health care and bodily autonomy. Also at stake is the capacity to fight for those rights at all.