Abolition as the Logic of Care: A Comparative Study
Updated: Mar 24
Over the past few years, incited in part by our national response to the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and the 2020 murder of George Floyd, my conscience has been stirred by the visions of justice put forward by the movements formed around the abolition of abortion and policing. Needless to say, these movements are unconventional bedfellows, typically associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum. What’s more, our debates about abortion and policing are some of the most intensely polarizing of our cultural moment. Indeed, “debate” here is something of a euphemism: what we often have is simply mutual and irreconcilable hostility. The intensity surrounding these cultural impasses, while sometimes destructive, is understandable. Both policing and abortion touch on what are for many of us among our most intimate and painful experiences, necessarily concerning questions of life and death, justice and oppression. Most people in these conflicts genuinely consider themselves to be involved in the urgent task of advancing justice and reducing harm. Despite this basic commonality of intention, however, the realm that these conflicts play out in is often defined not merely by vigorous dissent but mutual unintelligibility and, consequently, mutual abhorrence.
"Both policing and abortion touch on what are for many of us among our most intimate and painful experiences, necessarily concerning questions of life and death, justice and oppression."
All this being said, I have been struck by the clear and often poignant affinities these movements have with each other. I believe these affinities can be summarized in terms of each movement’s emphasis on the value of human life, thick community, and ultimately a vision of radical cultural change. There are many interesting questions and complexities that come up when articulating these commonalities. My aim here, however, is not to engage these problems overly much, but simply to present these observations in the hope that they might serve, in some small way, as an intervention in our political habits of mind, prodding us to be more generous and curious as we engage with each other. Before I go further, however, two important provisos. First, it is undeniable that my social position as someone who has been largely insulated from the traumas and tragedies that often attend the practices of abortion and policing means that I am, in a crucial sense, among the least authoritative of voices writing and speaking about these issues. I have therefore tried, in my research, to defer to the voices of those whose lives are more directly impacted. That being said, I also want to suggest that, against a certain kind of epistemic gatekeeping, all voices in a political community are potentially relevant to discussion of even highly personal and explosive topics such as abortion and policing. We do in fact live in “an inescapable network of mutuality” and, therefore, all may hold a piece of the puzzle.1 This, of course, does not remove the need to speak and act with humility and love. Second, by framing this essay around the commonalities of these movements, I don’t mean to sideline the very real and marked differences that exist between them. However, I think we are, if anything, overly familiar with these differences and the ways they are repeatedly rehashed in our “culture war” framing. The similarities are less discussed and, at any rate, more interesting to think about.
So, let’s focus on these similarities. The first thing to note is that while the practices of abortion and policing are clearly quite contentious, there does at the same time exist a significant consensus as to their legitimacy. A solid majority of American adults (61%) supports the right to an abortion “in all or most cases.”2 Support for policing is similarly strong. While majorities of Americans across political and racial lines support an array of police reforms to address injustices, according to one national survey, only a minority (23%) supports outright abolition of policing.3 The movements organized around ending these practices are therefore, to a significant degree, countercultural. They understand themselves to be engaged in a struggle against an unjust status quo. This self-understanding colors how the three commitments I mentioned above—the value of human life, thick community, and radical cultural change—are expressed.
I. The value of human life
While pointing out this similarity may seem trite (who is against life?), the fact remains that both movements claim to be upholding the value of individual human life (especially the lives of marginalized persons) within a larger culture oriented towards death and the disposability of persons. Both movements find their raison dêtre in advocating for the end of a practice that, by its very nature, causes harm, up to and including death. This is straightforwardly the case with abortion—however one may understand the nature of the being whose life is being ended, or the extent to which its progenitors have the right to do so, the practice is by definition the ending of a life. This is a more controversial claim to make about policing, a practice which is often understood to be, by its practitioners and the general public alike, precisely a means of preventing and limiting harm in a community. Nonetheless, police abolitionists unequivocally understand the institution of policing to be inherently harmful in a manner for which death is the logical endpoint. As Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie, two prominent advocates for police abolition, argue in their book No More Police, “the violence of policing can never be reformed—because violence is inherent to the institution itself.”4 Similarly, the first two “Essential Findings” of the report on the Minneapolis Police Department prepared by the abolitionist group MPD150 are that, “The police were established to protect the interests of the wealthy, and racialized violence has always been part of that mission,” and, “The police cannot be reformed away from their core function.”5 It is not my aim here to assess the full truth of these claims, an undertaking which would be beyond the scope of this article. However, a sympathetic observer can remain agnostic on the question of inherent harmfulness while still appreciating the extent to which policing in the contemporary United States regularly is, as news headlines continually attest, a purveyor of death and other harms, especially for people of color, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable populations.6 An awareness of the harms regularly produced by policing, whether understood as essential or incidental to the institution’s mission, is enough to appreciate the critiques made by police abolitionists.
More than simply being opposed to practices that produce harm, both movements express their positive commitment to life through similar rhetoric. The language of life is, of course, on display in the most common moniker for abortion abolitionists (“pro-life”) as well as in the central slogan and organizing body for police abolitionists (“Black Lives Matter”). Local police abolitionist Miski Noor explains in an op-ed that, “[O]rganizers [are] envisioning a world where every human life is honored.”7 In the same vein, police abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore is quoted in the MPD150 report as saying that, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”8 Kaba, in an interview, similarly argues that police abolition is about creating a world “that is focused on life and true safety” and “where we have everything we need to live dignified lives.”9 For abortion abolitionists, the language of life is most fully expressed in the notion of a “culture of life,” perhaps most influentially articulated by American Cardinal Joseph Louis Bernardin in a lecture he delivered in 1983 titled “A Consistent Ethic of Life.” He insists that, contrary to a tendency to focus on the rights of the unborn to the exclusion of broader concerns, “[O]ur moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth.”10 Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, formulates a similarly expansive understanding of a culture of life, including abortion alongside other practices such as “murder, genocide…[and] euthanasia,” as well as “subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery…as well as disgraceful working conditions” as being symptoms of a pervasive culture of death.11 He characterizes such a culture as one that has replaced the values of solidarity and love with that of economic efficiency.12 A decade later, Pope Francis would elaborate on this theme when linking the practice of abortion to the notion of a “throwaway culture.”13
Consistently honoring life is not easy. Abortion and policing address real problems that perennially afflict human communities: unwanted pregnancy and interpersonal harm.14 The issue for those seeking the abolition of these practices is that both entail the use of violence to address problems that are more effectively, and humanely, addressed by creative deployments of care and love. This is the implication of Pope Francis’ brusque remark that having an abortion is like “hiring a hitman to resolve a problem.”15 The matter is more artfully put by John Paul II: “Serious…[social] problems,” in the absence of “responsible and effective attention,” are liable to be addressed through “false and deceptive solutions” which are opposed to the good of persons. The result is “tragic.”16 A similar sentiment is expressed by the authors of the MPD150 Report, who argue that “what we need are resources—the time and support to build a network of community safety providers that don’t solve every difficult problem with the threat of force.”17 Kaba and Ritchie quote a police abolitionist who speaks to the same point: “When I see police, I see one hundred other jobs smashed into one thing with a gun.”18 For both movements, the violence of the practice in question is the easier answer, an escape hatch from a more complex and challenging reckoning with the difficulty at hand.
"For both movements, the violence of the practice in question is the easier answer, an escape hatch from a more complex and challenging reckoning with the difficulty at hand."
II. Thick community
What would such a reckoning look like? Both movements have been accused of haziness and evasion when pressed to explain how they would address the challenges created by the abolition of the practice they critique.19 However, there are a variety of tools, both state-led and grassroots, preventive and remedial, that both camps of abolitionists have advocated for to address the problems of unwanted pregnancy and interpersonal harm. Broadly speaking, we are to create what Kaba and Ritchie call a “robust infrastructure of community safety” and what the theologian C. Kavin Rowe, in a different context, calls “structures of care.”20 Bioethicist O. Carter Snead, drawing on the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, speaks of the need to develop and strengthen “human networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving.”21 For abortion abolitionists, this might include the proliferation of pregnancy resource centers, the renewal of practices of hospitality within and beyond church communities, greater material provisioning by the state, the building-up of adoption and foster care networks, as well as personal material and spiritual aid to expectant mothers.22 For police abolitionists, an analogous array of practices and institutional investments are offered. Once again, greater material and social provisioning by the state (in the form of public investment in welfare programs, education, health care, housing, etc.) is advocated, as well as the expansion of restorative justice and conflict resolution programs, neighborhood watch groups, and violence interruption organizations.23 These are far from exhaustive lists, but they’re enough to indicate that, in both cases, the proposals often presuppose and seek to cultivate thick community. “Thick community” is a term with roots in political science and community organizing that indicates a social setting where there is a high degree of relationship, participation, and moral unanimity.24 I am using the term more or less in this sense, although distilled to designate simply a mode of living together that prioritizes the goods of solidarity and interdependence over those of autonomy and individualism. It is the latter goods, for opponents of both abortion and policing, that enjoy hegemony in American culture. They direct our hearts inwards, excessively valorizing our individual preferences and desires, distracting us from the love we owe our neighbors and the care we owe to the vulnerable of our communities.25 It is only by the practice, en masse, of such an other-oriented ethic of care that we can hope to build a world without abortion or policing, where the institutions and undertakings mentioned above have staying power and influence. To be sure, as Snead aptly notes, the goods of autonomy and individualism have their place in a full human life. It’s just that these goods can be more or less adequately ordered. In situations of thick community, it is taken for granted that the goods of solidarity and interdependence are constitutive of and prior to those that buttress our individuality. In other words, it is the former that makes the latter possible in the first place.26
This communitarian critique of autonomy and individualism is more explicitly and forcefully advanced by abortion abolitionists. Can this framework, one that privileges solidarity and interdependence, be fruitfully used to describe the movement for police abolition? Consider a story shared by Kaba about her effort to put into practice her abolitionist values: in her Chicago apartment complex, Kaba and her neighbors were routinely subjected to blaring music in the middle of the night by a group of young residents. The disruption to the community members’ sleep came to be intolerable and, at first, threats were made of calling the police. When this did nothing to stop the music, Kaba decided to experiment with a different approach. She organized a series of meetings with other residents, where they eventually resolved to approach the young people directly. A few uncomfortable conversations later, the group was invited over for lunch at Kaba’s apartment, where they began to talk:
As everyone ate, the conversation turned to the loud music. Mariame [Kaba] and her neighbors explained how disruptive the noise was to people’s sleep and well-being. They explained that there were small children in the building complex and that the music was disturbing their sleep, too. They asked why the teens chose to play the music so loud at all hours of the night, and what accommodation could be made. The teens listened quietly; after a few minutes one young person explained that they continued to blast music in defiance because they had been ‘disrespected’ by a neighbor who threatened to call the cops a few weeks earlier, without even giving them a chance to turn down the music. Their continued loud music playing was a deliberate act of antagonism. Mariame and her neighbors apologized to the teens for how they had been treated, suggested that it was alright for them to continue to hang out in the alley, and asked them if they would be willing to stop playing music so loud at night. The teenagers agreed to the compromise.27
In this example, one can see the logic of thick community at work: instead of approaching the loud music with the assertion, in the form of calling the police to deal with the matter, of her individual right to a good night’s sleep, Kaba instead chooses to begin a conversation, an act that draws her outside of herself and by its very nature indicates some degree of solidarity with the other. Indeed, truly engaging someone in conversation presupposes that they have a story and a dignity which is morally incompatible with enacting violence against them. (To be sure, Kaba would not have herself been violent to the youths by calling the police. However, she would have been deferring to an institution which, as abolitionists contend and experience often suggests, is biased towards violent solutions to even minor and nonviolent offenses such as playing loud music, especially if the offenders happen to be Black,)
As another example, consider the “public health” model of community safety touted by many police abolitionists as an alternative to punitive and carceral frameworks.28 Understanding the phenomenon of interpersonal harm in terms of the categories of “health” and “disease,” among other things, encourages one to think of this phenomenon in terms of our dependence upon networks of care. This is in contrast to using the standard categories of “lawfulness” and “criminality,” which foreground the individual will and rational agency, abstracting from our human situation of dependence and relatedness and instead positing an autonomous, self-directing agent. By privileging the latter categories, the institutions of policing and incarceration obscure those aspects of criminalized activity which are influenced and conditioned by the social, economic, political, and historical factors which, owing to our condition of dependence, shape us in ways we often cannot control, including our propensity to engage in criminalized activities in the first place. They therefore obscure the extent to which “criminals” are in fact, like all of us, relational beings who are in need of “unconditional and noncontingent care” in order to flourish.29 This is the implicit argument behind police abolitionists’ calls for divesting from traditional forms of law enforcement and reinvesting resources in meeting the basic material and social needs of communities.30 It’s a strategy that stems from the recognition that much of what is understood, if foregrounding the individual will’s noncompliance with law, as “crime,” is more helpfully understood, foregrounding our common nature as dependent, relational creatures, as an expression (however harmful) of an unmet need.31 And the appropriate, most human response to need is care.
III. Radical cultural change
It should be clear that fully implementing, in the form of a robust network of institutions and practices, this “thick” alternative to policing and abortion would be extraordinarily challenging, requiring the concerted and continual efforts of government, civil society, and countless individuals. Building nonviolent on-the-ground alternatives to these practices would, akin to the challenges of building a post-slaveholding United States, be the work of generations. Detailing in more depth the character of these alternative practices as they exist today or could exist is beyond the scope of this essay. All I wish to point out is that these two worlds, a world without police and a world without abortion, overlap considerably in their institutional features, the values that animate them, and the language used to describe their aims.
A key question presents itself: is such a world possible? It seems clear that there is a utopian impulse at the heart of both movements. I don’t say this to be dismissive, but descriptive: it is unlikely that there has been, is, or will be any place in our history totally devoid of the practice of abortion. And though we may well have gotten along without modern police forces for much of our history, it also seems unlikely that humans have ever or will ever live in community without being beset by the violent, retributive impulses that abolitionists see as being at the root of policing. In other words, both camps of abolitionists are necessarily dedicated to quite radical cultural change. Such utopianism clearly has dangers, dangers which can undoubtedly feed into the very conditions of political fragmentation I described at the outset. Indeed, one could argue that the very project of “abolition” is inherently opposed to compromise and dialogue. At the extreme, but not unprecedented, end of this disposition lies the use of violence to force the world to conform to one’s vision of the good. Blood has already been shed in the name of both abolitionisms. However, utopianism can also be an “analytic asset.”32 A full-throated vision of justice and peace, of the-world-as-it-could-be, may be necessary to meaningfully assess, or even perceive, the present state of injustice and violence we do experience, even if that vision may never be fully realizable.
There’s a lot more that could be said here on the nature and end of utopian thought, of thought that imagines the world made radically new. But to end, I'd like to simply double down on what I suggested earlier: we can begin to prevent the darker possibilities of our political commitments (utopian or otherwise) by cultivating our capacity for genuine dialogue, for engaging others with curiosity and generosity. If anything, I hope this brief comparative study has suggested that opportunities for such dialogue are more abundant than we might ordinarily assume. And while it’s true we cannot live on dialogue alone––we must stand for something substantive and fundamental in order to meaningfully relate to others in the first place––neither can we tolerate continuing much further down the path we’re on. For whatever our vision of the common good, it cannot come at the expense of the degradation of the human person. Indeed, it is the human being in her full flourishing which points towards that unspeakable mystery which is at once the source and consummation of all our limited efforts to advance justice. May we have the courage to consistently honor that reality.
"Indeed, it is the human being in her full flourishing which points towards that unspeakable mystery which is at once the source and consummation of all our limited efforts to advance justice."
Endnotes 1. King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html. Accessed 25 Jan. 2023. 2. Pew Research Center. “Majority of Public Disapproves of Supreme Court’s Decision To Overturn Roe v. Wade.” 6 July 2022. www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/07/06/majority-of-public-disapproves-of-supreme-courts-decision-to-overturn-roe-v-wade/. Accessed 25 Jan. 2023. 3. Cummings, Mike. “Resistance to 'Defund' or 'Abolish' the Police Rooted in Policy Proposals.” Yale News, Yale University, 8 Feb. 2022, https://news.yale.edu/2022/02/04/resistance-defund-or-abolish-police-rooted-policy-proposals. 4. Kaba, Mariame, and Andrea J. Ritchie. No More Police: A Case for Abolition, The New Press, New York, 2022, p.18 5. Enough Is Enough: A 150 Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Department. MPD150, 2020, p. 37. 6. For an accounting of police violence in the United States, see 2022 Police Violence Report. Mapping Police Violence, www.policeviolencereport.org. Accessed 31 January 2023. 7. Noor, Miski. “Police, Incarceration Don’t Equal Public Safety.” The Star Tribune, 3 December 2019. www.startribune.com/police-incarceration-don-t-equal-public-safety/565755472. Accessed 30 January 2023. 8. Enough Is Enough, p. 48 9. Kendi, Ibram X., host. “Prison & Police Abolition: Finding True Safety.” Be Antiracist with Ibram X. Kendi, season 1, episode 10, Pushkin Industries, 28 July 2021, www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/be-antiracist-with-ibram-x-kendi/prison-police-abolition-finding-true-safety 10. Bernardin, Joseph Louis. “A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic Dialogue.” Gannon Lecture, 6 December 1983, Fordham University, New York City, NY. 11. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, The Holy See, 1995, sec. 3-4 www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html. Accessed 30 January 2023. 12. Evangelium Vitae, sec. 12 13. Neuman, Scott. “Pope Calls Abortion Evidence of ‘the Throwaway Culture’.” NPR News, National Public Radio, 13 January 2014, www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/01/13/262085456/pope-calls-abortion-evidence-of-the-throwaway-culture. Accessed 31 January 31. 14. Following the lead of Kaba, I will employ the term “harm” when talking about what we would ordinarily refer to as “crime.” Doing so makes it clearer what police abolition is about: limiting behavior that undermines the conditions necessary for human flourishing. When this is the goal, abolitionists can talk coherently about both the harms produced by traditionally criminalized activities (such as gang violence) and those caused by actors whose violence is typically considered legitimate (police officers and the state). 15. Winfield, Nicole. “Pope: Abortion Is Never OK, Equates It to ‘Hiring a Hitman’.” AP News, Associated Press, 25 May 2019, www.apnews.com/article/health-religious-issues-ap-top-news-international-news-abortion-5137019e19c5410aa7e2c2b68f21824f. Accessed 30 January 2023. 16. Evangelium Vitae, sec. 4 17. Enough Is Enough, pg. 30, my italics 18. No More Police, pp. 245-6 19. Cloutier, David. “A Defining Conflict.” Commonweal, Commonweal Magazine, 8 September 2022, www.commonwealmagazine.org/defining-conflict. Accessed 30 January 2023; Navratil, Liz, et al. “Minneapolis Voters Reject Plan to Replace Police Department. Star Tribune, 3 November 2021, www.startribune.com/minneapolis-voters-reject-plan-to-replace-police-department/600112156. Accessed 31 January 2023. 20. No More Police, p. 13; Rowe, C. Kavin. Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2022, pp. 68-80. 21. Snead, O. Carter. What It Means To Be Human: The Case For the Body in Public Bioethics. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2020, p. 177. 22. For a look at pregnancy resource centers, see Wilgenbusch, Anna. “Clients Say Pregnancy Resource Centers Change Lives by Supporting Life.” The Catholic Spirit, 20 October 2022, www.thecatholicspirit.com/featured/clients-say-pregnancy-resource-centers-change-lives-by-supporting-life; on the possibilities for church practices of hospitality see Hauerwas, Stanley. “Abortion, Theologically Understood.” North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, 14 June 1990, Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, Inc., 1991, p. 3; for an example of a political platform informed by a commitment to a “culture of life” see “Principles & Platform.” American Solidarity Party, www.solidarity-party.org/platform. 23. For a broad overview of proposed alternatives to policing, see Sherman, Stephen Averill. “Many Cities Are Rethinking the Police, But What Are the Alternatives?” Urban Edge, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University, 22 July 2020, www.kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/many-cities-are-rethinking-police-what-are-alternatives. Accessed 31 January 2023. For specific examples of alternatives to policing see K. Agbebiyi, et al. “Solutions to Violence: Creating Safety Without Prisons or Police.” New York, Common Justice, 2021. 24. See, for example, Kaplan, Seth D. Human Rights in Thick and Thin Societies: Universality Without Uniformity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018; Dotson, Taylor. Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2017; Brooks, David. “How to Leave a Mark on People.” The New York Times, 18 April 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/opinion/how-to-leave-a-mark-on-people.html. 25. For a succinct “manifesto” for an approach to politics that privileges interdependence and solidarity, see Libresco Sargeant, Leah. “Dependence: Toward an Illiberalism of the Weak.” Plough, Plough Publishing, 7 December 2020, www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/culture-of-life/dependence. Accessed 30 January 2023. 26. What It Means To Be Human, pp. 89-92 27. No More Police, p. 241 28. See Deivanayagam, Thilagawathi Abi, et al. “Policing Is a Threat to Public Health and Human Rights.” BMJ Global Health, vol. 6, no. 2, 5 February 2021, www.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2020-004582; “Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue.” Policy Statement Database, American Public Health Association, 13 November 2018, www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2019/01/29/law-enforcement-violence. Accessed 30 January 2023. 29. What It Means To Be Human, p. 89 30. For an example of a proposal of this nature, see Kaba, Mariame. “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” The New York Times, 12 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html. Accessed 30 January 2023. 31. By emphasizing what I’ve called the “dependent” aspect of criminalized activity, I don’t thereby mean to dismiss concern for either individual moral agency or the flourishing of those victimized by interpersonal harm. Indeed, both concerns are essential ingredients in any effort to develop an “infrastructure of community safety.” However, as Danielle Sered of the restorative justice organization Common Justice has noted, “it is both dishonest and irresponsible to try to make sense of individual behavior independent of the broader context of structural oppression.” (See Common Justice’s report “Solutions to Violence.” p. 6) 32. Douthat, Ross. “Does American Society Need Abortion?” The New York Times, 14 December 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/14/opinion/abortion-america.html. Accessed 30 January 2023.