Symposium Introduction

Syndicate Introduction

Sara Matthiesen. Reproduction Reconceived: Family Making and the Limits of Choice after Roe v. Wade. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2021.

Jennifer C. Nash, Birthing Black Mothers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021.

Natali Valdez, Weighing the Future: Race, Science, and Pregnancy Trials in the Postgenomic Era. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2021.

How can we think about race and reproduction in the post-BLM, post-Dobbs landscape? Has the relationship between race and reproduction ever not been “in crisis”? These books enter the political fray with their careful yet bold historical, theoretical, and STS interventions into the timelines that feminist studies often rehearses at the intersection of race, sexuality, and reproductive rights/justice. In an attempt to think together and around these important 2021 books, this syndicate forum does more than trace the contours of this rich field of scholarship; it attempts to engage beyond its usual parameters. Featuring responses to the books by scholars of feminist STS, the history of enslavement, critical human rights studies, and the environmental humanities (as well as so many other overlapping fields—ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, sexuality studies, medical humanities, Black feminist studies, women’s history, and more), this collection of essays and author responses claim the vastness and pervasiveness of the reproductive as a frame by which to think other critical lexicons, and to (re)make other critical worlds. This forum asks, alongside these three trenchant books: Beyond the present, how might we think about reproductive genealogies that engage something other than a progress narrative of rights and justice? Including and beyond the US, how can we analyze the rhetoric of reproduction and population in relationship to climate crises? Beyond the human, how can we reimagine rhetorical and material reproductions in plant and ecological lifeworlds? Together, collectively, we think across feminist studies as it grapples with the work of racial reproduction past, present, and future—with surprising objects, histories, and trajectories.      

Rana Marie Jaleel


Be Gay, Do Crime

Choice, Care Work, and the Imperatives of Reproduction Reconceived

My middle-aged friend Tim has a middle-school aged daughter who delights in keeping him on trend. Frog memes are in, she said. And also memes that tell you to be gay and do crime. Hey, Tim said, those memes aren’t irrelated. He was in the midst of delivering an animated account of the criminal history of sodomy, lesbian separatism, experiments in amphibian reproduction and the enduring dream of parthenogenesis1—of reproduction on different terms—when his partner yelled suddenly from another room: Roe v. Wade was no more.

My entry into the post-Roe order was more succinct. I got a single text with a single word, no punctuation: Fuck. 

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the US Supreme Court case that overturned Roe, insists that the US Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. You cannot choose to have one and be guaranteed that choice. The majority opinion followed the principle that unwritten rights—ones not explicitly enumerated in the constitution like privacy, in which the right to abortion grounds—must be “deeply rooted in our history” or an integral part of a broader right that is so rooted if they are to be enforced. That decision arrived amidst a flurry of anti-abortion activity.2 According to the Guttmacher Institute, thirty-one states proposed abortion bans this year (Sosin 2022). As of the Fourth of July, such bans have gone into effect in at least eight states (The New York Times 2022). Infamously, states like Texas and Oklahoma have also adopted or are considering laws that would impose civil or criminal liability for those who perform or assist in the acquisition of abortion. Alongside claims to promote states’ rights, Dobbs boosted and legitimized prior tactics like the Texas Heartbeat Act (SB 8), passed in September 2021, which delegated enforcement of abortion restrictions to private citizens thereby effectively “deputiz[ing] its entire population to stop abortions and punish those who conduct, aid, and abet abortions through lawsuits” (Oishe 2022). Missouri extended that right to sue beyond state lines, drawing comparisons to legal architectures that were until recently largely foresworn, if not forgotten: namely, the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which extended civil remedies to enslavers to help them capture runaway enslaved people.3 Activists and scholars have been quick to note the “visceral” connections between state control of the bodies of those dispossessed by the Atlantic slave trade and where a great and motley chunk of us find ourselves today (Morgan 2022).

Such visceral connections reach beyond abortion and traditional notions of reproductive care. In Florida, the Leon County School Board recently voted to require mass parental notification by form if an LGBTQ student is in a PE class or goes on an overnight class trip (Chapter 2022). This, too, comes to pass as state laws increasingly target transgender and other LGBTQ+ youth. These convergences have not gone unnoticed. As The 19th reports, “maps of states that have passed laws that would ban abortion…almost mirror those that have passed anti-trans bans. Eleven of the 15 states with a sports participation ban for trans youth have also moved to curtail abortion rights” (Sosin 2022). Since 2020, fifteen states have passed bans that prevent transgender kids from playing sports in their lived genders. Three have acted to prevent trans kids from accessing health care recommended by major medical associations. Two have outlawed mention of LGBTQ+ history or people for young kids in public schools—this is Florida and Alabama hollering don’t say gay amid nation-wide attacks on Critical Race Theory. In 2022 alone, over three hundred anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been proposed; the year is on track to surpass last year’s record (150) for the most anti-LGBTQ+ legislation enacted by states (Jones and Navarro 2022). 

And yet response by “progressive” states has also been fairly swift. California governor Gavin Newsom, for example, is not only in vocal support of Proposition 1, which would establish a California constitutional right to abortion, but is also buying billboard space in states like Mississippi that promote a new California website that exists to facilitate abortion access, including for people from other states (Politic 2022). Images of a woman in handcuffs accompany the web address, “calling attention to both the states’ newly-enacted laws and one of the most vocal Democrats opposing them” (Politico 2022). The California state legislature has also recently passed a bill “to protect those receiving or providing transgender health care in California from prosecution under a wave of legislation in other states” (Gans 2022). Similar to Assembly bill 1666, which Newsom signed into law in June, the bill would “protect from prosecution patients who travel to California for what supporters call gender-affirming care and doctors who provide that care” (Gans 2022). 

Since the draft opinion for Dobbs first leaked, I’ve returned again and again to Reproduction Reconceived: Family Making and the Limits of Choice After Roe v. Wade, the historian Sara Matthiesen’s incisive study of family making to think about the contemporary convergence of anti-abortion and anti-trans/anti-LGBTQ initiatives. I got into that thinking like I get into most things: with a joke that suddenly turns on me—what does all of this do to the meaning of be gay, do crime? When caring about or seeking abortion care can, depending on where you are, leave you either liable and prosecutable or able to carry on, when trans healthcare is increasingly outlawed and denied, when gay is no longer a word you can say in Florida, the stuff of kin-making is certainly the stuff of crime but also more than crime. It is also the stuff of differentiated care and labor and it is at this juncture that Reproduction Reconceived begins.4  

Well-grounded in socialist and Marxist feminist traditions, Matthiesen emphasizes how family making is labor but often denied as such and left bereft of meaningful state support. This happens in part, she argues, because after Roe, family making is posed not as a public good that obligates state support, but as a personal choice, which in turn facilitates state neglect—a concept, which I’ll return to, that serves as the spine of the book. As Matthiesen’s study of family making proceeds, choice as a conceptual and socio-legal frame is brought to bear on more traditional subjects of social reproduction—what Tithi Bhattacharya terms “the activities and institutions that are required for making life, maintaining life, and generationally replacing life” (Jaffe 2020). And in 2022, where, as the newspapers keep telling us, over fifty years of legal precedent has been discarded with the dawn of Dobbs, we might take a closer look at what has been brought together—what people and spaces, what concepts, what ways of thinking and inhabiting the “visceral” connections between people and places and concepts—and what has been positioned apart. 

Matthiesen’s focus on state neglect as a function of choice paradigms might be productively put in conversation with work that tracks the historical relationship of sex and gender as legal categories to operations of state power. For Paisley Currah, who defines “sex” as whatever the law says it is, the convergence of attempts to restrict sex reclassification, shore up gender-segregated spaces, and restrict abortion care is a political opportunity, one “increasingly rare” since feminist gains—from workplace antidiscrimination measures to the fall of prohibitions against same sex marriage— have made the legal distribution of rights and resources based on sex or gender classification untenable (Currah 2022, 24). As legal victories transformed the relationship of law to gender, he writes, debates about abortion and sex classification have . . . allowed conservatives to “re-prosecute the gender wars in the legal arena” (Currah 2022, 24). Thinking with Currah and Matthiessen, we might consider how the sheer variety of administrative and legal definitions of sex, but also abortion—what sorts, if any, merit legal support (up to 6 weeks? 12 weeks? until the moment of birth?)—across institutions and geographies index far reaching disputes about what kind of public will deserve what kinds of state support. This unevenness ensures that the debates at hand remain live ones, subject to revisiting and capable of contouring much more than trans livability or abortion access,5 including public negotiations of race and other technologies of social and economic inequality.6 

All of this is world ordering stuff that requires, I think, a closer look at how legal and governance structures and especially the affective logics they enable can create a US geography where maps of states that have passed laws that would ban abortion almost mirror those that have passed anti-trans bans. This requires examining not only the many legal definition of sex or the impact of framing abortion debates through choice, but also, as I have elaborated elsewhere, the mechanisms and concepts of law that draw these issues together, even as the many faces of the state may in fact make different faces and enact different policies or practices.7 Instead of tracking the many and conflicting political definitions or outcomes of trans and abortion, what follows instead turns towards the concepts—themselves contested—that animate law and help connect abortion issues to trans ones. Terms, for example, like privacy or autonomy, have similar but nonidentical meanings in and out of law and have differing relationships to social and state power as a result. What I am interested in here is the need to consider the interplay in legal times and social times of these concepts and, most importantly, to consider this an engine of social reproduction. By legal time, I mean how law narrativizes the past to justify the present through precedent—a rule established previously and authorized to apply to “similar” concerns in the future. (Functionally, this can amount to something like “what the law says is what the law always said”). Legal time, and its administrative implementation, can be out of step with social times (the lived understandings of these concepts). In the coincidences of legal and social times, the social imaginaries required for literal social reproduction are produced, but tracing their noncoincidence—how such concepts are deployed at different moments—shows something about how change occurs. This includes, for example, how socio-cultural rubrics of choice engage with established legal foundations that regulate and govern the juridical frameworks of choice. 

There are and will be many ways to explore such often-sidelined legal functions, but here, I want to focus on one: the invocation of privacy or “the private” in these matters. This involves both the cultural politics and jurisprudence of “the private”—of the supposedly personal matters of sex, reproduction, and the home, that by virtue of being expressly “not public” have often been considered (in theory, not practice) as existing beyond state interference. The juridical and social notion of privacy matters for how we think about this particular anti-trans legislation and anti-abortion convergence and what might come afterwards. 

The legal concept of privacy either expressly underlies or nonetheless contours both arms of the convergence. In the case of abortion, this can be seen directly in the clamor surrounding substantive due process—an interpretative theory used to secure a right to privacy, which is not constitutionally protected, and which is the foundation of the erstwhile constitutional right to abortion. Due process and legal histories of personal liberty and bodily freedom are the legal terrain on which Roe and its notion of choice is birthed and then founders—modified by cases like Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (505 US 833, 1992), Gonzales v. Carhart (550 U.S. 124, 2007), and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. (127 S. Ct. 1610, 2007)—before Dobbs overturns it entirely. Dobbs, then, is not simply the opposite or antithesis of abortion rights. It is instead a way to curtail and curb specific interpretations of substantive due process that offer more expansive visions of the public good and that can engage other national histories and emerge from on-the-ground struggle—even as those engagements fall short of undoing distributive injustice, dispossession, exploitation, and the ravages of colonialism and empire.

In anti-trans and/or anti-queer legislation, the rhetoric of privacy—in excess of legal definitions—comes into play in a couple of ways. It emerges, for example, when questions arise of whether a private decision like gender or sexual identity is worthy of meriting public state financial support and protection. Parental rights and authority, cast as private family making decisions also enter the frame as a check on state power and the erstwhile private choices of others. If, for example, kids can’t be exposed to queer/trans people per the dictates of their religious parents, should parental rights to family making be able to be overridden by state defense of bodily autonomy, right to privacy, or choice? Shadowing all of this is the question of who gets to decide, legally speaking, what a right to privacy functionally is—the federal government or the states—and thus what versions of it will be protected and in which places. This matters for how the many splintered definitions of sex or abortion function within various scales and architectures of law and administration. It matters also for the stories told about what’s at stake—what histories, “deeply rooted,” precede these presents, what histories and what presents will birth what futures. If the one history, one nation under god, one people is the narrative on offer8— emboldened and more deeply entrenched through Dobbs’—then in this narrative privacy becomes the litmus of a punishing morality ordered by a folksy insistence that people “here” don’t want big government abortion, even as the decimation of the Voting Rights Act and gerrymandering make what elections might signal more than questionable, less than straightforward—corrupt. If choice as a framework for abortion enables state neglect and generates unseen family making labor—these things go together—then how things go together matters. When the older frameworks of sex as crime (from sodomy bans to criminalization of gay or trans life) slide into care and then when neglect and neglected reproductive and medical/care and labor slip into crime, law functions as a contraceptive device for the state—one that controls what publics and what public possibilities are able to be conceived, carried, and born. Following privacy as a legal and cultural concept is one way to trace how the term accrues many meanings as it moves through mouths and screens and texts and codification across the many kinds and scales of law and back again, as it crosses party and state lines, until “red” and “blue” speak the same words in unison: life matters. Whose life, what life, where, when, and how—always the questions. 

What now of Tim’s exegesis of reproduction, the dreams of reproduction on different terms? How might that story now unfold, post-Dobbs, when the material coordinates of be gay, do crime, have shifted? When be gay, do crime9 Removing reproduction from the realm of direct oppression and domination (the state says yes, the state says no) foregrounds the rage and creativity and workarounds of people who live “at the margins,” who are not the model family, which is mostly white, nuclear, and perhaps above all, privately resourced with no avowed need of state financial assistance or oversight.

In turn, “the state’s lack of investment ensures family is seen as a private burden and that those who fail to meet the demands of this endeavor have only themselves to blame” (Matthiesen 2022, 14). What this suggests is that emotional and intellectual attachments or interests in family making are ordered by the valorization of choice and whether the choices one makes—to apply for welfare, to have multiple children that “you” can’t afford—comport to the prevailing notion of responsible decision-making. In this way Matthiesen shows how the disavowal of care as labor by ordinary people and by the state is structured by the concept of choice, a socio-legal concept that carries force and weight beyond formal legal arenas. This is an important move that furthers not only feminist historiographies of reproduction, but also deepens and enhances work in queer and trans materialisms that retheorizes relationships between sex, gender, and governance in ways that don’t take bodies, identities, states or markets at face value.10 Bringing Matthiesen into the anti-trans/anti-abortion convergence of 2022 is thus to follow the mutable, visceral connections between people and how such connections are enacted through concepts that are juridical but also intensely social—like choice. 

In the wake of Dobbs, the conceptual arc of Matthiesen’s project drives us to the present’s rawest edges: what political possibilities and impossibilities does a politics of choice create? And also: what ideas of collectivity, common sense, or public good (who is the public and what is good for it and about it) are engendered by a politics of choice, when the “end” of abortion collides with the spate of anti-transgender legislation that now characterizes contemporary right wing political projects—the coordinates in which the possibility of family and family making now occur? Both abortion bans and anti-transgender laws are attempts to remove some “decisions” about what a body may do to itself from the realm of privatized choice—especially when it requires state financial assistance.11 Both are a defense of a “public” that cannot accommodate those erstwhile individual “choices.” 

In response, we might follow the socio-legal concepts that bolster choice frameworks—privacy, but also bodily autonomy, self-possession and ownership—and mark how affective attachments to those concepts and their embeddedness within legal processes (jurisdictional, administrative) play out as things change and the concepts flex and adapt. We might think of reproduction alongside feminist science studies scholars like Michelle Murphy (2011, 22–23), whose concept of “distributed reproduction” stretches beyond family making to consider “reproductive politics—and the question of what is reproduction—as a struggle over ontology” that requires “tracking the dispersion of sexed living being into its infrastructural and political economic milieu.” And we might also consider explorations of care within queer and transgender studies that understand theorizations of gender, sex and trans as inextricably entangled with “the histories and futures of racial capitalism” (Aizura et al 2020, 128). 

In overarching national narratives and lived experience, changes in what it means to care or work or transgress in turn change how we imagine ourselves within this moment’s redistributions of risk and insecurity. These alter, in a word, our politics,12 including our relationship to “the” state. 

We might then read the exhortation to be gay, do crime not through a framework of unswerving transgression in lockstep with fixed identity and state domination, but through a focus care work and the shadow work of law’s abiding concepts, the structures and terms of freedom. This approach builds on Matthiesen’s focus on family making and the additional labors generated by state neglect and a politics of choice by explicitly rejecting ahistorical framings that gloss over how the force of law maneuvers through not only conflicting sites of state power, but also the concepts so often used to name what we often deem good, or at least, not univocally bad—concepts like rights, choice, privacy, autonomy. These terms bind us obscurely by claiming to be obvious. Through them, we become “the public,” decisions are made in our name: for “the public good.” These binds are engines and infrastructures of reproduction. Concepts like rights, choice, privacy, and autonomy lay the conditions of thought necessary to make, maintain, generationally replace—but also as they accrue and shift in meaning over time, places to engage, repurpose, and alter—arrangements of self, state, and family that we are taught to name as our own.

Right, privacy, choice, and other concepts gain meaning in the thick of social and political life. The “end” of abortion and uptick in anti-trans/queer legislation occurs alongside attacks on the voting rights, the erosion of indigenous sovereignty (a transnational engagement), and the further empowerment of private corporations—this is the 2022 Supreme Court docket. And it gives us a certain view of how the dogged legislative and judicial undermining of the erstwhile welfare state, itself a settler colonial ambition, continues to unfold through manipulations of the terms of reproduction (rights, privacy, choice, etc.) and the recognition of reproductive work—which at their core are redefinitions of who or what can be considered part of a “public” worth reproducing.13 

One of Reproduction Reconceived’s most influential inheritances is the concept and critique of queerness laid out in political theorist Cathy Cohen’s enduring 1997 article, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” In it, Cohen takes up the limits of a politics of inclusion premised on state and social recognition of previously maligned identities, namely the gay or queer—the not straight. Cohen makes a forceful claim: that gender and sexual norms activated through the state and law—ones that denied enslaved peoples the right to raise their children; ones that punish Black, poor mothers who have children outside of marriage—effectively “queer” the lives and practices of many who might fall outside a conception of the term that is overly focused on sexual identity. Cohen (1997, 463) begins with this understanding in the hopes that such a discussion might offer “a starting point for reassessing the shape of queer/lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender politics as we approach the twenty-first century.” Cohen thus offers a theoretical proposition—how is your public made and unmade, how are your groups and movements made and unmade, by state support, oppression, or neglect—that Matthiesen happily engages. That engagement makes a path for thinking how neglect and criminalization are reconfigured at the end of Roe—the terms newly and jointly active, converging, splitting, and recombining. These alterations in turn will change the material and lived meaning of other words we claim as our own—words like feminist, transgender, nonbinary, and gay—and consequently alter the relations and meanings that circulate beneath and between them. 

State neglect makes labor offloaded by the state, privatized, and classified as something other than work. This includes the myriad activities—feeding, clothing, but also securing protective relationships and the norms or patterns that let us think and imagine how things fit together or relate—that make the reproduction of self and “family” possible. State neglect makes affective work. The labor of learning to care awaits—or maybe first, the labor of not taking offense. For example, Matthiessen recounts a discussion over homosexual and interracial relationships that occurs as a doctor considers the ethics of artificial insemination by donor for a lesbian couple. The “ethical aspects of homosexuality” and the “ethical aspects of interracial relationships” both factor into his consideration (Matthiesen 2021, 53). Care work must occur to make these considerations thinkable or necessary or unthinkable and unnecessary. Attachments to privacy, choice, and the inherited language of justice are implicated in these dense relational thickets.14

Matthiesen’s analysis primes us to consider not only the failure of rights as legal structures made of abstract promises to ensure better distributions of resources and life chances, but also how those failures inform the moment’s infrastructures15—or “the movement or patterning of social form [and is] the living mediation of what organizes life: the lifeworld of structure” (Berlant 2016, 393). New and emerging infrastructures of sex, reproduction, and transgression come to echo, manage, and at times transform the old ones. Thought through this reproductive reckoning, be gay, do crime might well be or become more than a response to the US class politics of the subdued neoliberal queer who builds a home stuffed with kids and a white picket fence on the familiar settler terrain of liberal inclusion—gay marriage and pink washing and rainbow capitalism. In the midst of bans and threats—from abortion to gay or interracial marriage and birth control—old “visceral” connections are revitalized as new ones emerge between the many sorts of bodies subject to state neglect and control.16 Thinking through be gay, do crime, but not automatically fixing what either directive could mean spotlights the convergence between anti-trans/anti-gay state legislative initiatives and abortion politics at the end of Roe, where enhanced protections and utter destruction17 proceed hand in hand under the auspices of law and legal reasoning, often using the same words: privacy, public interest, rights.

Care as Crime, Care as Gay

After decades of law and policy listing in other directions—Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. 644 (2015)), Lawrence v. Texas (539 U.S. 558 (2003)), Griswold v. Connecticut (381 U.S. 479 (1965))—Dobbs is widely considered a shift in the winds, one that threatens to blow down the meaning of privacy and the integrity of the legal system. President Biden had this to say about it:

It concerns me a great deal that, after 50 years, we’re going to decide that a woman doesn’t have the right to choose … But even more equally profound is the rationale used — and it would mean that every other decision relating to the notion of privacy is thrown into question. . . . Roe recognized the fundamental right to privacy that has served as the basis for so many more rights that — we’ve come to take for granted that are engrained in the fabric of this country — the right to make the best decisions for your health, the right to use birth control, the right to privacy of a couple in their bedroom, for God’s sake, the right to marry the person you love. Justice Thomas said as much today, he explicitly called to reconsider the right of marriage equality, the right of couples to make their choices on contraception. This is an extreme and dangerous path that the court is now taking us on. (Watson 2022)

If post-Dobbs, transgender healthcare, gay marriage, and birth control are all on the chopping block at the federal level, what connections and identifications are now happening within, between, and beneath those terms and concepts—trans and gay? Care and privacy?[14] What is reproduction if not a long patterning, a way of saying these things go together and together and together and again and again and again? And how they go together—another question.

 Law and its languages—fragmented yet interactive across national, international, state, and local jurisdictions and venues—does some big work here.

The concept of privacy, a legal inheritance, structures such reproduction, such going-togetherness. In law, privacy comes alive alongside a particular legal theory: substantive due process. Substantive due process is an interpretative theory—one that stakes its authority not in rights explicitly enumerated within the Constitution, but in the notion that there are unnamed and unlisted rights that are necessary for guaranteed rights to be made meaningful.18 As Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the Supreme Court in Griswold, “specific guarantees in the bill of rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” Much of the legal history of sex, race, reproduction unfurls in these shadows, relegated to the dark-furred edges of rights. Now, as Biden tells it, look at what is at stake as privacy falls—contraception, gay marriage, interracial marriage, and more. But say privacy and substantive due process three times fast and what holds contraception and gay and interracial marriage together is not a clear and obvious notion, legal or cultural, of privacy. 

There is another privacy, one that gains its force through a particularly totalizing history and politics. Anton Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas in many ways figured this other privacy and prefigured the present political moment and it did so through shadow claims, casting penumbras of its own. In that dissent, in what Alito calls morality, we might recognize a historical legal infrastructure, a scaffold on which to build—produce and reproduce—a particular sort of public invested in a particular definition of privacy. In 2003, at the moment that the US Supreme Court held that adults are “free” to engage in private conduct in the exercise of their liberty under the Due Process Clause, Alito responded with typical alarm and arrogance. His fears weren’t over privacy per se, but morality: 

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ [the 1986 Supreme Court case declaring no constitutional right to engage in sodomy, overturned by Lawrence] validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision…The impossibility of distinguishing homosexuality from other traditional “morals” offenses is precisely why Bowers rejected the rational-basis challenge. “The law,” it said, “is constantly based on notions of morality, and if all laws representing essentially moral choices are to be invalidated under the Due Process Clause, the courts will be very busy indeed.”

Here, the notion of privacy and the theory of substantive due process are locked tightly with “morality.” As much as Alito might want that morality to be constant and unchanging—anchoring a long, lone, and legible national history—morality as legal rhetoric is anything but.19 At this moment, “morality” claims are forged, interpreted, and clarified alongside the subsequent strengthening of (Christian) religious freedom, with prior attacks on trans life, with the perpetual attempts to gerrymander election districts, with bombs dropping elsewhere, and above all perhaps, with the national pastime of perpetuating collective insecurity in the name of individual freedoms, Dobbs reads less like a break and more of a culmination and consolidation of what was already slouching our way. 

Morality and the strengthening of religious freedoms will prevent certain Supreme Court decisions that involve privacy or substantive due process from utter dissolution. This includes cases like Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), which advances a liberty interest in a parent’s or guardian’s right to decide the mode in which their children are educated. Pierce significantly and famously expanded the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to recognize such personal civil liberties and was cited as precedent in Roe. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997), which held that state prohibitions against causing or aiding a suicide do not violate the Due Process Clause, will also be differentiated from Roe, not simply on the grounds that pregnancy is a unique issue. Glucksberg, like Dobbs, turned on whether the asserted right was “objectively deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Here, there is the fantasy of one national history and one national tradition, both particular and everlasting, despite the presence of a contravening legal record. Glucksberg’s dismissal in Obgerfell in favor of a more expansive interpretation of what substantive due process entails cannot, in this view, be evidence of other histories or traditions—it can only be evidence of partisan refusal. The revival of Glucksberg in Dobbs is the correction, the righting of “tradition.” Jack Fitzhenry, writing for the Heritage Foundation, says as much: 

As Alito made amends for the Supreme Court’s past mistakes, he acknowledged that the court in Roe “could have said of abortion exactly what Glucksberg said of assisted suicide: ‘Attitudes toward [abortion] have changed . . . but our laws have consistently condemned, and continue to prohibit, [that practice]’” (2022).

 The fantasy of “a” history and a singular guiding “morality”—something higher and distinct from “attitudes”—matters.

The summoning of morality, of ostensibly “traditional” morals, as Reproduction Reconceived helps demonstrate, involves real and imagined relationships between people, the state, the many dimensions of care, and work. Alito’s morality is so much grease on the slide from “pro-choice” to “gay” to “do crime”: try to care enough to help yourself or someone else receive reproductive or gender affirming medical care and you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Sex as crime becomes care as crime. Matthiesen makes clear that pushback, the call for reproductive justice, must confront structures and infrastructures that lionize choice—that sever the concept of choice from the structures, histories, and hidden labors that enable the idea that choice is fundamentally an individual, even private or internal, negotiation and not something bolstered by the political and economic operations of the state. 

If Alito’s long patterning leads to a fantastical, boot-strapped public morality in thrall to a Christ on a cross made of empire’s money20these things go together and together and together and again and again and again—then Matthiessen offers a persuasive counter: focus on how people live and the labors they must do, the differential burdens bequeathed by a neglectful, violent state as gauge of what is moral and what is good. This is different than focusing solely on who these overburdened people “are”—made poor or Brown or Black or gay or trans or even, pace Alito, incestuous animal lovers—but it does not undo or ignore who is hardest hit by histories of state oppression and neglect. Still, political meaning cannot pivot on state designed and enforced deprivation presenting as a crisis of national conscience fueled by failures of personal morality that are increasingly framed as those “looking for a handout” or making a bad “choice.” Instead of we are who we are as a basis for politics, Matthiesen offers something more like we are who and where and when we are—not without “choice” per se or necessarily, but where choice is rerouted and rooted in the recognition of particular and particularly conjoined labors and care, tethered through diffuse, differential, and changeable relationships to a diffuse and at time contradictory state power that nonetheless determines access to state resources and wealth.21 

Future Imperatives

I hear the phrase be gay, do crime—colloquial, loose, and imprecise—a lot in my classroom, where students deploy it much as some academic literature deploys the term queer: as a rejection of well-known and theorized collusions between sex/gender identity claims and state power, from pinkwashing to the class and racial antagonisms that have driven some iterations of “gay rights.”22 Sometimes they sub out gay for trans or use other words in other languages, mixing the meme to meet them where they are: in California, at a state school—many of them international, first gen, or DACA, some indigenous—trying on words, keeping or discarding them, adding other words to them, changing what they mean. Be gay—less a stable identity claim and more of a path to other words or a chance to test Global North frameworks of “sexuality” or “the body” or “gender,” generating in the process other unpredictable connections, surfacing neglected geopolitical histories, relations, and politics.23 

Do crime gets less explicit attention, but no less of an embrace. Perhaps the residues of sexual criminalization here in the US and in whatever histories they carry with them remain vivid, despite the legal embrace of gay marriage and various sorts of antidiscrimination provisions across international, federal, state, and local law. Or maybe the rebellious, sexual outlaw seems relevant, possible, and appealing—but I don’t think outsider status drives these students. Something else guides their orientation and that something else is labor—theirs, their parents’, friends’, and relatives’. Their take on labor is a lived understanding of the failure of neoliberalism, US settler empire, and capitalism to secure even the thin promise of civil rights and its group protections—this is crime, not simply what law designates as criminal. They are post-Occupy, post-Bernie, post-2008 recession, post-big corporate bailout. They knuckle under student debt. They are coming of age while headlines tell of kids who look like them, who sometimes have crossed the same borders, in cages. They may want to be middle class professionals, doctors, lawyers, or engineers, they may want a “normal” life, but they will tell you: they want it on different terms—ones that offer more than the sort of “inclusion” that reproduces the death-making extravagances of dominant power, even if the terms they use to describe what they want—terms like autonomy or privacy or freedom—carry their own fraught histories, ones that can run counter to the need invoked by their expression. 

None of this is to say that all students come to class—or exit it—with a fine-grained analysis of the politics of identity and political economy, but it is to think about how attachments to certain words or concepts can be thought to index particular political alignments and how shifty and unstable those connections are. And it is to think, too, about how change over time/s—the historical method—might be elaborated through closer attention to terms that can seem rooted to the spot. Just as queer isn’t always politically potent; gay isn’t always defanged. Crime alongside them doesn’t always signal the valorization of the sexual outsider and the privilege of transgression. And what any single word descriptor (gay or queer or trans or any adjacent term) says about a presumed political orientation or political constituency is anyone’s guess.

We are who and where and when we are. 

For now, in the US, we are here: 

Here, where strangers offer strangers “camping trips” across state lines.

Here, where a collective choice to recognize and value care and the labors of care, from incarcerated mothers to the Global South contingent of nannies and surrogates and nurses—to enter anew the old dream of reproduction on different terms—might upend governance as we know it or at least knock it off balance for a minute.

Here again with Tim’s kid and her memes, the unsettled and unsettling meanings of sex, gender, race, and reproduction—of public and public good—made again through Tim’s telling, made again by the students: a place to start rethinking care work’s many relations and investments along with law’s shadow work, what ties the family making body to the operations of the state.

The memes are coordinates that may briefly catch these historical movements. 

Their imperatives direct, but also disorient, point us towards, but also between and beneath the words: be gay, do crime.


Aizura, Aren Z., Marquis Bey, Toby Beauchamp, Treva Ellison, Jules Gill-Peterson, and Eliza Steinbock. 2020. “Thinking with trans now.” Social Text 38 (4): 125–47. 

Berlant, Lauren. 2016. “The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, (3): 393-419.

 Chapter, Casey. 2022. “Leon County School Board Approves LGBTQ Guide After Fierce Debate.” Tallahassee Democrat. June 29, 2022.

 Cohen, Cathy. 1997. “Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens: The radical potential of queer politics? GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 3 (4): 437–65. 

 Currah, Paisley. 2022. Sex is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity. New York: New York University Press.

 Davis, Angela Y. 1983. Women, Race, Class. New York: Vintage.

 Duggan, Lisa. 2003. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. New York: Beacon Press.

 Fitzhenry, Jack. 2022. “Alito’s Telling Approach to Substantive Due Process.” The Heritage Foundation. July 7, 2022.

Gans, Ariel. “Will California become a refuge for transgender health care?” Cal Matters. August 30, 2022.

Gill-Peterson, Jules. 2018. Histories of the Transgender Child. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 Gillis-Buck, Eva Mae. 2016. “Redefining ‘Virgin Birth’After Kaguya: Mammalian Parthenogenesis in Experimental Biology, 2004-2014.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2, (1): 1–68.

 Jaffe, Sarah. 2020. “Social Reproduction and the Pandemic, with Tithi Battacharya. Dissent. April 2, 2020.

 Jaleel, Rana M. 2021. The Work of Rape. Durham: Duke University Press.

 Jones II, Arthur & Aaron Navarro. 2022. “This Year on Pace to See Record Anti-Transgender Bills Passed by States, Says Human Rights Campaign.” CBS News. April 22, 2022. “

 Lowe, Lisa. 2015. The Intimacies of Two Continents. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lugones, María. 2007. “Heterosexism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.” Hypatia 22, (1): 187–209. 

 Malatino, Hil. 2020. Trans Care. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ttps://

 Melamed, Jodi and Chandan Reddy. 2019. “Using Liberal Rights to Enforce Racial Capitalism.” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences. July 30, 2019.

 Margolis, Michele F. 2018. “From Politics to the Pews.” In From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 Morgan, Jennifer L. 2022. “Reproductive Rights, Slavery, and Dobbs v. Jackson.” Black Perspectives. August 2, 2022.

 Murphy, Michelle. 2011. “Distributed Reproduction.” In Corpus, pp. 21–38. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 Nash, Elizabeth, Lauren Cross, & Joerg Dreweke. 2022. “2022 State Legislative Sessions: Abortion Bans and Restrictions on Medication Abortion Dominate.” March 16, 2022.

 The New York Times. 2022. “Tracking the States Where Abortion is Now Banned,” August 26, 2022.

 Oishe, Isabella. 2022. “Legal Vigilantism: A Discussion of the New Wave of Abortion Restrictions and the Fugitive Slave Acts.” Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law XXIII, no. 3 (Spring).

 Politico. 2022. “Gavin Newsom promotes California as abortion sanctuary on red-state billboards.”

Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press.

 Puar, Jasbir. 2017. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press.

 Rao, Rahul. 2020. Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Schuller, Kyla. 2018. The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and the Science of the Nineteenth Century. Durham: Duke University Press.

 Snorton, C. Riley. 2017. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 Sosin, Kate. 2022. “How Did Trans People Become a GOP Target? Experts Say It’s All About Keeping Evangelicals Voting.” The 19th. May 17, 2022.

 Sullivan, Becky. 2022. “A New Lawsuit is Challenging Florida Medicaid’s Exclusion of Transgender Health Care.” NPR. September 7, 2022.

 Tortorici, Danya. 2022. “Your Body, My Choice: The Movement to Criminalize Abortion.” n + 1 Magazine 43 (Summer 2022).

 Valentine, David. 2007. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Durham: Duke University Press.

Watson, Kathryn. 2022. “’This is Not Over,’ Biden Says after Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade.” CBS News. June 24, 2022.

Ziegler, Mary. 2022. Reproduction and the Constitution in the United States. New York: Routledge.

  1. Parthenogenesis comes from the Greek for “virgin birth,” but that is not it’s only usage or meaning. For an account of the ever-changing scientific language of parthenogenesis, see Eva Mae Gillis-Buck’s “Redefining ‘Virgin Birth’After Kaguya: Mammalian Parthenogenesis in Experimental Biology, 2004-2014.”

  2. As of this writing, bans are winding their way through state legislatures and have made it through at least one legislative chamber in seven states: Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Bans are enacted in all of those states (save West Virginia). See Nash, Elizabeth, Lauren Cross, & Joerg Dreweke.

  3. “First, enslavers could sue anyone ‘who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder’ the enslaver from seizing the fugitive enslaved person, or who ‘shall rescue, harbor, or conceal such persons after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labor’ for $500.39 Second, the Act gave enslavers the ability to recover damages in a tort action from anyone who interfered with their “right of property’ to the individuals they enslaved” (Oishe 2022). In addition, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act ‘commanded all good citizens…to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of [the Fugitive Slave Act], whenever their services may be required.’ This provision, which attached a fine of $1,000 for failing to assist, deputized the entire population to recover fugitive enslaved individuals” (Oishe 2022).

  4. In the Leon County guidebook, sexual identity and gender identity aren’t clearly parsed. There is something familiar here in this categorical instability. In 2007, David Valentine described how in the US of the1990s, transgender identification came to be understood as ontologically distinct from homosexuality, subsequently supporting distinctions in academics and activism between the sexed body, social gender, and sexuality, which “changed the terms by which U.S. Americans understand and differentiate between gendered and sexual variance”(4). For Valentine, transgender arose “out of a realignment—contested as it may be—of the kinds of individuals who see themselves or are seen as being part of the collectivity, and who were previously accounted for by other terms including ‘homosexuality,’ ‘transexuality,’ and ‘transvestism’” (37). Such realignment must be understood “in the context of broader changes in U.S. American understandings of identity politics, the body, and embodied identities in the late twentieth century” which are themselves in turn “shaped by shifts in neoliberal capitalist modes of production and consumption where ‘difference’ can be exploited as a market niche as much as enabling new forms of subjectivity.” (36).

  5. Scholarship in critical ethnic, queer, and trans studies has found that rules and policies often marshalled as evidence of animus towards a group of people to be complex in their motivations. Administrative and juridical designations of sex, for example, “often have had much more to do with the specific context, with the role of the person being classified—worker, incarcerated person, parent, spouse, voter, social service client—than with any larger scientific or philosophical position on what “sex”—as in male or female—really is (Currah 2022, 15). Matthiesen’s work on lesbian mother, assisted reproductive technologies, and paternity claims illustrates this point with great clarity, as I will discuss.

  6. As Kyla Schuller (2018, 17) writes, “binary sex does not exist in parallel or intersecting dimension with race. Rather, the rhetoric of distinct sexes of male and female consolidate as a function of race.” See also Lugones 2007, detailing how the gender binary emerged within the colonial invention of racial difference. For more on the imbrications of sex/gender/race, see Snorton 2017; Gill-Peterson 2018.

  7. I elaborate this method, what I call “law beyond Law,” in The Work of Rape, which shows how legal practice itself is a material process of theorizing injury and evidence—one necessary for understanding contemporary iterations of global dispossession, exploitation, and “identity.” This method infuses analysis of legal processes and concepts that produce law into any attempt to assess the impact of law itself. Such concepts include privacy and autonomy, but also theories of punishment, liability and jurisdiction, that implicate larger histories and, crucially, other subjects than the juridical treatment of the single issue, like rape or sex or abortion.

  8. Whether the language is “one god, on nation” or not, privacy and other terms and concepts associated with the Western language of justice are ones inherited from colonial institutions and must be thought through with this recognition in mind (Lowe 2015).

  9. might mean, I think, something different than it did just a short while ago? Be gay, do crime placed at the current abortion/transgender political nexus might give a few possibilities—maybe not full answers, maybe not proper responses, but a way to think about how what they told you was or was not private is or is not now a crime.

    Making the Public Good, Making the Good Public: Choice after Roe, Choice after Dobbs

    In legal circles and on the streets, as Matthiesen is quick to note, family making is almost exclusively discussed as a question of choice: Will you choose to become pregnant? And if you find yourself having conceived, will you have the child? Will you exercise your erstwhile right to be free of pregnancy? But what has this politics of reproductive choice—an incessantly individualized choice about one’s own individual body—enabled? For Matthiesen, the question of “choice” is not only a question of who gets to make the call about what a person can or cannot do with their body. This is not only a matter of dueling slogans—“my body, my choice” versus, as Danya Tortorici (2022) recently termed it, “your body, my choice.” The fervor surrounding choice is also an opportunity to follow the action and track meaning-making in progress, as labor, care, and reproduction together are defined, refined, and redefined. And it is, too, a chance to stake out what slides around underneath those shifting terms—the contingent meanings and relationships between words like body, crime, public, state, yours, mine. 

    While Tortorici (2022) and others ask, “what motivates the criminalization of abortion if not an invidiously discriminatory animus against women and people interpellated as women by the Court?,” Matthiesen takes another tack. Reproduction Reconceived follows the route between whatever the state offers—including formal rights guarantees—and what people do to make it right, the labors they undertake to live some version of what they want amid the unstable histories in which they find themselves. For Matthiesen, those historical moments include a bracing account of Roe that extends beyond the fights over the right to abortion. Matthiesen instead names and evaluates how the 1976 ruling posed family making as a choice and turns a clear eye on what that framing has wrought. For Matthiesen, the emphasis on a person’s “choice” whether or not to have a baby papers over real questions of access, options, and social positioning. From lesbian family making at the twentieth century’s end to the concurrent US prison boom and plight of incarcerated mothers, the notion that “choice=motherhood”—or better yet parenthood—is, as Matthiesen (2021, 188) writes, “fatally flawed.” That equation posits reproductive choice as the ability to not have children. Setting the debate on those terms emphasizes, as many studies have done, “economic insecurity following a child’s birth solely as evidence of the necessity of accessible abortion” and not also “evidence of just how resource- and labor-intensive having and raising children is as a rule, and of the costs that befall families who cannot meet the demands of parenting on their own” (Matthiesen 2021, 188). It skirts the question, as Angela Y. Davis (1983) noted years ago, of who gets to have children and keep them—of who gets to make and keep kin in a world of slavery, genocide, and empire. When to have or not to have a baby is the beginning and the end of the inquiry, family making and care are cast as personal decisions that belie how they are socially necessary and intensive forms of work—work that not everyone is able or allowed to take up in the same ways, if at all. 

    While this point is well rehearsed, Matthiesen shows it bears repeating: frameworks of animus or discrimination miss the range and complexity of state power’s operations. In Matthiesen’s analysis, reproductive violence or coercion are not only evidenced in targeted state regulatory campaigns and flat-footed violence aimed and fired at specific peoples or groups, but also from within a more diffuse system of state neglect. In this account, “neglect [is not] a foregone conclusion, but instead [becomes] the prevailing norm through the repetition of decisions that cumulatively limited the state’s role in supporting family making (Matthiesen 2021, 18). In the first chapter, for example, Matthiesen reads lesbian and other non-traditional forms of family making not solely through a history of active animus, of gay oppression by a violent, purposeful hand, but through this concept of state neglect by accrual and the often-unacknowledged additional labors that such neglect generates. Matthiesen explains how an application by a lesbian mother for state financial assistance in the 1980s triggers state inquiries into paternity because fatherhood is, in the states view, the bearer of financial obligation and support. Discrimination is in this account rooted in a financial issue (the state will not take on the financial burden of the father) and a labor problem (lesbian motherhood includes navigating the state obsession with paternity and the rights that inhere in fatherhood). What gets recognized as discrimination can in this way be a symptom of state relationships to the unrecognized and unsupported labor of care work.[footnote]Matthiesen’s concept of state neglect draws many sorts of families and family making practices together through state neglect’s proliferation additional work. Lesbian and single mothers must work to make themselves legible to the state; they undertake “the labor of illegibility.” Labor links lesbians and single mothers to others who must take on additional work to make their families. Incarcerated mother and their children must contend with care and family making despite state interference; they undertake “the labors of captivity.” Family-making during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s also involved managing risk of disease in the context of state refusal to provide; those families undertook “the labor of risk.” Finally, the abortion debates left people without access to the resources necessary to make family on their own managing “the labor of choice.”

  10. Reproduction Reconceived does not confine itself to traditional family forms—lesbian and incarcerated mothers are both subjects that receive deliberate and careful attention. But the identity of the mothers is not the endpoint—how state law and governance puts different burdens on and creates additional labor for some families who are not privately resourced is the argument.

  11. See, for example, Florida’s attempt to excise gender-affirming health care for transgender people from its state Medicaid program; treatments for non-transgender patients would still be covered (Sullivan 2022).

  12. For Lauren Berlant (2016, 394), “the question of politics becomes identical with the reinvention of infrastructures for managing the unevenness, ambivalence, violence, and ordinary contingency of contemporary existence.” This would be, following Berlant (2016, 393), a comment on infrastructure, or “the movement or patterning of social form…the living mediation of what organizes life: the lifeworld of structure.” Mediation is critical in this telling, since it allows Berlant to make the claim that “the extension of relations in a certain direction cannot be conflated with the repair of what wasn’t working” [italics my own].

  13. “Public” here is a concept that can be filled in many ways and with many things as long as it lets one relate to others, beyond oneself, as a part. Making a public in this way involves multiple, not always aligned projects of excision and absorption—if not (or not always) calls for the direct elimination of Black people, then the elimination of concentrated voting populations; if not (or not always) explicit condemnation of LGBTQ people, then the refusal to support LGBTQ sensitive education or care and the domestication of an overtly destabilizing queer/trans politics[7]; if not (or not always) outright indigenous genocide, then the brute (criminal) jurisdictional grab backed by Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s claim in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta (597 US _ (2022) that “Indian country is part of the State, not separate from the State.”

  14. Feminist neglect might be a way to describe scholarship that, as Hil Malatino (2020) writes, drawing from dialogue with with Aren Azuira and others, does not “substantively address queer and trans forms of care labor, instead centering women’s domestic labor within heteronormative households, naturalizing a set of values from such labor, then extrapolating and exploring the deprioritization of those values in the public sphere.”While Matthiesen’s project does not only or exclusively concern queer/trans peoples or scholarship, Matthiesen, gives a way to think about care work, kinship, and family making from “a different set of locations and relations” (Malatino 2020) that includes, but does not overemphasize the significance of the traditionally gendered home—or perhaps finds home in places like prisons, finds home wherever family is made.

  15. To see the difference between structure and infrastructure, Lauren Berlant’s definitions are instructive. Per Berlant, structure is “that which organizes transformation” while infrastructure is “that which binds us to the world in movement and keeps the world practically bound to itself” (2016, 394).

  16. To see this is to encounter another place to begin, another way to seize the means of reproduction. This framework compliments Paisley Currah’s (2022, xvi, xvii) work, which does not seek “categorical coherence” of terms like trans or gay, but instead considers how “the work of states is to make distinctions among people, objects, and action” and what comes from the splintered “rationales of governance” rather than “the ontological foundations for sex reclassification.”

  17. See footnote 2.

  18. Such protections are grounded in the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Privacy, for example, while not listed as a guaranteed constitutional right, is thought integral for enumerated rights such as the Fourth Amendments’ right to be free from unreasonable searches in one’s home, the First Amendment’s right to free assembly, the Fifth Amendment’s protections against self-incrimination, or the Third Amendment’s guarantee that no one will be made to shelter soldiers in their home (at least during times of “peace”). Substantive due process thus allows protection to be extended to unenumerated rights that can be inferred from the “penumbras,” the shadows cast by rights that are listed and named. In those dense and underdefined places, we see the joinings of all that substantive due process would secure—the many faces of social reproduction—beyond identity-based claims to state protection, all that is held in relation through the concepts, structures, and infrastructures of law.

  19. The morality of abortion alone is a case study in elite driven change over time. For historical work on the elite push to create a legal and moral issue out of abortion, see Zeigler 2022; Margolis 2018.

  20. I am being glib—there are other Christian traditions.

  21. As Jodi Melamed and Chandan Reddy (2019) write, “We must recognize that the most vital social movement groups working on race, indigeneity, migration, and poverty currently are led by the very activists—predominantly queer women of color (e.g., Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, Marisa Franco, Monica Simpson)—who have long worked against administrative controls in public assistance, immigration, corrections, reproductive health, and other arenas. Importantly, their resistance re-assembles the disavowed scripts of collective violence and collective existence that administrative apparatuses seek to negate in their “individualizing” capture—they speak not in the idioms of individual rights to life, capital, or community but to collective social existence through the plural form, from #blacklivesmatter to #communitiesnotcages.”

  22. As much as queer studies has largely taken queer to be what is “never fully owned…[and instead always] queered from prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes” ” (Butler 1993, 19), queer studies has also increasingly paid attention to the divergent geopolitics and histories of its usage (see e.g., Arondekar and Patel 2016; Rao 2020; Savci 2021). This has at times has pushed queer out of the picture entirely “in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively” (Butler 1993, 19).

  23. As Duen Sacchi writes about colonization in the Americas and queer/trans theoretical conceptions of bodies and sexuality, “My life represents more moons and more suns than the colonial calendar could ever count. So are we even talking about the same body?” (Sacchi et al. 2021, 329). Ochy Curiel puts a finer point on it: “queerness (lo cuir) should not be a separate academic exercise; nor can it exist only in the critical analyses of gender and sexuality, because otherwise it is classist, racist, and therefore colonial” (Sacchi et al. 2021, 337).

Banu Subramaniam


In the Dark Shadows of the Tree of Life

Sexuality, Race, and Reproduction in the Botanical ImaginationBanu Subramaniam

I am not nostalgic for a country which doesn’t yet exist on a map. …I am not nostalgic. Belonging does not interest me. I had once thought that it did. Until I examined the underpinnings. One is misled when one looks at the sails and majesty of tall ships instead of their cargo.

Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return, 85

I was taught to be grateful for trees. In my botany classes, I discovered their indispensability to life on earth, their photosynthetic living releasing life sustaining oxygen into the atmosphere. Today, in an era of climate change, we are indebted to their ability to sequester carbon. In my everyday life, I learned to enjoy how the sensual scents and vibrant colors of their flowers luxuriated the senses. Their leaves, flowers, and fruits fed and nourished me. On many a hot summer day, I was grateful for how their shade offered comfort. Indian mythological stories of my childhood were filled with wondrous stories of magical trees. I had not contemplated the dark side of trees until I heard Billie Holiday sing Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit.” The sensuous poetry, the shocking imagery, the haunting melody, and the ethereal voice together discombobulated me, literally and viscerally. Listening to Holiday, I glimpsed into the horrors of the history of lynching, the song evoking the violence not only of the body, but also the spirit (Margolick, 2001). These days, I hear the hauntings of the ghostly spirits of “Strange Fruit” as I read about the rise of lynchings in India, the growing violence and intimidatory tactics against minorities, particularly Muslims. With time I have come to understand that the violence is more than the horrific reminder of the long brutal histories of slavery and colonization. They live on, they endure. As Sylvia Wynter reminds us, this history bespeaks the critical logics of empire that form the infrastructure of our political formations. They ground and shape western knowledge systems and undergird contemporary academic disciplines. “Race” in her conception is central to western humanism, a foundational anti-blackness we can trace to 1492. 

Thinking in the dark shadows of trees, I see so much of the history of botany and the contemporary plant sciences in a new light. They are cast anew, yet hauntingly familiar. In light of my botanical education, I have come to recognize that sex and reproduction are foundational to biology, the theoretical and biological core that explains the splendor of life on earth. Thinking in the dark shadows of trees, I now see how sex, sexuality, and reproduction are fundamentally deeply racialized as variables, structures, and indeed, infrastructures of domination.

The Tree of Life:

The figure of the tree looms large in biological classification. Not the biblical tree of life, but Darwin’s famous Tree of Life (TOL) that introduced his theory of descent with modification (Penny 2011). It began as a simple drawing that suggested that life on earth had evolved from ancient species that diverged over time much like tree branches from a single trunk. The figure of the tree has been central to our modern evolutionary imagination ever since. Exactly what form the tree takes—how many trunks it has, how, and how many times it branches—varies depending on the model of evolution, and the methods and philosophies behind the classificatory model. Whatever the model, evolutionary trees are usually presented with branching structures, where the ancestral individuals lie in the base of the branches and latest evolutionary divergences at the tips. 

Theories of evolution to explain this great diversity of life have had a tense relationship with theories of nomenclature and classification. Should the tree present morphological variation we see in nature? Should it show genetic similarities and differences? Or should it be organized around the acquiring or loss of key traits? Representing evolution through trees has been contentious business. Similarly, like evolutionary trees, the history of classification is also a long one. There have been many theories and protocols, but perhaps the most significant is Linnaeus whose basic nomenclature system lives on. Linnaeus proposed a binominal classification (genus, species), which subsequently was expanded into a trinominal (genus, species, subspecies). In refining classification beyond the genus and species level, the sub-species emerged (also called “race”). Linnaeus used the term “varieties,” and many thus view Linnaean “varieties” as subspecies or “races.” (Charmantier 2020).1 For Linnaeus, human races emerged from divergent geographies (Muller-Wille 2015), but were endowed with profound differences in their physical, moral, and intellectual capabilities. Today, we think about “race” largely as a category of the human, but “race” in fact emerged as a category of classification for all organisms. In the 1950s, many scholars critiqued and questioned the idea of the subspecies (or race) as a useful biological category (Keita et al 2004). Many (indeed also Darwin), believed that subspecies and categories like varieties, geographic races, demes were too ephemeral, and the category too artificial and arbitrary to be useful in biology (Hull 1998). It has since largely disappeared as a category within the plant and animal literature, and endures mostly in its avatar in human populations, a history that continues to loom large. 

I focus on the Tree of Life (TOL) because it is metaphorically and theoretically important. Metaphorically, the TOL allows claims of similarity and difference to coexist—we are all descendants from the same Tree of Life, yet some of us can be superior to others. This “descent with modification” is critical to the histories of biology—why theories of monogenism and polygenism, and their attendant racialized histories can both be held within the evolutionary TOL. The TOL thus offers a view of an astonishing variation of life on earth, contained within theories of diverse possibilities. Within colonial biology difference was translated into hierarchies of beings. Biological theories of inferiority and superiority came to undergird the histories of slavery and colonization, existing seamlessly in its branching structures. Thus, race, is always natural and cultural, indeed naturecultural. The histories of the idea of “race”—the variation within a species—haunts biology. Racialized theories of the human spill over to our view of the evolution of all life on earth. Here, I focus on flowering plants. Rather than particularities—humans or plants—I am interested in their shared theoretical formations. I am interested in the infrastructures of evolution—the foundational theoretical terrain that breeds theories for plants and humans. In comparing and contrasting the evolution of plants and humans, I am not suggesting any simple claim of comparable or analogous characteristics. Plants are not humans, and neither humans, plants. But the history of biology reminds us that our anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism have routinely and systematically shaped our views of the non-human. Non-humans are as deeply implicated in the histories of humanity, as our view of humans. I want to take this question up with respect to plants. The TOL reminds us that all life is interconnected, and the conceptualization within botany shares some of the same roots, and histories as humans. I begin with some foundational arguments from the feminist studies of race, sexuality, and reproduction, then think through these foundations through the histories of biology and botany in particular and end with alternate visions of botany that are not caught up in colonial histories of sex and race.

  1. Feminist studies of race, sexuality, and reproduction

In feminist thought, including in feminist STS, sex, sexuality, and reproduction loom large. Reproduction (and sexuality) also form the very core of biology. One cannot think of natural selection without thinking about reproduction (and its attendant sexuality, be it vegetative or sexual reproduction). Theories of reproduction, and therefore theories of sexuality are critical to plant (and human) biology. In thinking across feminism and biology, I focus on sexuality and reproduction because they are foundational to academic thought. As Rod Ferguson (2005) argues, “Sexuality does not passively await a discipline or interdiscipline’s attention. It is, in fact, constitutive of the disciplines and interdisciplines. It is active, having specific engagements with each epistemological context” (87). How then can we understand the histories of sexuality and reproduction—of human and plant—within the histories of colonialism?

In our exploration about the politics of “place” in biology, colonial and postcolonial politics loomed large—the redrawing of national borders, the biological “bedlam” that colonialism ushered in, the grand biological reshuffling across the planet, migrating organisms, shifting identities and diasporas. While reproduction is still central to understanding the postcolonial, it is the histories of slavery, indentured servitude and settler colonialism that bring a clear and sharp focus to “politics” of reproduction. In drawing on this history, I am not suggesting any easy analogy between people and plants. As always there is no universal human or plant, only varied and shared histories. Rather, I am trying to bring to the fore colonial logics, colonial rationales, colonial scripts, all of which ushered in colonial infrastructures of control that came to shape shared botanical and anthropological epistemologies that shaped plants and humans (albeit not in the same ways). 

Reproducing the Body

Central to the politics of colonialism, slavery and indentured servitude is reproduction—enhancing the reproduction of objects with value, while controlling the reproduction of those with little or no value. If plant classification brought “order” to the natural world, colonial biology brought “control” into the world. Science has played a prominent role in the control of the “natural” world. Within human history, control is best exemplified in the feminist literature through histories of eugenics, scientific racism, and sterilization abuse. Eugenic scripts of science deemed which bodies were worth living and dying, and worth reproducing or not. These foundational logics extend to the world beyond the human.

The three books under discussion—Matthieson, Nash, Valdez—represent exemplars of narrating this horrific history of slavery and colonial thought, reminding us of their enduring legacies. Each of the authors approaches the question very differently, almost like three pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but join them together and a powerful arc of the history of race emerges. In Reproduction Reconceived, Sara Matthieson, traces the devastating consequences of the word “choice,” a cornerstone of reproductive politics over the last forty years. A deeply interdisciplinary book, she helps us understand how so many politics—carceral, labor, work, health, epidemics, poverty abortion—are deeply interconnected with the racial legacies of the nation. As Laura Briggs (2017) argues, all politics is reproductive politics. Matthieson reminds us that feminist liberal discourse in search of “equity” has largely been the purview of elite white women who actually have “choice.” In fine detail she shows us how for others, reproductive choice is an illusion. In Birthing Black Mothers, Jennifer Nash describes the powerful representational politics of the “black mother.” Drawing on the histories of slavery, she shows us their enduring legacy of racism in biomedicine and state sanctioned police violence, Nash discusses “mothering while black.” Rich and thick with description of the increasingly privatized, feminist birth industry Nash describes the difficulties but also possibilities that emerge. In Weighing the Future, Natali Valdez takes on biomedicine and its deeply racialized infrastructure. She powerfully demonstrates how the science of epigenetics is shaping a new onslaught on the pregnant body. The science of epigenetics opens up the importance of environmental factors, once a site of feminist possibilities. But Valdez powerfully shows why this is not the case, and why powerless women are blamed yet again for their own fates. 

What can these key ideas from the history of sexuality and reproduction teach us? Here I explore the history of botany through these powerful authors. Five critical themes shape this comparison: the commodification of bodies and reproduction, the extractive logics of empire, what are desirable and undesirable bodies, how science imagines the world as a Eurocentric petri dish, and finally the politics of de-animating life.

Plant Colonialism

Not all plants are equal in the colonial imaginary—they must earn their place by being noteworthy to the colonial gaze—aesthetically pleasing, tasty, useful, medicinal, economically valuable, cultivable, profitable, or exotic. At the heart of plant colonialism, is plant labor. Cultivable crops, much like humans, are individuals who provide labor, who are disciplinable and not unruly. Much as we see in the logics of invasive species, as long as foreign/exotic/alien plants know their rightful place as workers, laborers and providers, and controlled commodities, their positions manipulated and controlled by the natives, their presence is tolerated. Once they are accused of unruly practices that prevent them from staying in their subservient place, they threaten the natural order of things (Cardozo and Subramaniam 2013).2 Plant cultivation is fundamentally, and quite literally a project of domestication. Agriculture, the culture and cultivation of land has many possibilities, the colonial model very different from indigenous models across the world. Here I sketch out the unfolding project of the botanical and agricultural sciences.

A central objective of colonialism was the commodification of bodies and reproduction. To turn objects into property to be owned, bought, and sold necessitating a vast infrastructure of laws, trade routes, governance labor practices and brutal regimes of control. These logics shaped the histories of slavery, indentured servitude, and colonial rule. As Weinbaum (2019) argues, human commodification must be “understood as subtended by the long history of slave breeding as it was practiced in the Americas and the Caribbean” (8). Historians of slavery and colonialism have painted a vivid portrait of the inhumanity of colonized life. Since emancipation, these histories of slavery continue to reside in the intergenerational trauma of the living, in the bones, flesh, and blood. We have seen this repeatedly during health crises, and especially visible in the recent pandemic. It is the bodies of the poor black and brown that were the most overexposed through work (“frontline workers”). At the same time when mortality rates were high in these groups, it was not issues of class or labor that emerged, but rather biologies of comorbidities and genetics were invoked. We see similar biopolitics of gender and race play out in plant worlds. 

Anthropologists remind us that humans once foraged for food. They travelled to find plants, harvesting what was available, but letting the plant live on as a future food source. In many cultures, people gave thanks to plants, and worshipped their life-giving properties. Indeed, so much of biological evolution is not a story of lone species adapting to their environments, but a story of coevolutionary forces. This is no simple tale of exploitation. Plants have evolved to count on humans, insects, birds, and other creatures to eat their fruit and help with seed dispersal. In the biological literature these have been characterized in terms of mutualisms, symbiosis, or mutual transactions.

What fundamentally changes with the advent of colonialism is the scale of production, the creation of universal regimes of control, and often short-term profit logics. The domestication of plants, the sciences of plant breeding, domestication, and molecular techniques have changed the story of mutual exchange into one of increasing control over the biology of plants. Industrialized agriculture is entirely about control and commodification, increasingly enhanced through technology. While one could talk about plant resistance (slow growth, unpredictably, uncontrollable, unmanipulable, uneven and so on), modern technology attempts to circumvent these characteristics through cross breeding, and more recently through transgenesis (transferring genes across species). We are seeing the increasing control of plants. 

The profit motive is also key here. The extractive logics of empire that were hallmarks of colonial forestry and global plantations lives on in contemporary industrialized agriculture. Once commodified, extractive logics of empire perpetuate a politics of dependence where every last value is squeezed out of its subjects. For example, while farmers once saved seeds to use the next year, farmers are now sold the promise of hybrid and transgenic seeds, solidifying dependence on seed companies. Farmers are forced to go back to the companies each year for a fresh supply of seeds. More poignantly, the deliberate creation of “terminator” technology of “suicide seeds” is perhaps a perfect illustration. The second generation of seeds are infertile providing no yield. Agriculture, the science of life, is now marked by technologies of death. Farmers can no longer save their seeds even if they wished creating a kind of modern seed share cropping with its own debt-ridden futures. The closure of small farms and farmer suicides are all cases in point. Alongside, the wealth of seed diversity within countries is systematically being lost. High input agriculture and its ecology of seeds have devasted ecologies the world over. 

In a feminist frame, a history of plant breeding is a history of violence. With the rise of the botanical sciences, all agency, and claims of sentience was removed from the plant world. Through a colonial gaze, plants existed for humans—to be moved across borders, culled, bred, interbred, modified, endlessly manipulated over the generations. The predominant colonial script about plants reproduction is about honing the ability of colonists to choose and cultivate varieties as efficiently as possible. So much of this logic explains our culinary habits today. The “tough to grow,” the “tough to modify” species have fallen to the list of “delicious but too expensive” categories of healthy foods.

Not all bodies are created equal in the colonial imaginary. Histories of eugenics in particular highlight the ideology of a racialized colonial order. The desirability of certain bodies (species, varieties), but not others are very much the heart of plant domestication and crop development. As some have argued, some crafty flexible genetic bodies lent themselves to extraordinary replication—corn, rice, wheat—that became the bedrock of commercial crops—they took over the world. The botanies of “desire” have shaped the histories of plants and colonialism. It isn’t always about producing food to feed the world (Pollan 2002). Food has complex politics, connected with class, religion, culture, exoticism, and politics. 

A key goal of colonialism was in extracting natural and labor resources of the colonies. Racial capitalism has been one of the more useful frameworks to understand the histories of colonialism and slavery. At its core, racial capitalism refuses the idea that capitalism can ever be understood outside of racial formations (Robinson 2020). The extractive logics of empire were fundamentally racial, shaping the lives and fortunes of humans and plants. As Lisa Lowe argues, racial capitalism’s expansion through extractive commodities and economies were never uniform but always strategic “by precisely seizing upon colonial divisions, identifying particular regions for production and others for neglect, certain populations for exploitation and still others for disposal” Lowe (150). 

Plants are trapped in the same logic of racial capitalism. Xan Chacko powerfully summarizes this: “Transported through colonial technologies such as Wardian cases and imperial ships, or simply popped in envelopes and sent via the postal service, the reproductive bodies of plants have been extracted, commodified, reproduced, and proliferated to satisfy human needs and desires” (Chacko 2022). These goals were best met with colonial hubris, and reductionist thinking in biology. During colonial rule, colonists transported plants wherever they went, creating “little Europes” along their travels. Shared plantation logics shaped plantations across the globe. Even in places with successful independence movements, the western centeredness of the biological sciences remains firmly in place in educational and research practices of the former colonies. With respect to the plant sciences, the West remains the site of scientific innovations. Innovations produced in a laboratory or in field sites in the west became exemplars for solving the world’s problems. Scientific research, increasingly the handmaiden of corporations is no longer “free.” Protected by patents by western or multi-national companies, third world agriculture is caught up in debt loops. Agricultural innovations such as monoculture crops, genetically modified seeds, herbicides, and pesticides have decimated local ecologies through overuse of water resources and soil nutrients. Repeatedly we see the hubris of colonial logics—where the problem with one technology often only welcomes a new technological solution. Technological determinism remains the reigning paradigm. 

Technology, often posited as a solution, is in fact always caught up in the loop of colonial logics. This is a point Valdez makes so well and powerfully. When the science of epigenetics emerged, feminists saw promise in a renewed focus on the environment. After all environmental justice movements have long reminded us that the quality of air, water, land, and food in poor neighborhoods and nations is often poor. When health issues emerge, it is clearly this “environment” that we need to focus on and improve. But Valdez powerfully persuades us that the power of epigenetics been institutionalized to yet again target the pregnant body and blame the mother, primarily poor women and women of color. Old eugenic scripts yet again blame powerless women for historical and ongoing social traumas. We see exactly the same move within agriculture. Rather than create crops that are attuned to their environmental contexts, agricultural innovations produce “model” crops in model environments. These models are then proliferated across the world, recreating the conditions everywhere. As we will see this has wrought ecological devastation the world over. 

We are stuck in an endless loop of technological determinism. Each technological failure is met with a technological fix. These politics haunt the politics and technologies of food. If meat is murder, the industry produces disembodied technologized meat in petri dishes. If animal growing conditions are inhuman, they produce hornless cows. If rearing animals is ecologically wasteful and a contributor to greenhouse gases, there is a move to create sustainable meat. In short, the history of industrialized agriculture of always satiating endless consumer desire with technology fixes rather than any rethinking of the colonial logics of endless control and possibilities (Subramaniam 2021).

These histories have shaped planetary landscapes—lawns, monocultures, plantations, commercial forestry. To counter this exploitative history, nations have managed corollary sites—conservation lands, public parks, national parks, remediation sites. Through these we have spent a few centuries in endless loops of destruction and remediation. The impoverishment of agriculture has also led to movements for organic seeds and low input agriculture spawning its own logics of purity of savior seeds, seed banks, regimes of care.

One of the key aspects of extractive logic is destruction. Take for example, the environmental impact of the much-heralded green revolution that celebrated self-sufficiency of food in India. Decades later, the consequences are sobering (Glasser 2010, Mosley et al 2017, Siegel 2018). During the green revolution, the state of Punjab, once considered the bread-basket of India, achieved this through a shift from the use of diversified climate adapted crops into one predominantly focused on rice-wheat rotation with much higher water use. This has had severe consequences to the water table, with the state now facing an increasing desertification (Ghuman 2022). We see the severe environmental degradation of soil, vegetation, and water resources. In response to degraded soil, we have seen the need for increasing chemical inputs (Singh 2000). More sobering is the agricultural system that the green revolution replaced.

Finally, a critical project of colonialism was in de-animating the world. Indigenous scholars have argued that in rendering people and other organisms in the natural world into commodities, there were no limits to the exploitative potential of colonies. De-animating the natural world also meant de-gendering it, rendering all organisms into “its.” Plants too became non-sentient, non-sacred creatures, free to be felled, moved around, monocultured, rendered devoid of rights, exploitable, killable and commodities or “things” that could be bought and sold. Much of indigenous studies, as well as more recent scholarship in critical animal studies, critical plant studies and queer ecologies seek to re-animate the natural world (Chen 2012, Kimmerer 2013). Here, like many others, I am less invested in “re-gendering” plants as “reanimating” them. I am completely on board with “de-gendering” the human” and reanimating them alongside a more capacious vegetal imagination.


A key lesson from women of color feminists is that not all humans are created equal. Not all humans colonized, enslaved, or oppressed other humans. These histories need to be reckoned with. Histories of gender, race, class, sexuality, and nation profoundly shape our histories, cultures, and indeed biologies. These histories have shaped our understandings of human biology. Despite generic theories of the biology of humans, when we enter the doctor’s office, we enter with different bodies, and are treated by myriad assumptions about identitarian formations. Histories of inequality stratify not only social and cultural organization, our biopolitical imaginations, but also biologies. Within the planetary Tree of Life many histories lurk. Like the authors of these three magnificent books, we need to continue to shed light on the shadows of empire.

As Audre Lorde (1984) has long reminded us: “It is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectations.” We do not need to collapse the diversity of life on earth into a quest for sameness, parity, or equity. Ultimately, as Lorde reminds us, we need to learn how to celebrate difference rather than collapsing it by attending to our relations, inter-relations, and deep historical and genealogical entanglements. 


Brand, D. (2002). A map to the door of no return: Notes to belonging. Vintage.

Briggs, L. (2017). “How all politics became reproductive politics.” In How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics. University of California Press.

Cardozo, Karen, and Banu Subramaniam. (2013). “Assembling Asian/American Naturecultures: Orientalism and Invited Invasion.” Journal of Asian American Studies 16 (1). 

Chacko, X. S. (2022). “Stringing, Reconnecting, and Breaking the Colonial ‘Daisy Chain’: From Botanic Garden to Seed Bank.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 8 (1).

Charmantier, Isabelle. (2020). “Linnaeus and Race.” The Linnaean Society of London:

Chen, M. Y. (2012). “Animacies.” In Animacies. Duke University Press.

Ferguson, Roderick A. (2005) “Of our normative strivings: African American studies and the histories of sexuality.” Social Text 23 no. 3-4: 85–100.

Ghuman, R.S. (2022). “Act now to save Punjab on the water front.” The Tribune, 20 May, 2022.

Glaeser, B., ed. (2010). The Green Revolution revisited: critique and alternatives, Vol. 2. Taylor & Francis.

Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed editions.

Margolick, David. (2001). Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. Ecco.

Moseley, W. G., Schnurr, M. A., & Bezner-Kerr, R., eds. (2017). Africa’s green revolution: Critical perspectives on new agricultural technologies and systems. Routledge.

Matthiesen, S. (2021). “Reproduction Reconceived.” In Reproduction Reconceived. University of California Press.

Nash, J. C. (2021). Birthing Black Mothers. Duke University Press.

Penny, D. (2011). “Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, versus the biblical tree of life.” PLoS biology, 9 (7).

Pollan, M. (2002). The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House.

Robinson, C. J. (2020). Black Marxism, revised and updated third edition: The making of the black radical tradition. UNC Press.

Siegel, B. R. (2018). Hungry nation: Food, famine, and the making of modern India. Cambridge University Press.

Singh, R. B. (2000). “Environmental consequences of agricultural development: a case study from the Green Revolution state of Haryana, India.” Agriculture, ecosystems & environment, 82 (1-3), 97–103.

Staffan Müller-Wille. (2015). “Linnaeus and the Four Corners of the World.” In The Cultural Politics of Blood, 1500–1900, edited by Kimberly Anne Coles, Ralph Bauer, Zita Nunes and Carla L. Peterson, 191–209. Palgrave MacMillan.

Subramaniam, B. (2021). “The Ethical Impurative: The Vegetal Frontiers of Technologized Meat.” In Meat: A Transnational Analysis, ed. Sushmita Chatterjee and Banu Subramaniam. Duke University Press.

Tsing, A. L. (1995). “Empowering nature, or: some gleanings in bee culture.” Naturalizing Power. Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis, 113–43.

Valdez, N. (2021). Weighing the future: race, science, and pregnancy trials in the postgenomic era, Vol. 9. University of California Press.

Weinbaum, A. E. (2019). “The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery.” In The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery. Duke University Press.

  1. As Muller-Wille argues, “Presenting Linnaeus’s distinction as a series of trinomials goes back at least to Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, p. 66, and probably has its origin in an English translation of the first part of thirteenth, posthumous edition of Systema Naturae that was published in 1792.” (Footnote 6)

  2. Anna Tsing (1995) makes a similar point in her analysis of native and exotic bees.

Emily Owens


Thinking with Sara Matthiessen, After Roe

The subtitle of Sara Matthiesen’s Reproduction Reconceived—with its ending “after Roe v. Wade”—abruptly took on new meaning in the wake of that which most recently came after Roe, that is, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Matthiesen’s phrase “after Roe” signaled the period of the late twentieth century during which US women enjoyed a modicum of federal protection for rights over their own bodies, a period during which, she explains, the labors associated with reproduction nonetheless increased for women in the face of what she calls “state neglect.” The stories Matthiesen unearths in this book demonstrate the profoundly unfinished work of reproductive justice and gender equality in the US, even in the context of constitutional protection of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and integrity; her work is grounded in a black feminist critique that understands Roe as an important—but partial and fragile—foundation for reproductive rights rather than its apex.

If Matthiesen’s work was urgent already, then it is difficult to imagine a more pressing set of questions for feminist political life in this moment, when the phrase “after Roe” invites an obituary rather than a reflection on an ongoing legacy. Matthiesen’s account shows us how hard things got after Roe emerged, which makes it that much more catastrophic to grapple with our new reality: How will family building take shape after Roe is gone?  

So, my comments begin with congratulations to Sara for writing a history that sings because of her archival rigor, her facility with close reading, and her ability to see, and make plain to readers, the work of the state. Her framework of state neglect is one of those ideas that once you have read it, you can’t unthink it, and you can’t believe you’ve never thought it before: it is so clarifying—like a light on the path—and it also unburdens Matthiesen’s historical actors of the kind of shame and blame that are always-already attached to people who make families, as she writes, “in the shadow of the law” and on the margins of the state. 

This is an example of the very best of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship: rigorous, detailed, specific, politically useful. I found it electrifying to read. 

I want to dwell on just two of the many insights that lie within this book: first, the framing of the book under the rubric of “neglect,” and second, her brilliant contribution to lesbian history.

First, the structure of Reproduction Reconceived is both analytically and narratively elegant. The chapters operate in analytic parallel, wherein every chapter builds Matthiessen’s core argument, that the landscape of what she call “family making” (a really wonderful term, also) got harder and costlier (10) in the wake of Roe v. Wade, and that the labors involved in family-making proliferated in this era: the labor of illegibility, the labor of captivity, the labor of survival, the labor of risk, the labor of choice. 

Matthiesen thus offers a labor history of reproduction, which historicizes the variety of labors that people on the margins of society undertook during this period to make families. So doing, she brings a historian’s sense of texture to the broad feminist theoretical category “reproductive labor,” which she shows is not only the work of gestating children, managing household finances, and cooking meals in order to reproduce the public labor force, but also the work of fighting for custody of one’s children from the position of a prison cell, the work of pursuing life-saving medical research and treatment in the face of illness, and so on.

The analytic pivot to state neglect makes reproduction-as-labor-history really shine. Targeting state neglect for analysis bakes a feminist critique of privacy into Matthiesen’s way of seeing, and exposes the state technologies that trick us into thinking that a woman who must fight for custody of her children is somehow deserving of her circumstance because she was incarcerated. If the logic of the neoliberal state is made palatable through the morally familiar language of personal responsibility, then her attention to the other side of that coin—state neglect—is meant to make our skin crawl. It is a subtle turning of our perspective as readers, and yet it is so clarifying. This analytic move denaturalizes state divestment from the private sphere by showing at once a state that actively supports white, heteropatriarchal, nuclear family-making pursuits and actively threatens those who would dare imagine their families outside of those constraints. She writes: 

Neglect implies a failure to care just as it implies a responsibility or obligation. Sometimes this failure is deliberate and willful, sometimes it stems from indifference. Regardless, neglect means someone else has to pick up the slack. The end result is…the additional labor the neglected must do to survive. (14)

The labors that the women in this book undertook to make their families (and to let them survive) exist only because the state has created a care vacuum—only because the neglect has made, she writes, “costs pile up” and left, “someone…to pick up the slack” (14). (I love, also, the plain-spoken-ness of that language—it is so evocative of what reproductive labor feels like: at once inevitable, essential, and invisible; it will happen because it must happen, and because it must happen it is only visible when it fails to happen.)

This shifts the moral and political compass of the reader, as her analysis produces a fundamental indictment of the state while centering the valiant efforts of women who attempted to protect their families under conditions of illegibility, captivity, harassment, deprivation, and threat. This framework demonstrates at once the urgent and life-threatening consequences of neglect and the political efficacy of neglect as a state strategy, because it is much harder to locate the absence of care than it is to locate an act of state aggression. Matthiessen writes, “we tend to overlook neglect because it is often slow and cumulative…[but] often has a much broader reach than the regulatory campaigns that explicitly expose the violence of the state…[neglect is] an immensely punishing strategy …[of] deadly force” that hides in plain sight.

Chapter after chapter, Matthiesen helps us locate that absence through the voices of the women who demanded care, dignity, and security in their pursuits of family-making.

Second, I want to flag the important work of one of the historical episodes that Matthiesen details in the book: lesbians and single mothers’ labors for legal legibility and protection of their families from the Women’s Movement through what has been termed the “lesbian baby boom” of the early 1990s. Lesbians are rarely written about in historical feminist scholarship today: there is a wealth of brand new anthropological, sociological, and public health research in the field of lesbian studies, and there is increasing attention to lesbians within some facets of feminist and queer theory. But overall the field of lesbian history has remained somewhat dormant since the early years of “gay and lesbian history,” and furthermore when lesbians appear in today’s theoretical discussions of kinship, family, reproduction, and the state, they are frequently caricatured as either relics of second-wave feminism (itself often a site of caricature) or they are imagined as pursuing the embrace of the state through assimilationist policy changes like military service and marriage equality.

Matthiesen’s chapter on lesbian family-making in the 1980s participates in a new wave of scholarship (emerging from the fields of feminist theory, geography, as well as history) and centers lesbians as objects of serious inquiry, offering a detailed, rigorously (and often delightfully!) archived, sympathetic but complex account of lesbian family-making. Her account historicized lesbians creating a committed practice of community-based reimagining of belonging and kinship that also negotiated a set of legal innovations that tethered their family-making processes to, Matthiessen writes, “the very institutions [of medicine and the lineage of paternity in the law] that had denied them motherhood in the first place” (29).

Matthiesen shows the logic of pursuing legibility for lesbian families and the costs, demonstrating how making family in the shadow of the law offered some freedoms but also left lesbians open to threat, and how making family in the light of the law also came with significant costs.

This is not a rosy-eyed group embracing “citizenship,” but instead a group of clear-eyed women who wanted to figure out how to enjoy the freedoms of state ignorance of their lives while diminishing the dangers of what Matthiessen calls “legal neglect.” The intervention here is important (and is hidden in a footnote!), where Matthiessen explains: “feminist scholarship on assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), which attributes lesbians’ paradoxical participation in fertility treatment beginning in the 1990s to the biomedicalization of—and market in—reproductive life, largely misses how legal concerns about a woman’s right to her child convinced many women to trade in their turkey basters for expert insemination” (212). This commentary shores up an argument that leads with the complexity of building families—literally bringing children into the world and hoping they get to grow up—in the shadow of the state. Matthiessen’s decisive embrace of the subtle and nuanced ways that lesbians made families in the 1980s is an invitation to further scholarship on their history and a bridge to histories of formerly enslaved families, immigrant families, and undocumented families in various historical moments who have imagined families on their own terms and turned toward the state with both demand and suspicion.

  So, this is great lesbian history. But side by side with the other chapters, which focus primarily on poor women and women of color, and because Matthiesen’s story about lesbian pursuits of motherhood is also a story of poor women and women of color, Matthiesen detaches lesbian history from the inaccurate caricature of whiteness, wealth, and political myopia. If, as Mignon Moore wrote in her Invisible Families, scholars’ focus thus far on the “lesbian baby boom” through use of assistive reproductive technologies (ARTS) has produced a narrative of lesbian whiteness, wealth, and general insulation from legal and state precarity that is not representative of reality, then Matthiesen’s inclusion of this story matters within and beyond the field of lesbian studies. The site of lesbian struggles in family making that Matthiesen narrates is not inclusion in the state, but protection from the state: she explains “most scholars discuss the first custody battles involving lesbians as evidence of homophobic laws unwilling to recognize gay parenthood. Missing from these analyses is what first prompted such a family’s contact with the state: when a lesbian mother violated procreative norms of keeping the costs of childrearing a private affair and applying for welfare aid” (54).

Ultimately this chapter, and the project as a whole, provides historical texture and nuance to Cathy Cohen’s call twenty years ago to attune ourselves to the sites of experiential resonance and political solidarity among “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens,” by starting with the story, as Matthiesen playfully does, of what happens “when the bulldagger is the welfare queen” (51). 

The twin urgency of this book and of this political moment for reproductive justice beg for Matthiesen’s input. (A sequel, of sorts? Or maybe a requiem is more to the point.) Reproduction Reconceived demonstrates how partial Roe v Wade was, not only in its legal fragility as many others have pointed out, but in its scope. Matthiesen’s history demonstrates how very hard the work of family building is, and how very much harder it got in the context of a state that has evacuated any sense of the public (or, never really included women in that public anyhow). 

Matthiesen convinces readers that the burdens of reproductive life got harder—more expensive, less legally secure, more threatened, more isolated, and more sick—and so doing her telling of the last fifty years sheds light on the cultural precedent on which Dobbs stands. Dobbs could not have happened in a world in which the state recognized the parental rights of incarcerated women, or treated HIV positive parents with care instead of suspicion, or imagined the basic needs of anyone self-identified as a “family” to be within the basic responsibility of the state. Thus, in this moment Matthiesen’s history provides a blueprint, a playbook of the legal and cultural architecture that ultimately took down Roe. She shows us the work that the state quietly undertook to threaten families built outside of the boundaries of white picket fences, which was the testing ground for the anti-abortion trigger laws that now devastate the life chances of poor women and women of color, and that will make pregnancy and childbirth more dangerous for all women. 

Heather Houser


Feeling the Weather of Mothering

Weathering conjures ideas of pummeling, exposure, erosion, distress, wear and tear, but also of endurance, getting by, resilience, strength, and the fortifying and degrading accretions of pain, trial, and irritation. As a scholar of environmental culture, I alight on the concept of weathering that appears explicitly if in a supporting role in Jennifer Nash’s Birthing Black Mothers and Sarah Matthiesen’s Reproduction Reconceived and, in other terms, in Natali Valdez’s Weighing the Future. Nash and Matthiesen evoke weathering through Arline Geronimus’s influential eponymous study from 1992, “The Weathering Hypothesis and the Health of African-American Women and Infants,” which studies racial disparities in infant death and attributes the worsening outcomes for older Black women to “a theoretical view of aging as a ‘weathering’ process reflective of the life circumstances that promote or undermine women’s health on a population level in ways that can affect reproduction. The weathering hypothesis encapsulates the ways in which social inequality may affect the health of population groups differentially and the ways in which these differences may be compounded with age.”1 Reading Matthiesen’s, Nash’s, and Valdez’s books together gathered all the weathering conditions that work on maternal bodies and especially Black, Latina, and/or poor mothers. Across these works, “life circumstances” encompass everything from lead exposure to diet, from racism and racialization to misogyny and homophobia, from access to health services to the suspicion and denial marginalized women face when services are offered, from stigmatization from disease, disability, and/or incarceration status to being rendered invisible until commodified as crisis incarnate. While not using weathering itself, Valdez pursues the idea most fully through her conception of the environment. The environment accrues rich strata of meaning as she spins out the significance of her direct opening claim: “We all encompass the maternal environment” (4). We all encompass the maternal environment because, while the pregnant body constitutes a fetal environment, it is also crucially constituted by the “social, material, political, and experiential” surround (35). What the body is is what it’s a part of, and that surround weathers too many bodies. Weathers it through misogyny, weathers it with racism, weathers it with neglect (Matthiesen’s keyword), weathers it with class oppression, weathers it with denial and shame. 

The concept of weathering doesn’t only underscore the lessons of systemized inequality and racism that thread through these books. It also powerfully introduces issues of scale, accumulation, and uncertainty amidst the facts of violence and neglect that affect reproduction and mothering while Black, Latina, poor, devalued. I think of Christina Sharpe on the weather of antiblackness: “The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.”2 

Accumulation and scale: Matthiesen studies legal, medical, carceral, and other state-supported forms of neglect that impinge on family-making even after Roe v. Wade ushered in so-called choice (an “after” now redefined following the likely SCOTUS overturn) (17–20). As these sources of neglect intersect in women’s and families’ lives, the force of choice diminishes and the “work to navigate and survive one’s constraints” piles on (21). Scale: the scale of the political is present in all three books, but Nash calls out the political misuses of the Black maternal, especially the appropriation of Black women’s suffering by feminists and the US Left. As she brilliantly encapsulates her critique, “the labor of making Black motherhood political, making the birthing Black mother a political subject rather than an embodied position, is often forged in the name of Black feminist praxis and its commitments to reproductive justice and birth equity” (6). Scale, accumulation, uncertainty: Valdez’s study of “postgenomic reproductive politics” (17) animates environment across scales. As in one of the more striking vignettes from Weighing the Future that highlights scalar ignorance: “You’re startled, because you remember picking up a puff pastry on your walk to work yesterday . . . The bakery is next to the oil refinery. You start to worry about [the sugar and calories in] the pastry, but not the years and generations you and your family have lived and worked next to the refinery” (144). Valdez pluralizes “the environments” to situate them “as one factor and many factors all at once . . . from the cellular level all the way to the atmospheric level, including cells, uteruses, the microbiome, and the natural built landscape” (147). While epigenetic approaches to pregnancy have thus far operated at some or all of these scales, Valdez adds on the frameworks impinging on epigenetic research, notably, randomized clinical pregnancy trial protocols developed within US and UK “‘white empiricism.’”3 Though epigenetic approaches attend to scalar challenges and even to accumulation, they can be less welcoming of uncertainty. But, as Valdez and fellow travelers in critical science studies such as Sheila Jasanoff, Bruno Latour, Londa Schiebinger, and Robert Proctor show,4 this third term in the triad is indispensable for undoing deterministic models of causality, in Valdez’s case, those pertaining to individual behaviors affecting maternal, fetal, child, and multigenerational health (34, 146). 

Matthiesen, Nash, and Valdez bring due complexity to mothering and family making by attending to the facts and uncertainties of weathering and all its sources operating at multiple scales. They made me think about how climate crisis adds even more considerations to the already multivariate calculus of reproduction. Weighing the Future is most keyed into the eco-environmental factors that influence the maternal, but climate crisis falls outside its purview. Yet recent studies indicate how germane to maternal environments climate impacts are, showing, for example, that “exposure to wildfire smoke and other kinds of particulate matter air pollution, which can be caused by diesel engines and coal-burning power plants, is increasingly being linked to poor health outcomes for pregnant people and their babies.”5 Though not citing studies such as this one or climate crisis more broadly, these books help me attend to family making in climate crisis with greater understanding of the limited ways environmental thinkers have approached reproduction until now and of possible ways forward. 

Matthiesen, Nash, and Valdez draw the contours of the racist, heteronormative, classist, and otherwise inequitable structures in which reproduction always occurs in the US. Structures that suck the air out of the idea “free choice” and insist on the continued relevance of Sharpe’s question, “But who has access to freedom?”6 Their insights provide more context for understanding how environmentally-inspired population control serves the racist, misogynist, ableist, and nationalist purposes to which reproductive management is so often put. But, even more interesting to me, they remind me of the problems with an individualist, solutions-oriented framework that advocates for not having children—or only one—as a way to mitigate carbon emissions and environmental impacts more generally. “Childfree”—and childfree for climate, more specifically—is a burgeoning trend with articles, portraiture, podcasts, online networks, and testimonial projects stirring up conversation and providing supportive community for those forgoing reproduction for environmental and other reasons. As someone who doesn’t have or want kids for thousands of reasons, including environmental ones, I want this conversation to happen. I especially want it to happen for the increasing numbers of young people who cannot imagine reproducing both out of concern for the impacts they, via their progeny, will have on the planet and for fear of the degraded world those children will inhabit and the suffering they might endure. But that conversation needs to happen informed by the wisdom of scholars like Matthiesen, Nash, and Valdez. Wisdom into all that impinges on reproduction and parenting, all that molds interventions into and representations of it. Wisdom, as well, that deflates easy paeans to choice and autonomy. Rethinking reproduction and family in the face of climate crisis is essential, but thinking that one’s reproductive choice is a solution to climate crisis is naïve. 

