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The ephemeral politics of feminist accompaniment networks in


Mexico City
Amy Krauss

Our discourse is based on a great silence, why? Because we don’t want to understand
that the concept of life implies death.1 (Feminist abortion counsellor in Mexico City)

Is it possible to understand feminist activism for abortion access as a form of

reproductive labour? How might doing so open up different kinds of questions about

autonomy and dependency, freedom and necessity, mortality and political life? In order

to explore this possibility one must begin with the premise that reproduction is never a

simple matter of the biological continuity of the species, but rather involves the

achievement of a form of life with others.2 Reproduction is never ‘just’ a biological

event; it requires an ongoing engagement with, and re-creation of the world.3

Marxist Materialist feminist Selma James writes in her introduction to The Power

of Women and the Subversion of Community that ‘we inherited a distorted and reformist

concept of capital itself as a series of things which we struggle to plan, control or

manage, rather than as a social relation which we struggle to destroy’ (Dalla Costa and

James, 1972: 5; emphasis in original). James ultimately argues that capitalism exploits

our [women’s] reproductive relations, ‘our relations with men, with our children and our

very creation of them, into work productive to this accumulation’ (Dalla Costa and

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James, 1972: 12). In her view, the exploitation of domestic labour stems from women’s

isolation within the household – which is paradoxically productive for capital in so far as

women’s activities prepare and discipline the husband and the child for work. By arguing

for the political potential of reproductive labour, James draws attention to the difficulty

that gender poses within Marxist orientated concepts of labour and emancipation.4 One

might track this difficulty through the tendency in feminist thought to regard the

reproductive cycle either as an obstacle to women’s agency or as the experiential

condition of a specifically feminine subjectivity (De Beauvoir, 1949; Kristeva, 1981;

Hartsock, 1983; Ruddick, 1989; Zerilli, 1992; Tronto, 1993). There is a persistent tension

between imagining the feminine role in both biological and social reproduction as a

constraint and as a source of power and subjective becoming. Hannah Arendt’s

conceptual tripartite of labour, work and action, elaborated in The Human Condition

(1958), and later the concept of ‘natality’, provide a compelling ground from which to

explore this tension further. Revolving around Arendt’s conceptual matrix is a series of

fragile distinctions between freedom and necessity, or the capacity for newness and the

constraints of repetition. Marxist Materialist feminist attempts to theorise labour contain a

similar double valence. Like Arendt, James locates political action in the creation of

worlds in counterpoint to Capitalist accumulation and consumption. My question is how

such creative acts might involve perpetual undoing and re-doing, as much as newness.

In this article, I first examine how Arendt marks the difference between labour,

work and action, arguing that her effort to separate bodily life from the capacity for

political action stems from her concern for the durability of the world. I then bring

Arendt’s thought into dialogue with my ethnographic research with feminist

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acompañantes, or advocate-companions, in Mexico City who facilitate access to safe

abortion. I trace my own discomfort with the transience of accompaniment, turning to

how one of my interlocutors describes her feminist ethics, in spite of its contracted and

ephemeral temporality. In conclusion, I suggest that accompaniment practices might be

understood as a form of reproductive labour in so far as they generate a fleeting relation

of care between women in situations of abortion and feminist activists. They require a

quality of attention in spite of the fact that connections dissolve, and in this sense they are

a form of political action that inhabits a space in-between world-making and repair.

Animal labourans and the disappearance of the world

Hannah Arendt is often cited as a theorist of freedom and natality in so far as she

envisions our humanity in terms of a radical agency of interruption and the capa- city to

begin anew (Day, 2010; Lambek, 2010; Halpern 2011). Feminist political theorists have

debated the implicit hierarchy of masculine and feminine values in her thinking, for she

distinguishes the capacity for natality in opposition to the repetitions of bodily and

domestic life (Rich, 1979; Benhabib, 1993; Dietz, 1995; Honig, 1995; Zerilli, 1995;

Pitkin, 1998; Hartsock, 2004; Honig, 2013). Rather than focus on debates about ‘the

body’ as a feminised biological fact pushed outside Arendt’s notion of political space, I

want to turn our attention to how her distinc- tion between labour and action implies a

particular aspiration for a durable world.

Various essays in Bonnie Honig’s edited volume Feminist Interpretations of

Hannah Arendt (1995) delineate the non-binary complexity of Arendt’s concepts.5 Honig

points to how the oppositional pairings of public and private, active and passive, freedom

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and necessity, interruption and automaticity proliferate in an ‘effort to resist the erosion

of a distinction that is tenuous’ (1995: 144). Honig’s attunement to the shifting centres of

Arendt’s thought, and based on this attunement the refusal to inscribe a gender dualism,

leads her to argue that the tripartite of vita activa – labour, work and action – might be

best understood as rivalling sensibilities or dispositions (1995). Honig has since

developed her sense of Arendtian agonism as an alternative to what she calls the

‘mortalist ethical turn’ in political theory (2013). In contrast to an ethics based on

corporeal vulnerability and finitude (see, for example: Butler, 2004), Honig draws on

Arendt’s thought to argue for a ‘politics of natality’ that would counterbalance

‘grievability’ with immortality, pain with pleasure. My interest here is not so much to

displace, or balance a politics of finitude and suffering with positive affective

orientations, but to rethink the relation between political and bodily life, or ‘life lived and

the life of living matter’ (Fassin, 2009: 48). I shift from a sense of finitude and fragility as

necessary to the biological body to how mortality and natality are knitted together in the

way one lives in the world (see Das and Han, 2016: 41). Mortality does not only, or

primarily refer to bodily limits, but to the ‘finiteness’ of our moral and political relations

as well (see: Han, 2014).

In the opening pages of The Human Condition, Arendt writes of the nightmare of

‘painless and effortless consumption’ in which ‘eventually no object of the world will be

safe from consumption and annihilation through consumption’ (1958: 132). Positioning

herself critically towards Marxist theory, she argues that having con- ceived of labour as

the highest and most natural of human capacities, Marx leaves us ‘with the rather

distressing alternative between productive slavery and unpro- ductive freedom’ (Arendt,

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1958: 125). Her argument in The Human Condition thus begins by reconfiguring labour

as a property of being animal, or having a living body, rather than unique to the capacities

of being human: ‘Of all human activities, only labor, and neither action nor work is

unending, progressing automatically in accordance with life itself and outside the range

of willful decisions or humanly meaningful purposes’ (Arendt, 1958: 126).

Labour is ‘automatic’, inseparable from the natural cycles of life and death. It is

precisely this degradation of labour as tied to nature that has led feminist readers of

Arendt to try to recuperate ‘the body’. But perhaps equally important for Arendt is the

sense that labour does not produce the durable objects that would protect us from our

own mortality; for this we need a shared world – what Arendt elsewhere refers to as the

‘space of appearance’. The world is made of human artifice, the ‘durability’ of which

transcends the individual cycle of life and death as well as the smaller-scaled cycles of

production and consumption. What haunts Arendt about the necessity of labour is that it

reveals the fact that we might lose our place in the world. Like pain, which is the most

private and unshareable of all bodily neces- sities, labouring throws the body back upon

itself:

The only activity which corresponds strictly to the experience of


worldlessness, or rather to the loss of the world that occurs in pain, is
laboring, where the human body, its activity notwithstanding, is also
thrown back upon itself, concentrates upon nothing but its own being
alive, and remains imprisoned in its metabolism with nature without ever
transcending or freeing itself from the recurring cycle of its own
functioning. (Arendt, 1958: 135)

How might we understand this condition of the body ‘thrown back upon itself’? Here

Arendt considers it to be fundamentally opposed to the creation of a world, a kind of

worldlessness and imprisonment in our relation to nature, calling to mind the tension in

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Marxist Feminist debates about the emancipation of women’s labour from the private

sphere (see Weeks, 2011). But it might also call to mind the phenomenology of illness

and affliction, an idea I will return to in the conclusion.

Arendt further contrasts the nonproductivity of labour with the world-making

activities of work. While animal labourans is tied to the cycles of life that cannot make a

durable product, homo faber erects objects that mediate the human rela- tionship with

nature:

...the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and
their objectivity lies in the fact that—in contradiction to the Heraclitean
saying that the same man can never enter the same stream—men, their
ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is,
their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. . .
(Arendt, 1958: 157)

The ‘world’ is, in part, a material architecture that protects us from eternal movement;

objectivity saves us from our otherwise impermanent nature.6 But superior even to the

concrete objects of homo faber are the world-making capa- cities of action. The products

of action are the ‘webs of human relationships. . . no less real than the world of things

that we visibly have in common’ (Arendt, 1958: 203).7 Both work and action are

productive of worlds, but only action propels us into relationships with others. Action is

therefore imagined as the antithesis of the ‘body thrown back upon itself’, as it opens us

out onto the world and our interdependence with others.

