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14 May 2022

Social media lectures about abortion “privilege” don’t help anyone

It’s incorrect and unhelpful to claim white and wealthy women would not be affected by a ban, but online emotion trumps fact.

By Sarah Manavis

On social media, a certain type of post has become unavoidable. You know it when you see it: with a withering and authoritative tone, it debunks an assumption to do with identity politics. The poster takes on the role of teacher explaining to you, the reader, the obvious point you’ve missed, until now. The post might be a viral tweet or a stylised Instagram infographic (or a viral tweet posted to Instagram) and may discuss anything from serious global issues to popular culture. The post might say something like, “Ukrainian people benefit from white privilege” or claim that people don’t like Ted Lasso because misogyny has made them hate seeing female characters having good sex. 

In the last two weeks there has been a proliferation of these posts following the news that the United States Supreme Court may be about to overturn Roe vs Wade, the ruling that legalised abortion in 1973. Mostly they explain who would be most affected by such a change and who would truly suffer. One tweet of this ilk read: “Dear white women. The Handmaids Tale did not ‘predict the future,’ it is — without exaggeration — based on the real treatment of Black and Indigenous people thru history. It HAS happened, its BEEN happening, its just for the first time it is happening to YOU.” Another from a few days before claimed: “Wealthy women will always have access to whatever doctors, medicines and procedures that they want. Ending Roe is an attack on the autonomy of poor and working class women.” These two posts have been extremely popular. At the time of writing, each had more than 40,000 retweets and 200,000 likes.

Of course, there’s one problem: neither of these assertions are rooted in reality. The first is ahistorical. White women throughout history have been denied abortion access, and many — those in Ireland, for example — have only been granted access to abortions for the first time in the last five years. The second fails to grasp how abortion may be criminalised, and what access wealth actually provides.

Despite the (frankly obvious) counterarguments being made in replies, these posts and others like them are only gaining more traction by the day. They quickly rack up likes and shares as users hope to demonstrate that they are politically enlightened, or aware of their own privilege: the ones also pointing the finger, not the ones being pointed at. As a result, a set of ideas about serious issues are established in the public consciousness that are not based on fact, but feeling. Posts like these simplify complex questions around things like abortion laws and obscure their very real consequences as a result.

The motivations for these posts aren’t entirely clear. Perhaps some users are engaged in cynical bids for virality, knowing that even if they’re wrong, their post is controversial, emotive and guaranteed to generate engagement. It seems more likely that they are well-intentioned. After all, these posts feel true, and a power imbalance really does exist between white women and women of colour, and between wealthy women and working-class women. It’s easy to see how many users could genuinely believe them: they hold an echo of the real power dynamics that govern our lives. But the fundamental information they include is false, or irrelevant. 

Let’s say we put aside the inaccuracies at the heart of these posts for a moment. If they were true, would they be valuable? Even if, for a number of complex socio-economic reasons, white, wealthy women in a post-Roe US could access abortions more easily than others, would that negate the fact that all women are about to have a constitutional right stripped away, which could risk their lives or ruin them irreparably? We could say that white women have never faced or cared about this issue until now. Even if this wasn’t wildly false, would it mean they deserve to experience this impending danger? We could even say that wealthy women will always have enough money to travel to access abortions (what does wealthy even mean here: millionaires? The middle class?) — but what if they have a controlling partner? A pro-life family? Or any number of other obstacles? 

The point these posts miss is that no one should have to pay thousands, fly internationally, or take extreme personal risks to maintain control over their own body, even if they can afford to. That control isn’t a luxury. But posts like these are just the latest iteration of a deeply online routine, where after every news event, irrelevant assertions are made that appeal to emotion over fact. The point isn’t to be useful, or even right, but simply to have made a blistering “clapback”.

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There are important points to be made about racial and socio-economic privilege when it comes to abortion access. Anyone acting as though wealthy white cis women don’t have advantages is equally ahistorical (where these people are, though, I’m not so sure). But if we want to deepen the conversation about how people will be affected by the overturning of Roe, and ensure everyone has safe, straightforward abortion access, then these claims aren’t just unproductive, they set us further back — almost as though their aim isn’t to be useful at all. 

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