Not-mothering and not-parenting occur within the same inequitable structures as mothering and parenting do; childfree does not evade them. I want to honor the conviction behind not-reproducing that rejects oppressive heteronormativity, patriarchy, and white supremacy and the planetary impacts of affluent ways of living without setting up childfree as a solution to those problems. We need more forceful writers and advocates like Aya de Leon in conversations around childfree for climate. De Leon reframes “birth strikes” as critiques of crosscutting systems of labor, health, environment, the home, and the economy that require repair. Childfree becomes not a personal solution but a way of signaling how capacious and communal repair must be, an approach forged by the reproductive justice movement and those, like the Feminist Agenda for a Green New Deal, who take inspiration from it. Reproductive justice (RJ), founded in the Black women’s health movement of the 1990s and figuring prominently in Birthing Black Mothers, upholds the conviction that, as Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger proclaim, “all fertile persons and persons who reproduce and become parents require a safe and dignified context for these most fundamental human experiences. Achieving this goal depends on access to specific, community-based resources including high-quality health care, housing and education, a living wage, a healthy environment, and a safety net for times when these resources fail.” These conditions, not choice, are the heart of reproductive life, and death. While this statement focuses on fertility and parenting, the first of the RJ principles Ross and Solinger state is “the right not to have a child.”7 Justice must encompass refusal. Refusal, too, is pinched by the oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

And, I’d add, it is pinched by climate crisis. Childfree for climate has numerous contours. There are those who limit procreation because they live in climate ravaged places where the means to sustain life are limited and there may be less as the timeline of collapse unfolds. There are those who can’t bear adding another high-consuming person to the population because that will imperil ecosystems further. There are those who see that climate impacts are occurring and worsening such that, in a child’s lifetime, things many Westerners have taken for granted—water availability, breathable air, plentiful food, a degree of biodiversity, and hospitable temperatures—will be gone and violent conflicts from the local to the geopolitical will increase. Not-reproducing in climate crisis, then, emerges from desires to mitigate, recover, grieve, and more, responses crossing temporal, spatial, and structural scales. It is a way of weathering climate change, but one best approached through the richness of this concept. Rather than a free choice that distances or separates from, not-mothering acknowledges that climate processes are “of us, in us, through us;” it’s a means of weathering as “partaking in a common space”8 and registering the “‘insults’” of a “blasted” world that damages some—the poor in the warmest climes, Black and Brown people in the Global North, women, children, the elderly, the disabled—more than others.9 

Finally, as I refract this trio of books opening vantages onto reproduction, race, science, politics, and culture, I want to think harder about crisis in my writing and thinking on reproduction amid climate change. Nash nudged this desire through her incisive critique of the rendering symbolic of Black mothers and motherhood through the (white) Left’s commodification of suffering and strategic adoption of RJ and Black Lives Matter. How not to perpetuate crisis logics and instrumentalize those deemed endangered while acknowledging the “slow death” that “is a fact of life and has been a defining fact of life for a given population that lives that crisis in ordinary time” (Lauren Berlant qtd. in Nash 14)? Damage is happening, for all the reasons these stirring authors indicate and for many more. But weathering is also survival, advocacy, and community. Given both realities, I want to ferret out something in between an individualist, solutionist childfree position; a blithe “there’s still joy” and “children our future” approach to family making; and the rendering symbolic of the poor and people of color while thinking through reproduction in the face of climate crisis. I have more tools in hand now thanks to these motivating scholars’ works. 

  1. Arline T. Geronimus, “The Weathering Hypothesis and the Health of African-American Women and Infants: Evidence and Speculation,” Ethnicity and Disease 2, no. 3 (1992): 210. See Nash 21–22 and 190n83 on the initial controversies around Geronimus’s research and its current legacy.

  2. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 106.

  3. This is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s term for the “fields, systems, and disciplines dominated by ideas that are produced primarily by and for white people” (Valdez 43).

  4. Sheila Jasanoff, Science and Public Reason (New York: Routledge, 2012); Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Londa Schiebinger and Robert N. Proctor, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

  5. Jessica Kutz, “Pregnant People Are At ‘Greater Risk’ in States Hit Hard by Wildfire Smoke, Air Pollution, New Report Shows,” The 19th, April 20, 2022, See also the latest IPCC assessment’s inclusion of specific impacts on children and pregnant people in Guéladio Cissé et al. “2022: Health, Wellbeing, and the Changing Structure of Communities,” Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2022, in press,

  6. Sharpe, In the Wake, 112.

  7. Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 9.

  8. Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker, “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality,” Hypatia 29, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 559.

  9. Geronimus, “The Weathering Hypothesis,” 211; Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “Blasted Landscapes (and the Gentle Arts of Mushroom Picking),” in The Multispecies Salon, ed. Eben Kirksey (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

Natali Valdez


Relations of Care

Writing/Thinking Through Never-Ending Crises


Reading Heather Houser’s and Banu Subramaniam’s brilliant essays made every cell of my body swell with gratitude. Despite, or rather, alongside the weathering, climate crisis, ecological devastation, colonialism, afterlife of slavery, and technological determinism that both Houser and Subramaniam reference in their respective essays, they shared their time and labor to read and write about the three books included in this forum. The wonder and generosity of feminist intellectual engagement during an ongoing pandemic is more than noteworthy; it is the antidote to the fatigue, uncertainty, and cynicism brought about from never-ending crises. 

Curiously, being on the receiving end of this feminist intellectual generosity generated a unique form of paralyzing angst: how do I respond? I am used to responding to criticism. My years in academia trained me to anticipate, arm, and defend myself intellectually. But how do I write in response to such thoughtful engagement, and close reading? And, more urgently, how do I write when I am so tired? I am so exhausted and burned out by the relentless personal and global transitions, betrayals, and calamities. When I am thinking and writing from a place of fatigue and existential dread, I spiral out and perseverate on questions like what else is there to say? Do ideas and words even matter anymore? 

I’m sitting at my computer reading, rereading these incredible responses, trying to pull themes together, trying to say something. I’m not getting anywhere. I feel jittery, excess energy in my hands probably because they have nothing to type. I am so behind; this is never going to get done. I feel so sad, and worried from this week’s events. What’s going to happen next week? Okay, just take a break. 

I open my TikTok app. Scrolling, scrolling, yes! Hilarious Pen15 skits, zodiac analyses. I’m laughing out loud, and the endorphins are flowing. 

Wait—a TikTok on dialectical materialism? What is happening to my algorithm! Okay, just listen to it, it’s only two minutes. This TikTok is tickling a different part of my brain, bringing me back to graduate school. Yes, I remember, dialectical materialism, based on the collaborative work of Marx and Engels, and their reading of Hegel. It is the notion that ideas are grounded in material conditions and experience.1

I pause my scrolling and think about how I teach this concept, but do not use the same jargon. Instead, I focus on an example like Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.2 I tell my students how Truth’s ideas on the intersecting forms of power and oppression were drawn from and based on her everyday experience, from her lived reality and material conditions. I wonder, how did she find her words? What was her process like?

My mind jumps to another thought. What was it like for Marx and Engels to write so much to each other? All the letters they exchanged to develop this and many other concepts. I bet they were excited to get the mail and read each other’s letters. Maybe, just as excited as I feel when I receive mail from Vivian. I think about the last postcard she wrote me “there is more to your story: trust.” Thinking of that card makes me smile. 

So, I pull myself out of the paralyzing angst, and return to my computer, to write again. 

I am so grateful to Sam Pinto, Jennifer Nash, Sara Mathiessen, Heather Houser, and Banu Subramaniam. Their labor and care made this forum possible. Drawing on a slew of unlikely inspiration, I am reminded that our ideas and words cannot be separated from the feminist labor, context, and material conditions that sustain our intellectual projects. In writing this response I found that for me ideas and words do matter. They matter because it is not just about the words we generate, but the relations of care through which they are generated.

While all three books in conversation here are aimed at apprehending how our material conditions are shaped by the pollution of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, my brilliant friends and colleagues remind me that these are not the only material conditions and experiences that exist. There is also love, care, and intellectual generosity. It is through these relations of care that I am inspired to think and write through never-ending crises.

Epistemic Environments: Reframing Problems and Solutions Beyond the Individual Inspired by M. Murphy (2017), I developed the term epistemic environments to describe the epistemes that undergird policies, treatments, and interventions within postgenomic reproduction.3 Epistemic environments emphasize the ways in which epigenetics and postgenomics have brought a renewed significance to the concept of environments across reproduction. What counts as “the environment” is precisely what is at stake in the production of scientific, medical, and reproductive knowledge in a postgenomic era. 

Each chapter in my book, Weighing the Future: Race, Science, and Pregnancy Trials in the Postgenomic Era, sheds light on the epistemic environments that shape pregnancy trials. I examine how racism, gender binaries, capitalism (here conceptualized as racial-surveillance biocapitalism), late liberalism (including neoliberalism), future-oriented or speculative frameworks of value and risk, and postgenomics collectively contribute to the epistemic environments of scientific knowledge production. For example, racist hierarchies that undergird categories of ethnicity and race in scientific studies, charts, and standards that define health through individually measurable variables like weight and BMI, and heteronormative logics that define the maternal environment only as cis-gendered pregnant bodies and behaviors, are epistemes that structure the production of contemporary pregnancy trials. 

By applying the framework of epistemic environments, my analysis of pregnancy trials makes clear that individual lifestyle interventions need to be read as symptomatic of systemic racism rather than as a solution to multidimensional illnesses like diabetes and obesity that disproportionately impact communities of color. This is because the underlying logics of individual lifestyle interventions are cut from the same ideological cloth that assumes poor, fat, and predominately nonwhite individuals have risky bodies and are responsible for changing their bodies and behaviors. Individual lifestyle interventions are framed as if all bodies live in similar environments and have equal access to “healthy” opportunities, choices, and material conditions. Pregnant people classified as “high risk” for diabetes and obesity are targeted for individual lifestyle interventions and are also embedded in racist and poorly resourced environments that make it nearly impossible to comply with national maternal health recommendations. In the book, I argue that the persistent disparities in maternal health across race is not an individual level issue. No, the problem is racism. Prolonged, intergenerational exposure to racist environments negatively impacts our health. 

The overdetermined focus on the individual as the reference point for framing maternal health problems and solutions is also relevant to debates across reproduction and climate change. In her reading of our books, Houser highlights that the problem with advocating “for not having children—or only one—as a way to mitigate carbon emissions and environmental impacts more generally” is that it relies on the myth, or episteme, of total individual control, responsibility, and choice. The value in perpetuating the myth of individual control and responsibility is that it allows governments and corporations to evade responsibility, it distracts from systemic solutions, and it inhibits the flow of resources towards public safety nets. 

For instance, Jade Sasser’s vital book On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change (2018) clearly situates capitalism as the key culprit in accelerating the climate crisis, and not population size, or the behaviors of individual people deemed capable of biological reproduction.4 From this lens, if the problem is capitalism, or what bell hooks called the culture of “imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism” then the figure of the individual is not a central focus (2000:118).5 Your individual choice to not recycle and to have three kids did not cause climate crisis. And your individual choice to recycle, to buy an electric car, or to not have a child is not going to save our planet. 

If you remain unconvinced that individual level intervention is not the appropriate scale for planetary crisis, it does not even matter anymore, because in the American Post-Roe apocalypse, you no longer have the right to live out your individual reproductive choices. 

The problems we are facing were conceived at an immense scale. Colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy caused these problems, and they require recognition and interruption at a proportionate scale. 

Scalar Challenges of Never-Ending Crises and Poetic Opportunities of Cosmic Scale, Heather Houser’s essay, aptly points to the question of scale in all three of our books. She uses the phrase “scalar challenges” and I found this to be so helpful in thinking about not just the scalar challenges that plague postgenomic science and reproductive health writ large, but the scalar oppression of individualism. Yet, another way to think about scalar challenge, is its mirror side, scalar opportunity. I find poetry to be the best source for zooming out and thinking about cosmic scales of time and space. At these scales, there is a different, more proportionate view on the enormity of never-ending crises. 

Franny Choi’s poetry is a resource for scaling crises and distancing oneself from existential dread. In the title poem of Choi’s new poetry collection The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, she writes, “[b]y the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended and another ending world spun in its place” (2022).6 In this poem, there are an eternity of endings. At the scale of spacetime in which worlds are ending and beginning, we are given a wide berth view from these crises. Choi situates this current apocalyptic and dystopic pandemic moment within a broader temporality, one that highlights how marginalized people of color have lived through many dystopias. In a recent interview, Choi reflects: 

My partner’s Black and I’m Korean. And in both of our family lineages are these enormous calamities in which our ancestors survived what seemed utterly unsurvivable. What is more dystopian than the transatlantic slave trade? What is more dystopian than the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki […]. To know that my being here is dependent on someone having made a life out of an impossible situation makes me feel like I too can survive […].7

This last line is precisely what is at stake across all three of the books discussed here. Mathiessen, Nash, and I, are all illustrating different contours of living in impossible situations, contexts, and environments. In different ways we are all highlighting how “someone” or some many had to “make a life out of an impossible situation.” I think of the phrase “make a life” here in both the feminist and Black Marxist sense: making a life is both a social and biological process of (re)production. Making (re)birth possible (or impossible), and making this world livable (or unlivable), is a process that is directly connected to the material conditions and environments that surround each body individually and collectively. These processes are occurring at multiple scales, continuously. It is important to be aware of the epistemic environments that focus our attention to certain scales over others. Interrupting and shifting our labor, attention, and focus onto more proportionate scales, ones that are not only structural and systemic but also eternal and astronomical, offers up possibilities of living in impossible situations. 