While Arendt’s theory of humanity foregrounds the capacity for action over the

suffering of labour, we must not confuse her idea of agency with taken for granted

notions of the liberal humanist subject. In her essay ‘What is Freedom?’, she argues that

freedom is not synonymous with free will, but rather an ‘infinite improbability’, a

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‘miracle—that is something which could not be expected’ (Arendt, 1961: 169).8 In

distinction to homo faber who is master of himself and his doings, the freedom of action

implies that we cannot control or even foretell its consequences. Action is therefore not

collapsible into decision-making or choosing between rival- ling paths or options.9

Rather, it erupts when our care for the world presents no other alternative (see Halpern,

2011). Furthermore, Arendt alerts us to our capa- city to disrupt the ‘automatic processes’

not only of bodily life but of the political order:

Once . . . historical processes have become automatic, they are no less


ruinous than the natural life process that drives our organism and which in
its own terms, that is, biologically, leads from being to non-being, from
birth to death. The historical sciences know only too well such cases of
petrified and hopelessly declining civilizations where doom seems
foreordained, like a biological necessity...(Arendt, 1961: 168)

In this sense, as Arendt opposes the interruptive agency of action to the repetitive

necessity of labour and biological life, she also describes how the possibility of freedom

is bound to the fragility of human relationships. We might then re-imagine the labouring

body, or the body-in-pain, as one picture (among others) of that aspect of the human

condition governed by ‘the time of mortality and [the] risk [of our] eradication’, as a way

of being in the world (Lear, 2008; Honig, 2013: 43). Whereas some critics have read

mortality as mere biological life, I argue that the mortality Arendt fears is the

disappearance of a shared world, a real web of relationships – a space of appearance. In

other words, what is interesting about Arendt’s conceptualisation of the labouring body is

not that she separates ‘bare life’ from the political sphere of ‘men’, but rather that it alerts

us to the uncertain way our life is implicated with others.10 Arendtian action exposes us

to vulnerability not because our biological lives are at stake, but because, in Bonnie

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Honig’s words, ‘if action goes awry, we may be hurt or misunderstood’ (2013: 43).

Accompaniment and the vulnerability of action

Latin American scholars have documented the intensification of legal debates sur-

rounding abortion in the region over the last decade, pointing to the co-occurrence of the

expansion of reproductive rights discourses with a surge of legal restrictions and criminal

prosecutions of ‘illegal’ abortion practices (Morgan and Roberts, 2012; Gloppen and

Gianella-Malco, 2014; Ruibal, 2014; Yamin and Bergallo, 2017). In 2007, the legislative

assembly of Mexico City made a series of reforms to decriminalise abortion within the

first twelve weeks of pregnancy, stipulating a new regulatory framework for the

‘Interrupcio ́n Legal del Embarazo’ (Legal Interruption of Pregnancy), or ‘ILE’, to be

provided free-of-cost in city government health centres. The reforms were followed by a

severe backlash across the country. Many Mexican states made local constitutional

amendments to protect life ‘at the moment of conception’, re-iterating the criminality of

abortion outside of state-authorised exceptions (GIRE, 2013). Mexican feminists and

human rights advocates have extensively documented how women who petition states

under such exceptional provisions are so delayed and morally attacked in the process of

giving proof that they are either not able to attain the procedure in time or give up trying

(GIRE, 2013; IAHR, 2016).11

The normative disjuncture between the legalisation of Mexico City and its crim-

inalisation in other states is informed by the federalist organisation of state-level criminal

codes and health laws, allowing for extreme variation across jurisdictions. On a federal

level, the Mexican National Supreme Court of Justice upheld Mexico City’s reforms in

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2008, and, in following years, also reaffirmed the constitutional amendments to protect

life at the moment of conception on the grounds of jur- isdiction. The progressive

opening of Mexico City abortion laws and healthcare services has thus coincided with the

intensification of the criminalisation and public moral appraisal of abortion across

Mexico. Against this backdrop, Mexico City- based feminist organisations have emerged

with the explicit aim of facilitating access to safe, legal abortion to women living in states

where it remains illegal. Between 2009 and 2014, I conducted ethnographic research as

an abortion access advocate in the feminist organisation Fondo MARIA, or the MARIA

Abortion Fund for Social Justice.12

Advocates in the MARIA Fund engage in a wide range of activities: providing

information about safe and legal options for terminating pregnancy over the phone and by

email, arranging bus and plane tickets to Mexico City, counselling women in their

decision-making process, making referrals to other organisations (such as for religious

counsel or legal advocacy) and physically accompanying women to public and private

clinics when they have no one else who can go with them. This final activity, referred to

within the group as ‘acompañamiento presencial’ (accompaniment in presence/in person),

is what the feminist activists in the MARIA Fund consider most expressive of their first

organising principle: to respond to women’s immediate needs within the limited time

frame of the abortion situation. The responsibilities of in-person accompaniment are

shared between a small group of volunteers and a core group of five women who work

with paid office hours. Oftentimes women dealing with an untenable pregnancy call the

office or fill out a request form for support on the Fondo MARIA website. Sofía, the

coordinator of the volunteer acompañantes responds to requests following a strict and

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elaborate protocol that has been designed incrementally over the years. Working in the

office every day, she holds many things together. She follows cases over time, collects

post-support evaluations and systematises information from each case in the database.

