*Abortion and The Horror Cabinet of the GOP

Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime III


Nearly ten years ago I received an email from someone who had apparently been my peer when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins (1978-82).  I had nearly no recollection of him at all, but I must clearly have left something of an impression on him:  we were far from being friends and had never exchanged any correspondence. He was now writing to me in the hope that he could enlist me as a foot-soldier in the crusade against abortion, and he was so emboldened in thinking because he remembered me as someone who talked often of Gandhi.  Surely, he told me, given that Mohandas Gandhi was almost certainly opposed to abortion, I had much the same abhorrence for abortion as did the Mahatma.  To press home the point about the undiminished evil of abortion and the wreckage of lives it entailed, he sent as attachments a number of grisly photographs of aborted fetuses. My computer screen seemed splattered with blood, fluids, and tissue. These images were calculated to provoke the same reaction of disgust and horror, and more, that photographs of the slaughter-house are intended to induce in the somewhat ambivalent meat-eater who might be on the fence.

Mohandas Gandhi had little occasion to write about abortion, but his position on this question may perhaps quite reasonably be inferred from his unstinting opposition to contraception.  Gandhi even met with Margaret Sanger, the American champion of contraception as a pill of liberation for women, but he remained unpersuaded that contraception heralded an advance for humanity.  However, certitudes about Gandhi are never easy, as scholars of Gandhi are keenly aware:  he retains, almost seventy years after his death and after a mound of scholarship, the ability to surprise.  Whatever his views on abortion, there can be little doubt that he would have found the violence and ferocity of the anti-abortionists, whose disdain and unbridled contempt for many of the living is matched only by their ingenuity in having themselves described as pro-lifers, deeply objectionable.  The subject of this brief rumination, however, is not Gandhi’s views on abortion, but rather the unfettered and single-minded devotion of the greater majority of Republicans, and especially what is called the Republican “leadership”, to the cause of making America abortion-free.  It is perfectly acceptable, on their world view, that the United States should remain the undisputed world leader in wasteful consumption, incarceration, solitary confinement, obesity, and other monstrosities that form the horror cabinet of everyday American life, but the country’s landscape should not be marred by abortion clinics.  All this, of course, is also on the assumption that the fetus is as much as a human as a Latina, an African-American, or the poor white.


An anti-abortion demonstration. Credit: AP/Orlin Wagner.

This Republican “concern” for the dignity of human life may seem, at first glance, to be rather touching.   But to dissect the obsession over abortion that is the most distinctive characteristic of the American religious and political scene, one must ask the question that everyone is loathe to ask.  Nowhere else in the world do we witness the pitched battles over abortion that are played out in the Congress, on the airwaves, in demonstrations, and in arguments before American courts.  Why is that the case?  To be sure, there are a few other countries where disputes over abortion have triggered public disputes, as has been the case in predominantly Catholic Ireland.   Abortion, however, is not illegal in Ireland; but it is illegal in six countries, among them, not unsurprisingly, the Holy See (the seat of the Vatican), as well as—once again, mainly Catholic—Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.  There are also another dozen countries, among them Iran, Haiti, and Malawi, where abortion is severely restricted.  One can be sure that the United States does not care to be lumped with these countries; if any Republican such as Vice-President-elect Michael Pence, whose own undisguised love affair with the fetus will be the subject of another blog, were to argue otherwise, one might encourage him to take residence in one of these exemplary lands.  On the other hand, the countries—among them, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and Great Britain, to name just a few—that the United States does see as its friends and natural partners in the aim of bringing democratic freedoms to less fortunate people have permissive abortion laws.


Two teens from an anti-abortion summer camp in Southern California that drew 1000 youngsters protesting at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Credit: Timothy Bella/America Tonight

To reiterate:  whatever the status of abortion in any other country, nowhere else in the world have the anti-abortionists displayed such venom towards not only advocates of abortion but towards women who seek recourse to abortion, and in no other “free” country does abortion animate with such intensity the passions of its opponents.  Abortion clinics have been bombed; abortion providers have been murdered and listed on “Wanted” posters by anti-abortion activists organized in groups such as the “Army of God” and “Operation Rescue”.  There is a contradiction writ large here, since in anti-abortion discourse it is the wanton and heedless enactment of passion that leads women to the path of evil.  What to speak of abortion, even contraception is described by many anti-abortionists as deplorable and an unmitigated sin.  Mick Huckabee, a former presidential candidate and one of the torch-bearers of the anti-abortion crusade, has said that “women are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido . . . without the help of government.”  In comparison with his soul-mate Rush Limbaugh, Huckabee seems almost moderate.  “So Miss [Sandra] Fluke and the rest of you feminazis,” Limbaugh announced on his radio talk show, “here’s the deal.  If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something.  We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

