Dobbs as White Supremacy: The Troubling Parallels Between U.S., French, and Romanian Rightwing Extremism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, the 2022 release of the HBO documentary The Janes seems all the more vital to our understanding of the struggles women historically face securing access to abortion. The Janes highlights what illegal abortion services looked like in the Chicago area in the pre-Roe era. [1] While women feared being sexual assaulted or getting sepsis if they looked to abortion services from the mafia, which held a tight grip on the industry, calling a Jane instead meant relying on medical activists who provided abortion services and therapy to women in need, and without the risks of assault and sepsis that came with relying on the mafia. The Janes provided these services prior to their systematized practice in American medicine, and after Roe was decided in 1973, their clientele winnowed to almost exclusively poor women of color. [1] Though abortion became legal, high costs in hospitals and clinics still prohibited many women from receiving reproductive medical care. The lessons from this period are clear: when women want an abortion, they will find a way to receive it, and whether legal or illegal, a class-based stratification on affordability will cause poor women of color to suffer most.

In the post-Roe era, women are responding by again returning to under-the-counter efforts to secure access to abortion rights. Recent coverage in the Washington Post on post-Roe America highlights the networks of volunteers based primarily in Mexico and the United States sending abortion pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, to women living in antiabortion states. [2] Once again, volunteers have taken up the mantle to help women declare bodily autonomy when the state in which they live would force them to birth an unwanted fetus. Once again, women in much of the United States are forced to look away from medical professionals and engage in acts of profound trust with activist groups. This should both inspire and terrify:  a medically induced abortion is one of the safest procedures an individual could undergo, allowing women to abort in the safety of their own home. Simultaneously, women who fear the consequences of what may happen if they seek medical assistance or familial aid with their abortion must self-monitor and experience heavy bleeding and cramps alone, in isolation. Those without access to internet, knowledge networks, and sufficient English language skills are, just as in the pre-Roe era, less likely to know how to contact providers, and may experience added fears of familial abuse, incarceration, and deportation.

Women are, evidently, second-class citizens in the United States of America. Women’s second-class citizenship should be understood, however, not as a singular issue, or simply as a Republican-led effort to trample women’s rights. Against the backdrop of white supremacist masculinity, revoking female bodily autonomy is only part of a web of interconnected, racist, xenophobic, and ableist views, where women’s bodies are the sites of political control intended to foster the white ethnic project of the “Alt-Right.” As I sketch out in this essay, histories from Romania and France can help us understand how control over women’s bodies is the key to controlling populations.

What do abortion rights have to do with white supremacy and ableism?

In 1966, Nicolae Ceaușescu, the leader of the Romanian Communist Party, signed Decree 770 into law, making abortion a criminal offense. He also criminalized the purchase of contraceptives by a woman under 40 years of age and for those without four minimum children.

At the beginning of Ceaușescu’s rule, the Romanian population was in decline, the economy was weak, and the country’s birthrate lagged Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, and Poland despite similar population declines among Romania’s neighbors. [3] Within the first year of Decree 770, its consequences were laid bare: the Romanian birthrate increased nearly 15 percent. The total fertility rate in 1966 sat at 1.8 children per woman, and in 1967, increased to 3.8. [4]

Despite the government’s goals, Romania’s natalist policies had their limits. In Florin Iepan’s 2005 documentary Children of the Decree, the accomplishment of creating the “20 millionth Romanian” provides insight into the dark underbelly of forced birth policies: this momentous achievement of ratcheting up birthrates was also a project of increasing ethnic Romanian stock, aimed at reducing the proportion of the nation’s Roma population.

Roma, derogatively referred to as gypsies, are an ethnic group originating from India, their diaspora populating regions throughout Europe. Roma peoples have long been targeted by discriminatory policies in European states for practicing minority religions and languages, and over 500,000 Roma were exterminated in Nazi death camps. Because of nomadic practices, Roma populations are largely underestimated, though they have constituted between 3 to 8 percent of the Romanian population as the largest ethnic minority in the country. [5] The Roma have long experienced inadequate public resources and education, whether it be in France, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, or Romania. [6] Within largely underfunded communities, Roma are disproportionately and without adequate evidence diagnosed with learning disabilities, furthering their exclusion from education, civic participation, and economic independence. The 20 millionth Romanian, then, must not have only been a male from an average home, but born of ethnically Romanian parents—the perfectly mediated image through which to present the bright future of Romania’s ascendance.

Iepan documents how, in spite of Ceaușescu’s natalist policies, Roma women were still provided abortions during the life of Decree 770, often without much investigation or consideration from doctors, public officials, and authorities. [7] [8] By comparison, ethnic Romanian women who attempted to receive illegal abortions often found themselves in maternity sepsis wards of hospitals, where investigators and police would interrogate and arrest them whilst recovering from septic shock induced by improper and unclean black market procedures.