She also keeps an accompaniment mobile phone with which she maintains contact

between acompañantes and the women travelling to the city. On a typical day of

accompaniment work, text messages begin relaying between the travelling woman, Sofía

and the acompañante at 5.30 in the morning. Because all public clinic procedures are

provided on a first-come-first-served basis, women and their companions – parents,

partners and children – begin to gather outside the clinic gate around sunrise. At 6.30 am

a guard approaches the gate and asks everyone to form a queue.

Often enough, accompaniment broke away from protocols due to necessity. On

numerous occasions when I was already at the clinic with someone who had contacted

the organisation through the usual channels, I would encounter other women and families

in need of support. This was not unusual in the chaotic public clinic environment where

situations inevitably poured out of the bounds of regu- latory frameworks and limitations.

There was one occasion early on in fieldwork when I encountered two women leaving the

clinic in a panic because they had been denied services. The receptionist had suggested

that they speak to me about their predicament, knowing I was outside waiting for one of

the other patients.

The sisters had travelled from León, Guanajuato by bus the night before, arrived

at the clinic and waited outside, unsure of how or where to enter until 9 am. The entrance

is around the side of the health centre, while in front a pro-life stand that masquerades as

official information about ILE deters women from finding the actual entrance. When the

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sisters finally found the entry, the doctor agreed to do an ultrasound but would not give

the woman who was pregnant, named Marisol, an aspiration procedure because it was too

late in the day. The particular encounter made a lasting impression on me, maybe because

I was a novice acompañante; I remember feeling completely ungrounded in the situation.

In retrospect, it has come to mark the tension between the conditions of ephemerality

under which accompaniment unfolds and the feminist aspirations for a durable network

of solidarity.

It was Marisol’s sister who spoke, her eyes filling up with tears as she told me in a

hushed voice what had happened leading up to their arrival to DF. She spoke so quickly

and so under her breath that I only caught the major points: that Marisol had taken pills

and vomited and so it was as though she had not taken them at all, that they had then

gone to the hospital in León where they were told that Marisol could not have an

abortion. . . at which point it vaguely became clear to me that she had been sexually

assaulted. They had come to Mexico City under a lot of pressure and then waited in front

of the health centre until 9 am or so instead of coming around the back to the ILE clinic.

They had no money to pay for a room to wait until morning, not even for food. As

Marisol’s sister recounted the details, we sat on the bench outside the clinic, the two of

them often holding hands, resting their knees against one another and sharing a juice.

I called Sofía in the office to see if the MARIA Fund could offer support.

Listening to Marisol speak to Sofía I gathered that she was just my age with a similar

birthday, and that her sister was younger. She was very pretty, wearing a beige fuzzy

beret, but her hair looked distressed and the skin on her arm was so dry and chaffed that it

was flaking off around the inner crease of her elbow. As she spoke her voice seemed flat

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and she stared off into the distance. How many weeks did they tell me? She asked

holding the phone away from her ear. 9.6, I said. Huh? She asked again distractedly, 9.6 I

repeated, and she repeated it to Sofía.

Sofía gave her directions to a private clinic where she could be attended that day

and the MARIA Fund would cover the costs. I pulled out a paper and pen and handed it

to her and she wrote diagonally across the page, Metro San Lazaro, Linea 1, 8, la Rosa. It

was the first time they had been to Mexico City. Marisol seemed tender and grateful

towards her sister; perhaps she was relieved not to have to muster up a voice, or perhaps

not to have to demonstrate her feelings. I stepped inside to let the clinic staff know they

were leaving and when I came back outside they were no longer on the bench. I thought

to myself, both a bit relieved and perplexed, now that they know what to do they have

gone on without me. Then I saw them gathering their things against the wall of the clinic.

Ready? I asked. Yes, Marisol’s sister answered, and we all walked out to the street to

catch a pesero (informal mini-bus). The sister gave the driver ten pesos for all of us; I

tried to give her five pesos back but she refused.

We didn’t speak during the bus ride. When we got off we awkwardly waited to

cross the busy highway between the bus stop and the metro station. As they entered

through the gate they turned around and asked if I would also take the metro. Yes, but in

the other direction, I said, which was not true, but at that point I felt we should go

separate ways. We hugged and kissed on the cheek, as is common practice between

acquaintances. I watched them walk down the platform from above and waited until their

train came and left before going down myself.

Afterwards I went home to sleep, exhausted. I awoke to the sound of a text

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message from Sofía who let me know that Marisol had made it to the clinic and that

everything was fine, punctuated with a smiley face. My heart sped up and my thoughts

began to race – what if they are in danger in León; what kind of situation are they going

back to? What if they are involved in a terrible mess that this abortion doesn’t come close

to solving? Why didn’t I ask her, why didn’t I find out more? Somehow it hit me then,

sharply, that Marisol must have been through something awful. With just the piecemeal

information about their situation and a series of complicated and painful impressions

from our encounter, I found it hard to let go. I was terrified by the sense that I would not

know what could happen to her. I would not know how she is, if or when she would come

out of the blank state she had been in. I wondered how old her sister was, who was now

courageously taking care of her. And a sense of panic, the gnawing sense that the

‘support’ I facilitated was partial, superficial even, while at the same time dire and

intense.

Reproductive labour and the time of mortality

In retrospect, much of the unease I felt from this accompaniment encounter

stemmed from the impossibility of knowing the effects of my action. As an organisation,

the MARIA Fund works hard to generate and apply measures of self-evaluation, but they

often become unstable in the spontaneous interactions between women seeking support

and the activists. Thus there is an elaborate effort on the part of Sofía, the coordinator of

accompaniment, and Oriana, one of the founders, to build accompa- niment practices into

a solid framework of reproductive rights, mobilising discourses of women’s

empowerment through reproductive decision-making and autonomy, maintaining contact

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with women until at least two months after the abortion proce- dure so that they can

respond to a series of questions about their experience and, in the best of cases, so that

the women remain part of the network by facilitating access to safe abortion for another

woman in need. Alongside the accompaniment activities geared towards actualising

women’s legal right to abortion are the professionalisation activities aimed at supplying

activists and workers in the organisation with the lan- guage and expertise of

transnational feminism. In her analysis of global feminist networks, Annelise Riles

describes how they are composed of ‘institutions, knowledge practices, and artifacts

thereof that internally generate the effects of their own reality by reflecting on

themselves’ (2001: 3; see also: Alvarez, 1999; Groeneveld, 2015). This is an apt

description of many of the professionalisation activities that the women in the Paulina

Network value very highly, but at the same time Riles’ narrow focus on the reflexivity of

knowledge practices obscures the potential action involved in feminist activism (Day and

Goddard, 2010; Grewal and Bernal, 2014). Here Arendt’s distinction between homo faber

and ‘the man of action’ is helpful, for as the former instrumentalises the world while

creating it, the latter is involved in the possibility of newness and the uncertain outcome

of inserting oneself into webs of relationships.

A discomfort arose from a sense that my encounter with Marisol and her sister

was governed by the ‘time of mortality’. That is to say if accompanying Marisol to a

private clinic counts as political action, it could only be so within the ephemeral

temporality that Arendt attributes to the labouring body in opposition to the creation of a

durable world. We acted together out of necessity in the present, without an anchor in the

past or a shared project into the future. While Marisol’s ability to access abortion

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certainly opened towards a different future than what would have followed from having

to carry her pregnancy to term, I did not know the details of where she was coming from,

nor where she was going. The horizons of her life could not be reduced to the aspirations

of accompaniment. While the idea of the ‘feminist network’ is the constant expansion of

relationships, accompaniment actually relies on a connection that dissolves almost as

quickly as it forms (Mohanty, 2003; Strathern, 2004). How might we understand

accompaniment as political action, then, when it has such little claim on durability?

In conversations with Sofía, the coordinator of acompañantes, I began to think

about the world-making effects of accompaniment practices. Sofía describes her work as

a counsellor in an ILE clinic, and later as a feminist advocate in the MARIA Fund, as a

kind of affective labour that counters the technical frameworks of clinical intervention

that characterise the ILE program. Just before I returned to Baltimore afternearly two

years of fieldwork, I invited Sofía over to my one-room apartment on the roof of an

elderly woman’s house to conduct a recorded interview. Beneath me lived a young

woman from Venezuela who called the Señora of the house abuelita (grandma), and they

often yelled back and forth to one another across the patio. My apartment was accessible

by a rickety spiral staircase that led to a small rooftop area. Sofía and I sat there, with the

Señora and my downstairs neighbour calling out to one another in the background, until

the afternoon rainstorm became too dramatic and we moved inside.