One might, of course, argue that the unregulated sexuality of women remains a pervasive concern among men everywhere, even in so-called “enlightened” societies.  But this common recourse to the template of “patriarchy” cannot explain why the dispute over abortion remains a raging fire in American society, to an extent that seems incomprehensible in much of the rest of the world.  The massive commentary on abortion that appears in print, on television and radio, and increasingly on social media sites has shed little or no light on this matter.  And yet the singularity of the anti-abortion movement, a holy crusade, in the United States begs for an explanation.  America, in the eyes of its most devoted champions, has long been envisioned as the shining city on the hill:  here, and here alone, in this fabulist narrative can every child make something of himself or herself.  It is the country where, from the standpoint of anti-abortionists, women should want to have babies.  If the United States is the promised land, women must surely want to be mothers—more so, that is, in the general sense in which women are enjoined to be mothers and thus fulfill themselves and do credit to men, their family and community, and the nation. Feminists who have explicated on the social reproduction of motherhood are doubtless right in pointing to the various ways in which the notion of the sanctity of motherhood works to restrain and confine women to certain spheres of life, but the anti-abortion crusade in the United States points to a more ominous conclusion.  Women who seek an abortion, and their supporters, are in the anti-abortion discourse which has now found a fresh lease of life fundamentally traitors—not just to the race of women, but to the nation called America—who have jettisoned the enchantments of the promised land and thus forfeited their own entitlement to liberty.

5 thoughts on “*Abortion and The Horror Cabinet of the GOP

  1. I come from an extremely conservative American Evangelical cultural background, though I have now disavowed those views. My church held up abortion and the LGBT community as the chief elements trying to destroy the legacy of Jesus Christ in America (not poverty, the inhospitable attitudes towards immigrants, or the number of other issues a true Christian should care about). What I found especially interesting, though, is that a Hindu, Gandhi, had such an impact in this struggle against abortion in my community so the fact that you as a Gandhi scholar have seen that too is fascinating. It was almost a common refrain: “Gandhi hated abortion and supported the right to bear arms!” I was never sure where they got this idea from but they were absolutely sure of it. As I have learned more about Gandhi, I cannot help but wonder about this history of the American white Christian right’s infatuation with the man. Truly astounding. This was a great piece and I think I’ll be sending it to some of my “friends”.


    • Hi Keith,
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me. I found what you had to say illuminating, for several reasons, and I hope you will accept my invitation to tell me more, whether in public (on this blog site) or in private (to my email account, vlal@history.ucla.edu) about what American evangelicals are being told about Gandhi. Let me explain. I’ve never heard before that American Evangelicals were told that “Gandhi hated abortion and supported the right to bear arms!” Curiously, the American evangelicals are right in a certain fashion, though of course we have to interpret what Gandhi meant quite differently. Gandhi recognized the sanctity of ALL human (and non-human) life, and he was opposed to abortion (as he was opposed to contraception). But he would have failed to understand how the same Republicans who deplore abortion have absolutely no qualms about waging war, despising (as many do, I must say) black people, immigrants, and the poor, and disregarding the lives of the living. To say that Gandhi supported the right to bear arms is a travesty if it is read the way that American evangelicals do. Gandhi distinguished between the nonviolence of the weak and the nonviolence of the strong: the real practitioner of nonviolence was a person who had access to arms and had the ability to use them, and then chose not to use them. The British had passed an Arms Act in India in the aftermath of the 1857-58 Rebellion which forbid Indians from using arms. Gandhi criticized that Arms Act, saying that it had emasculated Indians, and that many Indians had accepted his ideas of nonviolence because they had no choice. Thus the nonviolence of the strong is the nonviolence of those who have the power to retaliate through arms but forgo the use of arms, since real bravery consists only in nonviolent resistance. I have put matters cryptically but I hope I have made myself reasonably clear.


      • Hi Vinay,
        Yes, it is really something how he is being taken out of context like that. My church in Alabama, which was almost all white, also repeatedly claimed that Martin Luther King Jr. was “a republican”, ignoring the fact that King often described himself as a “democratic socialist”. They have also pointed to the fact that Gandhi was heavily inspired by the Bible (but I’m sure not one of them knows that he was equally inspired by the Quran). It is also remarkable that Gandhi was entirely opposed to accepting religious scriptures as authoritative. As he said about misogyny in the Hindu scriptures, taken from the collected works, “it is sad to think that the Smritis contain texts which can command no respect from men who cherish the liberty of woman as their own. The question arises as to what to do with the Smritis that contain texts that are repugnant to the moral sense. I have already suggested that all that is printed in the name of scripture need not be taken as the word of God or the inspired word.” On the other hand, it would be anathema to the Evangelicals I speak of to not view the Bible both literally and authoritatively. I also very much agree that his view on guns is not at all that of the NRA. The “nonviolence of the strong” is quite an interesting concept. But yes, Gandhi has become a very important figure in the anti-abortion movement, I have to tell you.


      • HI Keith, I agree wholeheartedly with your observations about Gandhi’s attitude towards “scripture” and sacred writings. He rejected anything that did not pass the litmus test of his conscience. But I am really intrigued to about Gandhi’s place in the anti-abortion movement. Cheers, Vinay


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