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 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 computers 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.
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.
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.