Sofía had joined the core group in the MARIA Fund office six months after I

began a long phase fieldwork in 2012. Beforehand, I had known her as an essential

contact person at one of the clinics when I was beginning to do accompaniment and was

quite unsure of myself. She was calm and careful, and whenever we spoke in the clinic

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she redirected my nervous energy. Before working at the feminist organisation, she had

been an abortion counsellor in one of the ILE clinics administered by a national civil

society organisation that emerged in the 1970s at the height of population control policies

and has since altered its organising dis- course to reproductive rights. Such clinics are

generally considered a trustworthy alternative to the specialised government clinics. They

operate with sliding scale services that are accessible and familiar to women with limited

economic resources. Sofía described her work there as attending to the ‘affective part’ of

the abortion process, in contrast to the physicians who worked like technicians:

I saw to the affective part, how she felt that the decision impacted her
relationships, domestic life, aspects having to do with work and
school...because sometimes the doctors concentrated only on the
procedure and doing the technical part of the process, I mean oftentimes
forgetting that on the other side there is someone who is feeling what is
happening in this moment, and its importance, I mean. . . in their life.
They [the doctors] were wrapped up in that and nothing else, so we [the
counsellors] worked on the human part of the process.

She also said that the abortion procedures were performed in a modality of begrud- ging

beneficence, which she connected with the way clinic doctors inflicted moral

punishment:

Sometimes I think the doctors punish a little, because of their prejudices


you know, as though they are doing- as though you made a mistake and if
I’m going to help you resolve this error you made, you better give me
gratitude for what I am doing, no? I mean, I would even hear some doctors
say, not just any doctor would be willing do this, willing to deal with this
issue, so she [the patient] would have to behave just so, as though we were
doing her a big favour.

After working there for three years, Sofía explained that the environment became heavy

(pesado) and monotonous (tedioso), driven by quantitative goals inspired by funding

sources. In addition to the pressure to do more ILE procedures, she felt that the discourse

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of reproductive rights that framed her counselling sessions was undermined by women’s

experiences during the procedure:

I mean to work in the counselling session with the purpose, I mean,


talking with girls as though they were making a voluntary decision, as
though it was legitimate, and based on their rights, and suddenly they went
in with the doctor and it was. . . every- thing to the contrary...it was really
frustrating...and then the clinic started to set goals, to do more and more
ILEs, increase the numbers and I mean it was already the clinic where the
most ILEs were performed, then it was increase, increase, increase the
numbers and we were the same [number of] counsellors, all of the weight
loaded [se cargaba] onto us and there was no space for support
[contencio ́n], for our own self-care, including, I mean even the basic
things, you know? I mean our labouring conditions, security, health
insurance, a salary that was. . . dignified. . . I had to begin work at eight in
the morning but there was no set time for me to leave, I mean we were
supposed to leave at four in the afternoon, but I never left at four. . . So
also. . . I think I was burning out, I mean it had become too much. . . and it
wasn’t good for me or good for the women that I attended to. . .

Sofía’s move to work in the feminist organisation was prompted by the exhaustion of her

labour in the clinical setting, and the way she articulates her feminist ethics – the goals

and the kind of attention she gives to women in situations of abortion – is linked to her

working conditions in concrete ways. I asked her how working in the MARIA Fund had

improved her life and she responded that it had allowed her to be part of a process of

empowerment:

...to respect women’s autonomy, with the idea that this experience could
trigger a positive process in the woman, of empowerment, of citizen-
making [ciudadanizacio ́ n], as though to be able to exercise this right
meant to continue exercising other right- s. . . whereas in the clinic, well I
paid attention to- a little of what I was telling you before, to numeric
goals. . . and no, I mean no, looking back on it now, well it wasn’t totally
respectful of women’s rights. . . with the lack of care—of self-care—it
was too easy to impose one’s own prejudices. It was also a way of
obstructing the woman’s decision, I mean by making it more complicated,
by not making it simple.

Sofía’s admittance of her own inability to ‘totally respect woman’s rights’ appears almost

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as a mode of resistance to the pressure to achieve numerical goals in the clinic. In this

sense, the affective labour of attention, or its withholding, has the power to interrupt the

automatism of the institution. In her work as an acompañante in the MARIA Fund, it was

not that reproductive rights gained a reality that they had lacked in the clinical

environment, but rather that she found the support she needed to sustain her own

commitment to them. With that support, she is able to give attention to each woman: to

what each woman says with her words and with her body:

The accompaniment we give is based on the principal of respecting


women’s decisions. We don’t try to convince her one way or another, in
this sense we have to be very attentive to what the woman says to us with
her words, and to- well...her bodily gestures too. . . It’s a moment in which
she can exercise a right and feel that no one is doing her a favour, but it’s
also necessary to acknowledge a little all of the violences she had to pass
through in order to arrive to DF [Mexico City]. . . a little bit to be that
voice- a voice that makes those things visible.

