More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting
by Rachel MacNair
An important idea for understanding how social injustice works is making the rounds. It’s called “intersectionality,” and it’s a specialized way of connecting issues. That makes it right up our alley.
Many good examples of intersectionality have been offered, but those of us familiar with the consistent life ethic can offer some that others might not think of. That’s what we’ll do here.
What is “intersectionality”?
Kimberlé W. Crenshaw coined the term, and defines it as “drawing attention to interaction effects of inequalities.” It’s when one kind of being discriminated against intersects with another. You don’t just have inequality times two, but more.
Here’s an example Dr. Crenshaw gives: an African American woman took an employer to Court for discrimination because they hired no Black women at all. But they hired Blacks (only men), and they hired women (only Whites), so the court said there was no discrimination. There wasn’t discrimination against either group individually, just both of them together. But the Court thought that didn’t count.
Another startling example is the amount of news we’ve had about African American men being shot by police – but not the women. Dr. Crenshaw has listed many of the men for a variety of audiences, and reports that in general people who pay attention to the news have heard the names. She then lists African American women who have met the same fate, and draws blanks. For information on these women, who U.S. news-watchers should have heard of, see “Say Her Name.”
Dr. Crenshaw explains that the reason the intersectionality idea is important is to make sure any intervention we design includes everybody. For example, some immigrant rights advocates didn’t think about domestic violence victims, and domestic violence advocates didn’t think about immigrants, but some immigrants who are victims of domestic violence, because of being without papers, are scared to call the police. So when different kinds of violence intersect, it’s compounds the injustice.
Applied to Pregnant Women
In the past, there have been employers who claim they’re not being sexist so long as they do hire women. It’s just that they take some over others. They don’t want those who are pregnant, or married, or who have children. Fortunately, legislation and the courts haven’t bought this, and, in the United States at least, discrimination against women for being pregnant is indeed sex discrimination. It’s regarded as such by the United Nations’ 1979 treaty, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and by the Maternity Protection Convention of the International Labour Organization (2000).
So in certain countries the law protects pregnant women, but such women still have to face behavior and attitudes that put them down. Here are ways that being negatively viewed as a pregnant woman intersects with other forms of discrimination:
Pregnant Women X Domestic Violence
Women subjected to intimate partner violence are already vulnerable, but those who are pregnant are more physically vulnerable. Additionally, there are cases where it’s the pregnancy itself that brings on the violence.
Sufferers of domestic violence are also more likely to have partners harshly insisting on abortions for women who don’t want them. In the extreme, there are dozens of documented cases of women actually being murdered by the men who impregnated them because the women refused to have abortions. Since murder is already illegal, with harsh penalties, and the reason we even know about these cases is that prosecutors are doing their jobs, legal reform of murder laws isn’t the remedy. It’s a matter of changing attitudes. But surely for every case reported there are many more that aren’t documented, and for every case of actual murder, there are many cases of “only” being beaten up. And for every case of physical violence, there have to be many cases of verbal abuse and threats.
Pregnant Women X Disabilities
Women with disabilities are already subjected to discrimination. When other people assert that such women can’t handle a life event such as pregnancy, or shouldn’t reproduce, this can add to the disdain. The stigma inflicted on those with disabilities increases when it’s used as a reason to avoid reproducing.
Pregnant Women X Racial, Ethnic, or Religious “Others”
When a woman belongs to a community that is held in contempt, her becoming pregnant multiplies that community and therefore multiplies the contempt.
A common attitude was articulated by Edward Allred: “When a sullen Black woman of 17 or 18 can decide to have a baby and get welfare and food stamps and become a burden to us all, it’s time to stop. In parts of South Los Angeles, having babies for welfare is the only industry the people have.” (San Diego Union, October 12, 1980). Dr. Allred’s aversion to government subsidies didn’t prevent him from accepting millions of dollars in California tax dollars for his abortion practice. In the same article he expresses contempt for Hispanic immigrants and speaks of setting up an abortion clinic at a strategic location to “stem the tide.”
Applied to Unborn and Newborn Children
Unborn children are literally invisible, unless an ultrasound or intrauterine camera is focused on them. Newborn babies, whose femaleness or disability was hidden until birth, can by virtue of those features become suddenly vulnerable at birth.
Babies X Females
Millions of girls and young women are missing, especially in certain Asian countries. It’s bad enough to cause a gender imbalance in the population.
In her award-winning book, Unnatural Selection, pro-choice writer Mara Hvistendahl explains how this came about as a matter of military strategy. She reviewed archives that showed people in the US presidential administrations of Nixon and Ford were terrified that countries with many poor Asian peasants would “go communist.” Therefore, rather than offering programs to help prevent the peasants from being poor, they were determined to have fewer poor people by drastically reducing their birth rate.
If the number of girls is reduced, this has a far greater impact in reducing future population growth. One man can impregnate several women during the same time period, but one woman generally produces only one baby at time.
So sex-selection abortions were seen as a positive. Being unborn and newborn intersects with being female. Add another intersection: military targets.
Babies X Disabilities
In the United States, after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, this anti-discrimination and pro-accommodation legislation should have had a positive effect on perceptions of the disabled. For those well beyond infancy, it did. Yet right after the ADA passed, there was a dramatic decrease in the birth rate for Down Syndrome babies. There’s no reason to think they were conceived at a different rate, and screening was about the same. But there were demeaning media depictions. Negative images came from positive portrayals of prenatal testing followed by terminating the pregnancy when a diagnosis resulted. While children and adults with disabilities were making progress, unborn children who would have been safe otherwise became targets if they had disabilities.
Throughout history, disabled newborns have been targeted for destruction. Older children and adults were treated outrageously due to their disabilities, but intersecting with being a baby made imposed death much more likely.
With the consistent life ethic, we’ve often talked about how issues of violence are connected, and how therefore when you tackle one of the issues, your advocacy for nonviolence and protecting human beings gets around to helping on all the other issues as well. Here we have another important way of connecting issues: noticing that violence can more than double down when two or more kinds of targeted people are found in the same person. As Dr. Crenshaw asserts (though she hasn’t made the points above and is herself pro-choice), our strategies for remedying this will be more effective when we’re aware of how adding up the kinds of discrimination can multiply. We might come up with practical solutions we might not have thought of otherwise.
For our blog posts on lethal discrimination against those with disabilities or motivated by racism, see: