Abortion to Abolition: An Interview with Martha Paynter

Martha Paynter discusses her new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada.

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Martha Paynter is a registered nurse who provides abortion and postpartum care, as well as a prison abolition activist. She is also a frequent contributor to Impact Ethics. In her new book, Abortion to Abolition (which is illustrated by Julia Hutt), Paynter connects the topics of abortion and prison abolition to show how they are crucial for reproductive rights in Canada. Here, Impact Ethics editor Chris Kaposy interviews Paynter about her book.

Q: To most readers, it is obvious how access to abortion is necessary for reproductive justice. How is prison abolition connected to reproductive health and justice?

Imprisonment violates all the core principles of reproductive justice, a movement created by and led by Black feminists, that calls for not only protection of the right to not have children, but to have children, and to parent the children we choose to have in safe environments. People in prison are part of the public in Canada, even if their experiences are largely kept very hidden, and their rights must be protected by this movement. Incarcerated people face barriers to basic reproductive health services, like contraception and prenatal care; they endure sexual assault in the form of strip searches and dry celling; they are routinely separated from their babies immediately after birth; and their incarceration results in intergenerational trauma. Most efforts to remedy or reform the prison system result in expanding the reach of and public investment in incarceration, making the problematic consequences that much worse. Only by abolishing prisons will we achieve reproductive liberation for us all. 

Q: The illustrations by Julia Hutt are eye-catching. How did you make the creative decision that Abortion to Abolition should be an illustrated book?

Hutt and I have collaborated since she was the Artist in Residence for Wellness Within: An Organization for Health and Justice’s annual conference in 2019. When Fernwood (the publisher) approached me about writing a book, I immediately imagined it with illustrations. For one thing, these topics – abortion, prison abolition – are not light. I wanted this to be a book people would enjoy reading, that would make them feel pride and awe about the progress made and to feel driven to participate in all the remaining work left to do. The illustrations make the content more approachable. But also, the movement for abolition is fundamentally about creativity – creating new, compassionate responses to social harm. So, it makes sense to engage artists, and to be deliberate about the importance of art in envisioning abolitionist futures.

Q: The book discusses reproductive oppression in Canada versus reproductive liberation. We should not be complacent about progress and assume that justice is inevitable. But over time, has there been progress?

Absolutely. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was my concern that we are so bombarded with US news that people in Canada are more familiar with “Roe v Wade” than with the fact that abortion has been completely decriminalized in Canada for nearly 35 years. Without a firm grasp of the history, current challenges can be misunderstood, and advocacy efforts misdirected. My first goal with the book was to clarify abortion rights here, while naming and celebrating the “ordinary” heroes behind monumental cases and legislative changes that advanced those rights. I also wanted to capture other critical moments of progress toward reproductive justice – from gun control legislation to reparations for forced sterilization, to campaigns for water protection. Finally, I argue that with this broader definition of reproductive liberation, what we need to worry about in Canada is not so much abortion, but how colonialism, racism, trans- and homophobia are mobilized through state institutions like child “protection” and the prison system. These are the greatest threats to collective reproductive health and autonomy.

Q: The stories that you tell in the book often speak of organizing groups and creating networks as a necessary feature of making change. To realize the goals of reproductive health and justice, who needs to be brought on-side? Who needs to become an ally?

My colleagues in health care are, I argue, ethically required to come on board. To champion reproductive justice, it isn’t enough for clinicians to support the “choice” to terminate, or even to prescribe medications for abortion. The health system can be responsible for severe discrimination and oppression through weapons like birth alerts, urine drug tests, obstetric violence, private costs, and patient neglect. We have a long list of things that we need to change.

Beyond actors in the health system, the book urges every person who holds so-called “pro-choice” values to see beyond abortion in their understanding of reproductive autonomy, to make the connection to state interference and violence like child removal, policing, and prisons. And to participate in dismantling those systems, so everyone can thrive.

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