The hope to expand the population and to retain national white “purity” doesn’t always present itself in heavy forced birthing policies as it did in Romania. The Médaille de la famille française (Medal of the French Family) was created in the 1920’s by the French government with the hope of encouraging French women to have more children. With bronze awarded at five children, silver at six or seven, and gold at eight or more, this nationally acclaimed honor was developed through pronatalist policies of the Third Republic in the aftermath of World War I. [9]

 Occasionally, women of Algerian descent (one of the largest immigrant ethnic groups in France) received the award and were celebrated alongside ethnic French mothers. This only occurred, however, after a strained administrative process where candidates proved their French nationality. Upon this requirement, large numbers of French-Algerian women were excluded from public accolade, but they were, more importantly, urged by public opinion and public policy not to have children and not to remain in France: Algerians were migrant workers who should return to Algeria. The “Medal of the French Family” was for the French family; Algerians, who were portrayed by media and politicians as less intelligent, less sophisticated, and less civilized, did not fit the imagined national ideal of what it means to be “French.”

The restriction of female bodily autonomy through childbearing is an effort to which governments frequently return when developing state projects. Rather than interpreting the Romanian experience as exclusively straight forward misogyny in government, or the French case as tradition-minded conservatives simply wanting women to have more children, we should recognize how women’s bodies are used as tools to enhance white supremacist ethnic state projects. Obviously, they are objectified, but in what context, and to what end?

Whether it be forced birthing policies via Decree 770 or the bestowing of medals, nation-building projects aim to use female bodies to reinforce socio-cultural tradition and norms. By having children, women provide the laborer, the soldier, and the next reproducer for the state, and the state has preferences as to who is worthy and unworthy in terms of idealized definitions of national identity. Some women, then, via their ethno-religious backgrounds, are delimited as Outsider, Other, and undesirable. The children of the Outsiders are disproportionately labeled as intellectually defective, incapable, and less worthy of citizenship. They fall through the cracks, overrepresenting their ethnic groups in special education, in prisons, and in poverty while they are hyper-surveilled by police, whether it be Roma in Romania, Algerians in France, or African American and Latinx individuals in the United States.

Forced Birth for the White Nation

Reactionaries in the U.S. today have proven their commitment to the subordination of women through their celebration of Dobbs v. Jackson—a decision handed down despite large support for abortion in the public. Subsequent Senate Republican stirrings to write federal legislation banning abortion after the midterm elections, and the flaunting of all medical and scientific advice against it, has proven that the GOP doesn’t care for fact if it impedes the party’s ideological goals.

Blind Misogyny, check.

Reactionaries in the U.S. today also rely a great deal on the dichotomy of the Outsider/unworthy/undesirable and Insider/worthy/desirable. As “Alt-Right” fascist proponents of the Great Replacement Theory inform us, hordes of black and brown immigrants are having children in the United States at the behest of an international Jewish conspiracy to cause European-Caucasian genocide. Whether it be “Build the Wall” or Qanon’s blatant anti-Semitism and obsession with George Soros, the melding of racism and antisemitism is evident in the foundations of white nationalist sentiment.

Xenophobia, check.

Finally, American fascists today take their turn in ableist rhetoric quite explicitly. One could look to Trump’s mocking portrayal of Hillary Clinton as weak and unfit to lead. [10] In a more eugenicist bent, one could look at Trump’s frequent reference to the “good genes” of his rally-goers, [11] or at the “culling the herd” mentality that has been documented by scholars of the COVID-19 pandemic, [12] expressing a right-wing openness to mass death determined by relative health and ability. “Good genes” is the neofascist language of worthy/unworthy, presented in pseudoscientific terms.

Ableism, check.

Interwoven is the relationship between misogyny and systems of white supremacy, xenophobia, and ableism. “Alt-Right” toxic masculinity’s declarations of groups being “unfit” to lead or make decisions for other people or themselves is a root that oppressively taps its way into the lives of women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the neurodiverse and differently abled. Women’s bodies are politicized in contemporary American politics not only because they are the sites of political, economic, and social subordination by others, but because pronatalist policies exploit female reproductive capacity in various ways, and in efforts to further erase and deny the rights and identities of others.

The overturning of Dobbs and recent Senate Republican proposals to pass national legislation banning abortion federally are a tragedy and an assault on women’s bodily autonomy the country over. It’s also, however, deeply ideologically connected to the wide range of assaults that are growing in frequency against voting rights, rights of asylum, LGBT rights, and the rights of neurodiverse and differently abled persons to live independent lives away from pity, fear, and forced charity. Abortion rights, directly or indirectly affect most people in the United States, and their revocation is only a warning of what is to come. We are talking about the enslavement of women via forced birth and motherhood, and an increase in unnecessary ectopic or abortion-related deaths—so long as women’s bodies are weaponized to reinforce white supremacist, xenophobic, and ableist norms.

Sakura Shinjo is finishing her dissertation in Political Science at Temple University,