To be pregnant in the United States is now more dangerous than ever. This is not simply due to rising maternal mortality, a broken health-care system or the fact that criminalizing abortion renders pregnant women or other pregnant people acutely vulnerable. These facts are compounded by the perilous combination of pregnancy, policing and digital surveillance in what is now a post-Roe America.
Recent headlines have focused on how contemporary digital surveillance renders seeking abortion care intensely fraught in the shifting post-Roe legal landscape. Data, experts note, can be easily acquired and weaponized against anyone who does not carry a pregnancy successfully to term. This is neither a dystopian hypothetical, nor is it a new trend. The criminalization of pregnancy has been steadily on the rise for decades, intensifying acutely alongside the rise of U.S. homeland security culture.
While the policing of pregnancy and the homeland security state may seem unrelated, they are in fact intimately enmeshed. Reproductive surveillance, coercion and control is a durable and devastating pattern in U.S. history — and one that has historically intensified alongside nationalism and perceived threats to the nation.
Our dystopian present is deeply rooted in how motherhood has long been imagined as a vehicle for the nation. Consider a few examples from history. The strict regulation of reproduction proved critical to the founding of the U.S. republic as a white-supremacist colonial state. Historian Linda Kerber notes that, in lieu of enfranchisement, wealthy White women were to perform citizenship through mothering — to birth those who would inherit and shape the fledgling nation. Early Colonial bans on interracial marriage and the strict enforcement of White women’s fidelity all but ensured a growing White population.
White women’s compulsory motherhood stood in stark contrast to the sexual and reproductive abuse of Black and Indigenous women in the early republic. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts documents how enslaved Black women were denied motherhood. Their children were born into bondage and designated enslaver property by law. Thus, White men’s rape of enslaved Black women was a key weapon in perpetuating slavery and establishing White wealth across generations. The colonization of the Americas more broadly relied on sexual and reproductive violence, with White colonizers leaving detailed accounts of rape and murder of Indigenous women, attesting to its centrality in the broader project of White nation-building.
The mechanisms of reproductive control shifted alongside social and political changes, but reflected enduring investments in the United States as a White nation.