Finally, I turn to the work of Tracy K. Smith. I recently had the pleasure of hearing the former Poet Laureate of the United States speak on metaphysical themes of time, space, and the universe. Her poems illuminate ideas about spacetime and life/energy beyond what we can sense and perceive in the here and now.8 Smith’s discussion of her work helped me see the hope and utility in thinking at the scale of cosmic eternity.9 One poem that I reread when I am feeling burned out and tired from having to keep laboring amid an ongoing pandemic, a racist and transphobic political climate, and the loss of my reproductive rights, is titled “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring.”10 


Standing falling risen

Over and again

Freedom is labor


To labor at oneself 

To keep what is earned 

To disappear and reemerge


Plunging and carried

Lightness and burden

The smallest waves shingle in


Are tugged back to surge

To rise to be swallowed 

And remain


The wave after wave is one wave never tiring

Freedom is fearsome


In this poem, Smith shows us how “the smallest wave” rises and falls as part of “one wave never tiring.” It reveals the power of accumulation, repetition, and connection. While both Choi and Smith are writing in conversation with cosmic, planetary, and temporal scales, here, Smith is bringing to light the significance of movement(s) and freedom. The poem attends to movements of waves and implicates the planetary movement that shapes tides; and the movements of freedom and liberation that require labor, disappearance, and re-emergence. A core theme across both poems are the illustrations of cyclical patterns: “standing fallen risen over and again,” “to disappear and reemerge,” as Smith writes, or as Choi writes, an ended world replaced with another “ending world.” Through their attention to worldly and otherworldly scale Smith and Choi offer us an eternal source of spacetime to think and attend to these never-ending crises beyond the small individual positions of existential dread and exhaustion. 

When I feel intoxicated with cynicism I will think about the beauty and possibility in ending worlds being spun anew.

When I feel exhausted, I will think about that small wave that is “one wave never tiring.” 

When I feel it is pointless to think and write, I will shift my attention onto the relations of care that surround me. 

Doing so will remind me: even if we do not live long enough to experience the repair entirely, it does not mean that repair is not possible at the scale of eternity. 

  1. For a non-TikTok reference on dialectical materialism see Zwart, H. 2021. “Dialectical Materialism.” In Continental Philosophy of Technoscience, 38: 67–198. Springer, Cham.

  2. For multiple transcripts of Truth’s speech and a critical reading of them all see Siebler, K. 2010. “Far from the Truth: Teaching the Politics of Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’” Pedagogy 10 (3): 511–33. See also the Sojourner Truth Project.

  3. Murphy, M. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  4. Sasser, J. 2018. On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change. NYU Press.

  5. hooks, b. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

  6. Choi, F. 2022. The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. Ecco.

  7. Depenbrock, Julie. Interview with Franny Choi. Morning Edition, NPR. Nov 3, 2022.

  8. Smith, T. 2011. Life On Mars. Greywolf Press.

  9. Smith, T. 2019. Eternity. Penguin.

  10. Smith, T. 2021. Such Color. Greywolf Press.

Sara Matthiesen


Race and Reproduction Forum Syndicate Response

In her short story about an expedition of nine Latin American women to Antarctica in the early 1900s, Ursula K. Le Guin blends the fantastical and the mundane: a group of penguins, elated by the explorers’ arrival, lead them to an outpost built during a prior, all-male expedition led by a Captain with the surname Scott. The area outside the hut is described as a “graveyard” of animal bones, and the penguin escorts opt not to enter the structure itself. The women find a disorganized and dirty home. There are piles of supplies in every corner, crumbs of food all over the floor, and a tea tin with missing lid. Le Guin’s observers try to give their fellow adventurers the benefit of the doubt. They probably needed to make a quick exit. But their superior knowledge can’t be restrained. They could have at least closed the tea tin. Le Guin summarizes her explorers’ assessment of this important detail in a critique disguised as common sense: “But housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs.” The women agree to leave the outpost as they found it and build their own seamlessly functioning, cozy, and clean quarters on a protected edge of the ice shelf.1 

The feminist activist in me loves this scene, especially that zinger of a line. The academic critic in me has all sorts of questions. (That these two parts are not more in unison, that my critic often feels like it is stifling my feminist imagination is the culprit here, but more on that later). In her clear reclamation of reproductive labor as a skill necessary for survival, does Le Guin also reinscribe housekeeping as somehow natural to women? And what about the adventurers’ other job, that of exploring the great Barrier? (Spoiler: they complete their mission, but reject the colonial impulse to claim the region for their countries). How are they managing to do both in such severe conditions? Is it even desirable to master the “art of the infinite,” or is it a form of Sisyphean torture? Whose reproductive labor is art and whose is servitude? Who gets to take care of the people they also love and whose labor is spent keeping other people’s loved ones alive? And what happens when the infinitude of life-making happens under conditions hostile to that very project?2 What types of despair follow when one loses the game they were supposed to have mastered?

It is tempting to answer these final two questions by referencing our present, glaring conditions: we now have a year’s worth of evidence demonstrating what life without the constitutional right to abortion looks like, and in 2023 state legislatures introduced more anti-trans/gay bills than in the previous four years combined.3 And yet, the three books featured in this forum—Birthing Black Mothers by Jennifer Nash, Weighing the Future by Natali Valdez, and my own book, Reproduction Reconceived—as well as the generous and eloquent contributions by Banu Subramaniam and Heather Houser demonstrate that these explicit grasps by conservative lawmakers to make biology one’s destiny should be considered only the most recent (if also explicit) manifestation of hostile conditions long in the making. Such conditions include Subramaniam’s forceful declaration that reproduction has been “central to the politics of colonialism, slavery, and indentured servitude” as well as Houser’s meditation on how varied inequalities cause different “maternal bodies” to “weather;” one’s place within structural hierarchies of race, class, and nation is evidenced at the cellular level. And one of the things I hoped to trace in Reproduction Reconceived were the specific ways “the art of the infinite” had become harder since Roe signaled the arrival of reproductive choice—an idea constantly made a mockery of by conditions on the ground.  

Of course, these are not the only manifestations of threats to life making that preceded what Rana Jaleel describes as “the anti-trans legislation and anti-abortion convergence” of our present. They also include things that masquerade as positive goods or get overshadowed by more overt hostilities. The willingness to challenge certain discourses that have become commonsense in reproductive politics links the books and it is one of my favorite things about reading across them. Nash explores progressives’ instrumentalization of Black motherhood—especially Black motherhood as “crisis”—to demonstrate a commitment to reproductive justice. This includes a call for feminists to revisit a position that has gained incredible momentum in many reproductive justice and perinatal health circles: that Black birth workers are the solution to medical care that harms and even kills, a prescription that, according to Nash, enables the state to evade “a wholesale reimagination of institutionalized medical practice.”4 Valdez offers a critical assessment of the logics baked into epigenetics research and the absurd narrowing of what gets included in “the maternal environment.” Birth outcomes and the health of future generations are supposedly determined by one’s individual behaviors during pregnancy while the pregnant person’s broader environment is cleanly excised from pregnancy trials. My own work was originally motivated by what I saw as a challenge for social movements: how to mobilize people against subtler, more diffuse forms of reproductive injustice perpetrated by institutions rather than a singular, easy-to-hate villain. It is no accident that in examining race and reproduction in the recent past, much of our respective feminist analyses were spent highlighting the ways (neo)liberalism and progressivism perpetually accommodate (and reproduce) the very hostilities they purport to oppose. 

 This is all true. And still, as the brilliant contributions by Emily Owens and Rana Jaleel demonstrate, the related attacks on abortion rights and trans rights comprise a definitive shift that raises urgent questions for feminist scholarship—especially for those of us who identify with Owens’ “Black feminist critique” of Roe “as an important—but partial and fragile—foundation for reproductive rights rather than its apex.” Written in the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision, Owens asks “how will family building take shape after Roe is gone?” She generously writes that the history I trace in Reproductive Reconceived serves as a “blueprint” of how we got here; I am especially grateful for her generous and clarifying formulation that it is a history of “the cultural precedent on which Dobbs stands.” 

Following Owens’ lead then, I will experiment with treating it as a guide for how to interrupt dominant narratives that lead us back to “Roe as apex.” In the aftermath of Dobbs, the fact that states with the worst indicators for maternal and child health and the fewest supports for poor families were the same states banning abortions became a popular framework in the media (I then saw it played on repeat by academics at a conference on Dobbs). This contradiction supposedly highlights the cruel hypocrisy of conservative lawmakers, an updated version of the old pro-choice rejoinder “pro-life until birth.” The problem with this logic is (at least) twofold. First, abortion becomes the solution to families’ problems even though it is an insufficient fix for the financial and labor burdens parents already have. Second, it finds hypocrisy where there is none. The privatization of dependency is a key function of racial capitalism. Nuclear families are supposed to be economically self-reliant, resolve the demands of reproductive labor on their own, and reproduce the fictions of gender and race along the way. The family would not be very useful to racial capitalism if it did not fulfill these functions. When families fail to meet these demands, when family making exceeds its traditional, nuclear bounds, they cease to be recognized as “Family” at all.5 This slick recategorization no doubt lurks in the minds of those who suggest that abortion is the solution to the inequalities that cleave deserving, proper Families from undeserving, unfit, not-quite families. I would be tremendously pleased if in some way Reproduction Reconceived helps people think and feel differently so that the end of Roe could also be the start of something better. 

But maybe I’ve digressed. This response doesn’t quite get at what Owens’ question may have been after—the issue of criminalization that characterizes the anti-trans, anti-abortion convergence. What would Le Guin say about a game where winning makes you a criminal? Here I am riffing off Jaleel’s wonderful and generative observation that the queer rejoinder to homonormativity, “be gay, do crime,” is now as literal as it is liberatory. In the post-Dobbs world where Republican copycat anti-trans bills and abortion bans further entrench biological notions of racialized gender and class warfare, Jaleel astutely notes that “sex as crime becomes care as crime.” Of course, there is nothing particularly new about the criminalization of poor and racialized gender minorities doing their best to care for themselves and their dependents in violent, neglectful circumstances. What I find so useful about Jaleel’s formulation is its precision in naming the shift from identities and identity-adjacent behaviors to care itself. This is a massive and terrifying expansion of state surveillance and punishment (it is a move in which, Jaleel notes, “law functions as a contraceptive device for the state—one that controls what publics and public possibilities are able to be conceived, carried, and born).” But Jaleel certainly would not grant the law such absolute power. Precisely because of its tremendous reach, and thanks to Jaleel’s capacious deployment of what constitutes care, it is also a potential catalyst for massive politicization. What happens when the skills necessary for survival are designated a crime? When the law transforms acts of care into acts of criminality? As I have recently written elsewhere, one thing it means is that the vast majority of us who care are already accomplices.6 The next step is determining what additional risks each of us is willing and able to take. 

At risk of overstretching the story, I want to return to Le Guin’s group of explorers. Two members, Berta and Eva, were the “chief architect-designers” of the women’s base; they were constantly finding ways to make the structure more livable and pleasant for their comrades. When no more functional improvements could be made, Berta began creating beautiful sculptures out of ice in an adjacent room that her fellow occupants delighted in. More so than anyone else in the expedition, Berta and Eva had not only mastered “the art of the infinite,” but also demonstrated that relations of care, when properly tended to, become and fuel creativity.   

For me, the greatest gift of writing a book has been the engagement it received from feminist scholars I deeply admire. Of the many things my academic training taught me, I often fear that how to turn my political convictions into a scholarly “intervention” has shaped me most significantly. The activist took a backseat to the academic critic because I was trying to survive in an environment that does not provide or value proper relations of care. This strategy was the best way I knew how to become legible as a scholar, but it was also costly. It has made it much harder to find my authentic voice and write from a place of passion rather than self-doubt. It has distanced me emotionally from issues I care deeply about. I am willing to admit that such distance is probably necessary for anyone who engages the crueler aspects of our world on a regular basis.7 But I still feel like some critical part of me got lost in the transformation. I know none of this is apparent to most people because I was told more than once during the writing process that the manuscript was too political. One thing I know for sure: that this is true is despite my academic training, not because of it. 

Which is all to say that having my ideas refracted through brilliant minds has literally been healing. They discerned what I was trying so desperately to say and put their own, beautiful spin on it. In her essay for this forum, Owens makes clear that she gets what I was trying to do at every turn, and that it worked! She convinces me that “state neglect” could be useful in the ways I had hoped it would be (clarifying, but also unburdening the historical actors I was most committed to). She also generously describes and thus encourages me in the best way possible to claim my method—“reproduction-as-labor-history”—as well as my arguments (especially those buried in footnotes). And she provides her own brilliant description of reproductive labor as something that “will happen because it must happen, and because it must happen it is only visible when it fails to happen.” 

Jaleel’s response also contains multiple gifts that will stay with me. Their analysis of the relationship between state neglect and choice, where “state neglect is “a function of choice paradigms,” and makes “labor offloaded by the state, privatized, and classified as something other than work,” deepened my understanding of my own argument. They also offer a beautiful description of how the book was aiming to expand the concept of reproductive labor. Drawing on Hil Malatino’s work, Jaleel suggests that the book “includes, but does not overemphasize the significance of the traditionally gendered home—or perhaps finds home in places like prisons, finds home wherever family is made.”8 Both Owens and Jaleel discuss how important Cathy Cohen’s Black feminist critique of queer politics was for my chapter on lesbian/welfare mothers, and I suspect Jaleel’s useful formulation that my book offers a form of solidarity based on “we are who and where and when we are” is inspired by Cohen as well.9 

These are gifts of feminist creativity, work that is made possible by yet more work, by proper relations of care. They would not exist if Jennifer Nash and Natali Valdez hadn’t written brilliant, books on reproduction and race and then agreed that our books had something to say to one another. And the time and care Subramaniam, Houser, Owens, and Jaleel took to explore those connections would have no home had the always brilliant Samantha Pinto not thought up and invited us into the supportive structure she built. It is thanks to her patient and compassionate tending that you are reading this right now. I am grateful to her for so readily extending me care many years ago when I needed it most, and for modeling how to build feminist relations inside the less hospitable structures from which we all work. 

  1. LeGuin, Ursula K. “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910,” in The Compass Rose (New York: Pendragon Press, 1982): 236.

  2. For a discussion of her term “life-making,” see “Social Reproduction and the Pandemic, with Tithi Bhattacharya” Sarah Jaffe, Dissent April 2020.


  4. Jennifer Nash, Birthing Black Mothers (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021): 100.

  5. For work that has especially influenced my analysis of the function and categorization of families under racial capitalism, see Rickie Solinger, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Abortion, Adoption, and Welfare in the United States (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (New York: Basic Books, 2002);; Evelyn Nakano Glenn Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Tiffany Lethabo King 2018 “Black ‘Feminisms’ and Pessimism: Abolishing Moynihan’s Negro Family” Theory & Event 21(1); Kathi Weeks 2021 “Abolition of the family: the most infamous feminist proposal” Feminist Theory 0(0); Sophie Lewis Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (New York: Verso, 2022).

  6. Sara Matthiesen, “Abortion Stories for Accomplices,” Post45 Abortion Now, Abortion Forever Cluster, June 30, 2023,

  7. Many thanks to Annie Gray Fischer for making this point.

  8. Hil Malatino, 2020. Trans Care. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  9. Cathy Cohen, 1997. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: the radical potentila of queer politics? GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 3(4): 437–65.