by Jennifer Hickey
Katie Darling, a Congressional hopeful from Louisiana, recently released a surprising campaign video that included footage of her giving birth. Darling is certainly not the first candidate to feature her family in a political ad. Candidates often use images of family and home to signal their desirability as “ordinary Joes” who will “put family first.” Yet the raw images of Darling in childbirth are a refreshing display of human vulnerability amidst the usual sea of macho posturing and mudslinging. By centering the transformational moment where life begins, Darling reminds us of our shared humanity and the importance of lawmaking as a mechanism to provide intergenerational resilience. Even more remarkable, she juxtaposes these images of childbirth with a discussion of the importance of access to abortion, sending a powerful message that abortion care is reproductive care; that abortion and family are not antithetical.
She almost got it right. In the ad, she seems to recognize that the state is failing to adequately respond to human vulnerability by not providing resources for education and storm mitigation, two of her three major platform issues. These issues clearly require government intervention and are framed as such. However, lack of quality reproductive healthcare, her third platform issue and arguably the focal point of the ad, is framed as a negative right rather than a problem necessitating government response. She discusses Louisiana’s strict abortion ban using typical liberal minimal-state-intervention language, making the problem seem to be one of government interference rather than inaction. She problematically extends this framing to all reproductive care in a subsequent interview:
“[Pregnancy] is a life-or-death medical condition that needs to be handled in a doctor’s office with a patient and should not be managed by legislators in Washington or in Baton Rouge. It is a private and intimate medical situation and it should be handled that way. Unfortunately, they’ve taken it out of the hands of patients, out of the hands of doctors and put it into the hands of legislators, which is inappropriate and it is an overreach. I wanted to communicate the harm that this kind of legislation causes in an approachable and relatable way by just sharing my story and how it impacts me.”
As I have written previously, reproductive health is absolutely the purview of the state. We can and should expect the state to support the reproduction of society and the creation and maintenance of healthy families. This includes taking affirmative steps to ensure access to quality birthing and abortion care. Darling acknowledges that the state has a general responsibility to provide “access to healthcare,” yet then completely privatizes the matter by asserting that it is overreach for the government to be involved in the relationship between a woman and her doctor. Surely Darling is not advocating that the government abandon women to seek reproductive care alone in a country with a shockingly high maternal mortality rate, a prevalence of obstetric violence, limited access to preferred contraception, and an unjust insurance system that provides quality reproductive care for only a chosen handful. And surely, she appreciates the myriad health and safety regulations that already “interfere” with her relationship with her doctor.
The problem is not that the state is involved; it is the nature of that involvement. We need to imagine a state that is responsive rather than punitive. We must embrace that possibility and advocate for it. We should not be asking the government to simply step aside and leave reproductive care (including abortion) to the private market. Vulnerability theory demands that we ask more of our state. How can we expect lawmakers to fulfill their obligations if we consistently assert that they should not be involved?
Further, Darling, like so many others, is quick to point out in her ad that she is not a “career politician,” as though that is not the exact career she is seeking. I appreciate the sentiment that fresh perspectives are needed in Washington, but demonizing politicians only furthers neoliberal demands for a non-interventionist state. Ideally, politicians represent our interests and are a vitally important vehicle for mitigating human vulnerability through law and policy. We must focus on breaking down this pervasive and harmful “us and them” divide. She had the opportunity to transcend this rhetoric by pushing beyond the typical “family on the farm” newcomer narrative, but ultimately, she couldn’t break free of the liberal constraints that demand she distance herself from the very state she is trying to serve.
It is not enough for our politicians to aspire only to stop banning abortion. We should expect more from our government than to simply leave us to fulfill the enormous responsibility of reproducing society alone.