I asked her what counts as a successful outcome of accompaniment and she said she felt

good if it seemed as though it had reduced the burden on a woman’s shoulders. Her

response echoed the way she had described her own relief working in the feminist

organisation in contrast to the burden of working in the clinic: ‘. . . To know that she can

get rid of, in a way, or reduce the burden, by at least being able to talk in a natural way

about the experience...and to help her recognise that she is capable...’. When I asked

Sofía what she thought the limits of accompaniment were, she spoke of the inability to

fully know the circumstances of each woman’s situation and the contracted moment in

which accompaniment takes place:

I guess the fact that we are only there in this moment. . . of this woman. . .
and she is likely to be living a situation of violence or something that goes
well beyond what we can do, but the intention of accompaniment is

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exactly this: to support her so that she can search for supportive
relationships, by turning to other relationships or by broad- ening a little
bit the networks that she already has.

Ephemerality and feminist politics

The ephemeral conditions of accompaniment invite us to re-imagine the temporality of

political action. What is it to make a new world versus to make this world livable?

Women who participate in the accompaniment network, either in their search for a way to

end an untenable pregnancy or as advocates for reproductive rights and abortion access,

act together in the face of uncertainty and, as I suggested earlier, are governed to some

degree by ‘the time of mortality’. As Sofía said, to support a woman so that she can ‘turn

to other relationships or broaden the networks she already has’ is of dire necessity. The

‘webs of relationships’ that forge the world we have in common, and especially in

ordinary instances of gendered and sexual violence, continuously threaten to change in

character, to dissolve and to reform (see Han, 2012; Mulla, 2014; Pinto, 2014). In light of

such dissolution, we might revise Arendt’s notion of action as that which creates new and

durable worlds. Accompaniment practices find ground for action by paying careful

attention to women’s concrete bodily and affective situations, albeit from a limited and

tempo- rally constrained perspective. Sofía spoke about the partiality of accompaniment

in the broader context of a woman’s reproductive life, and the extent to which that life

could not be known. She evoked the gap, even incommensurability, between the fantasy

of sovereign action that could shape either the subjectivity of the feminist activist who

acts on behalf of another, or the imaginary subject of reproductive rights who decides to

terminate her pregnancy. In fact, she describes the ethics of accompaniment in other

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terms – ‘to share the burden’, however temporarily. Lauren Berlant argues in her essay

‘Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency)’ that ‘the casting of the human as

most fully itself when assuming the spectacular posture of performative action’ has

obscured the varied political horizons of ordinary life, encouraging ‘a melodramatic view

of agency in the temporality of the event of the decision’ (2011: 97). Indeed,

contemporary regimes of reproductive governance have made it difficult for feminists to

articulate abortion politics without dramatising the termination of pregnancy as an

isolated event of sovereign decision-making. How, for instance, would our perspective on

reproductive rights politics shift if we understood the situation of abortion as more, or at

least as much akin to ordinary illness experience as to sovereign decision-making?

Arendt describes labour, like pain, as a condition in which the ‘body [is] thrown

back upon itself’. This description resonates with anthropological approaches to illness

and suffering. In an essay on affliction, Thomas Csordas describes one man’s psychiatric

illness in phenomenological, rather than biomedical terms, as the radi- cal narrowing of

his lived experience in the world (1992; see also: Kleinman, 1988; Good, 1994;

Desjarlais, 1997). In these works it is as though the body, which is our opening to the

world, in states of ill health becomes a closure – returning us to Arendt’s labouring body.

Across her work, Veena Das has understood the body of illness in a subtly, but

importantly different register (2015). In her effort to grasp the ordinariness of suffering,

Das has approached ‘the failures of the body in relation to the failures of one’s social

world’, suggesting a picture of the body-in-pain as never entirely private and indeed as

capable of ‘speaking’ (Das and Das, 2007: 69; see also: Lock, 1993; Mol, 2006). Rather

than understand illness experience as a radical loss of the world, it may be understood to

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‘darken’ it, or make it ‘a little less benign’ (Das, 2015: 2). Along these lines, we might

understand situations of abortion as a continuation of social relations, rather than a radical

disruption of them. Rather than take illness or the body-in-pain as a closure of our

opening into the world, we might look for ways in which worlds emerge from, and in

relation to these darker places.

To sustain her aspiration for a durable world, a shared world that would with-

stand even the ordinary destruction of private suffering, Arendt draws an opposition

between our capacity for action and our capacity for labour as a condition of mortality.

The tenuous quality of this distinction reflects a more general difficulty in how we

conceptualise political agency, as a capacity for newness – natality – within the

conditions of necessity, repetition and death. One could argue for the natality of feminist

accompaniment networks in that they create a web of supportive moral relationships, or

transient ‘counter-publics’, when women are threatened by the social death incurred by

the legal and moral stigma of abortion (see Fraser, 1990; Warner, 2002; Day, 2010).

