It Was Never About Saving Babies. It Was Always About Motherhood.

There is perhaps no better (or eerier) reminder of the insidious, underlying idea that women are destined to be mothers than the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill RBG’s spot on the Supreme Court.

amy coney barrett mother abortion
(Boston Red Cloaks / Jessica Steigerwald)

We love to pretend the controversy around abortion in this country is about the fetus. And for good reason: Anti-abortion protesters, with their vivid picket signs of angelic floating babies or gruesome dismembered fetuses, have successfully distracted us.

In reality, the debate runs deeper into the fibers of American culture, and uses abortion as a way to symbolically argue about what motherhood should or should not mean. 

Access to abortion implies sex for pleasure, lack of emotional connection to a pregnancy, and perhaps most threateningly, viewing motherhood as less important than other aspirations.

So, for those who highly value traditional gender expectations, restrictive sexuality and the nuclear family, abortion is a threat. By rolling back access to abortion, anti-abortion bills seek to reify the gender binary and its restrictive expectations for how women should behave.

For gender theorists and medical sociologists, the motherhood question beneath the abortion debates is clear; for everyone else, it’s easy to get lost in the loud discourse of when life begins. 

There is perhaps no better (or eerier) reminder of the insidious, underlying idea that women are destined to be mothers than the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill RBG’s spot on the Supreme Court.

amy coney barrett mother abortion
President Trump announcing Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court on Sept. 26. (@Mike_Pence / Twitter)

She is not only a conservative Catholic judge who was revealed this week to have signed a letter calling to end “barbaric” Roe v. Wade and to support a group who says abortion providers should be criminalized. Importantly, she is also a woman who centers her identity as a mother before any other personal attribute or accomplishment.

In her first words introducing herself to the nation as the SCOUTS nominee, she listed her children—all seven of them, both biological and adopted.

She even says, “While I am a judge, I am better known back home as a room parent, carpool driver and birthday party planner,” emphasizing that she is not only a mother, but a mother that goes above and beyond for her children—echoing years of research on intensive motherhood

amy coney barrett mother abortion
Judge Amy Coney Barrett and her family at the White House on Sept. 26. (@FLOTUS / Twitter)

While it is not unusual to mention one’s family during a nomination speech (see Sonia Sotomayor’s and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s speeches), what stands out is her cartoonish portrayal of idealized motherhood, and more specifically white motherhood.


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Much like how anti-abortion movements have always been rooted in white supremacy, societal ideas of what makes a “good mother” in the U.S. has always described the mothering of upper middle class white women.

Poor women and women of color have long been shamed for not living up to these impossible standards of mothering—of minivans and PTO meetings, carting kids from one after school activity to another, and of putting children (and pregnancies) before all other aspirations.

In the same breath, women who choose abortion due to being unable to achieve these standards—a choice many view as a selfless extension of motherhood—are likewise shamed for ending their pregnancy. 

It is important, therefore, to pay close attention to what Barrett’s appointment symbolizes for women, motherhood and for a potential future without safe and legal abortion.

We can contrast her nomination speech with that of Sonia Sotomayor’s for instance. The now justice—notably childless—thanked her mother and brothers during her nomination speech. But she brought the focus to her personal qualifications to be a judge, listing her degrees and professional experience.

She even emphasized her passion for her work, saying,

“I chose to be a lawyer and ultimately a judge because I find endless challenge in the complexities of the law. I firmly believe in the rule of law as a basic foundation for all our rights.”

Barrett made no such allusions to her professional qualifications (aside from brief mention of clerking for Antonin Scalia, again as a dog whistle to the culture she represents). Indeed, she brought the focus to her qualifications as a “good mother” first and foremost. 

amy coney barrett mother abortion
(Boston Red Cloaks / Jessica Steigerwald)

These choices in her nomination speech are sharply contrasted by her co-opting of the term “breaking glass ceilings,” which falsely recasts herself and the undoing of reproductive justice as compatible with feminism. Others similarly wish to claim her as a “new feminist icon.”

But merely being a woman in a male-dominated occupation is not sufficient to cementing one’s self as a feminist. Sure, she is flaunting her ability to balance idealized motherhood with a career—but like many other followers of the “lean in” brand of feminism, she likely receives help behind the scenes.

How will the low-income women who work as nannies and housekeepers for families like the Barretts likewise achieve such balance without Roe? Or without birth control? 

Make no mistake, we should focus on her appalling record of striking down reproductive rights. However, we must not overlook the broader symbolism of her appointment: in choosing her as the woman to potentially turn back Roe, the Republican party is reminding us of their underlying, fervent wish: for women to remember their place as mothers first and humans second.

This is not “the new face of feminism”; this is a repackaged misogyny guised behind a smiling mother—a mother that values this identity so much, she wants to create a world where giving birth is no longer a choice, but a legal mandate. 

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About

Andréa Becker is a PhD Candidate and NSF graduate research fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. She researches and writes about gender and health, including work on hysterectomies and abortion. She teaches sociology of health at Lehman College. You can follow her at @andreavbecker or learn more at andrea-becker.com.