Accompaniment supports women to find the freedom ‘to move’, as Sofía put it, when

they find themselves on the edges of law, and pressured by the necessity of secrecy at

home. But this movement also entails a return to these same relationships, and all of the

uncertainty that such a return implies. In this sense, accompaniment networks appear less

as a feminist counter-public, and more as a disposition towards the concrete other in the

fleeting, opaque present.13 Such a disposition could be disruptive of the habitual

automatic everyday as much as it might belong to the daily routines of repairing the

world.14 Care, as political action, refers to a way of doing, a quality of attention to what

is important, which often escapes us and is therefore always in tension with the

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possibility that we do not see what is right before our eyes (Cavell, 1984; Das, 2007;

Laugier, 2009). The politics of accompaniment in this register, as a reproductive labour

of care, is ephemeral, a counterpoint to law, clinical protocols, transnational feminist

discourse and other so-called ‘durable’ institutions.

Acknowledgements

Thank you Sofía Garduño and Oriana López Uribe for your guidance and friendship

throughout my time as an acompañante, and for sharing your insights for this article. This

article was first presented at the Affecting Labor Conference at Johns Hopkins

University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Thanks are especially due to the organisers –

Swayam Bagaria, Ghazal Asif and Emma McGlennen – and to Serra Hakyemez, William

Stafford and Michael Hardt for their thoughts. Conversations with Veena Das, Deborah

Poole, Clara Han, Hent de Vries, Jennifer Culbert, Peter Redfield and Sylvain Perdigon

made it possible to begin and then keep going with this work. I am grateful to the anon-

ymous reviewers and editors at Feminist Theory for their critical engagement and time.

Funding

Many thanks to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for supporting the research upon which this

article is based.

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Notes

1. ‘Nuestro discurso esta ́ basado en un silencio y un gran temor de la muerte porque?

Porque no queremos entender que el concepto de la vida implica la muerte’.

2. Liberal articulations of reproductive politics as a matter of individual bodily control, and

particularly around the right to abortion, tend to preclude thinking about reproduction in

terms of more varied practices of social, political and cultural renewal (see Davis, 1981;

Ginsburg and Rapp, 1991; Roberts, 1997; hooks, 2000).

3. I thank Sylvain Perdigon for this articulation of the idea, and for drawing out the relation

between what I refer to as a ‘shared world’ and Arendt’s concept of the ‘space of

appearance’.

4. In these classic Marxist Materialist Feminist debates, the question of reproductive labour

does not just index a struggle for control over the things or products of capitalist

accumulation, but also the struggles over the affective relationships that sustain, and

potentially transform our life with others. In this sense, one can understand Dalla Costa

and James’ description of the emotional labour that relieves men of ‘the social tensions

produced by capitalism’ (1972: 42) as an early analysis of what Michael Hardt, among

others, has conceptualised as affective labour (1999).

5. Linda Zerilli argues that the Arendtian concept of the labouring body symbolises the ‘loss

of symbolic mastery’ that is essential to Arendt’s nonsovereign subject of politics (1995:

174). Seyla Benhabib emphasises the ‘associationism’ inherent to Arendt’s thought,

reconceiving the public sphere not as a bounded arena of individual rational speech, but

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as appearing wherever there is action in concert (1993; See also Hartsock 2004).

6. There are many forms of homo faber, from the utilitarian producer of use-objects who is

incapable of meaning beyond instrumentalism to the artist who transcends him/herself.

7. Arendt goes on to distinguish her conception of the intangible web as distinct from the

Marxist materialist notion of superstructure that supplements the basic material struc-

ture of the world. In other words, material structures are not more fundamental than the

intangible and immaterial web of human relationships.

8. I thank Hent de Vries for sharing his work-in-progress on miracles and Arendt, which

helped clarify this point.

9. To illustrate this point, Arendt cites Shakespeare’s Brutus who calls for the assassination

of Julius Caesar on the grounds ‘[t]hat this shall be or we will fall for it’ (1961: 151).

10. Arendt further challenges the humanitarian framework of ‘life’ as an abstract figure of

bodily vulnerability (see Ticktin and Feldman, 2010).

11. See Paulina del Carmen Ramírez Jacinto v. Mexico, Case 161-02, Report No. 21/07,

Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.130 Doc. 22, rev. 1 (2007).

12. My interlocutors at Fondo Maria decided to have the name of the organisation, as well as

their own names in print. All other names of places and people have been changed or left

out to protect confidentiality.

13. In her ethnography of clinical sexual assault intervention, Sameena Mulla (2014) dis-

cusses the peculiar role of forensic nurses hinged between the anticipatory structures of

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legal justice and the necessities of care-giving in the present. Following Mulla’s meticu-

lous attention to the ethical tensions that emerge in forensic nursing, we might ask if care-

giving involves a specific set of activities, or rather a quality of attention orientated to the

present?

14. I thank Peter Redfield for the reminder that repair and newness need not be opposed.

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