The white male-dominated Republican party is still living in the stone age on social issues. It just goes from bad to worse
It’s a truism verging on dogma that history favors steady progress toward equal rights for gays. The last election cycle saw incredible gains for marriage equality and representation for gays and lesbians in government. There is a movement in the Republican party to at least stop fighting the issue, and at least a recognition that they cannot hope to grow the party as long as young voters associate opposition to marriage equality with a general stance of intolerance and bigotry.
Funny how attitudes haven’t shifted in the same way when it come to women and, especially, anything to do with sex. Why are debates about reproductive rights mired in Neanderthal attitudes, demonstrably fanciful notions about biology (“legitimate rape”), and pro-life activists stubbornly resistant to even basic attempts at reasonable compromise?
Indeed, many of the most extreme anti-choice measures passed in state legislatures (and, as of this week, potentially the US Congress) stand on weak constitutional grounds; “fetal heartbeat” laws create a whole new standard of fetal viability and legal experts predict costly and ultimately pointless court battles defending them. Many mainstream anti-abortion groups even shy away from supporting these unprecedented decisions: neither National Right to Life, Americans United for Life nor the Roman Catholic Church have campaigned for them. Yet conservatives continue to march out parades of white men to spout aggressively ignorant arguments that alienate even audiences inclined to be sympathetic to their point of view. In the last election cycle, Republicans lost ground with suburban white women, and women in general, and polls suggest that antipathy stemmed almost entirely from the impression that conservatives were coming for their birth control. In 12 swing states in 2012, a plurality of women named abortion as their top electoral priority. Men (especially Republican men) seem befuddled (or in denial) by women’s intractability on the issue. Speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference last weekend, American Values president Gary Bauer insisted, “The social issues we believe in are more popular than the Republican economic agenda.” At best, they assume arguments about abortion to be a “distraction” from the obvious top priority, the economy. This week, moderate Republican congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania expressed exasperation with the House leadership’s decision to bring to the floor a bill a federal ban on abortions 20 weeks after conception:
“I’ll be very frank: I discouraged our leadership from bringing this to a vote on the floor … Clearly the economy is on everyone’s minds, we’re seeing very stagnant job numbers, confidence in the institution of government is eroding and now we’re going to have a debate on rape and abortion. The stupidity is simply staggering.”
Well, he’s not wrong about the stupidity, but his argument explains it: women understand that reproductive rights are an economic issue. Whether you’re for or against a woman’s right to choose, to discuss it as “social issue” is to buy into talking points that haven’t changed since the turn of the last century – and these arguments find traction. Anti-choice gains in limiting access may face uphill legal battles, but that doesn’t change the fact that conservatives keep successfully turning back the clock even as the country, on almost every other measure of civil liberty, moves relentless forward. Prolife activists argue, ironically, that it’s science that undergirds this retrograde motion: They hold up polls that show an decrease in support for abortion being “legal under any circumstances” and a rise in Americans identifying themselves as “prolife” with the rise of the “ultrasound generation”. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, wrote an open letter to that hypothetical contingent earlier this year:
“You have grown up with ultrasound technology that has opened a window into the womb, allowing us to glimpse preborn babies from the earliest weeks of gestation. You have seen your little brothers and sisters before they were born in these grainy videos and photographs pinned to the fridge.”
Belief in the power of those images is so strong that pro-life legislators have rather famously sought to make viewing them mandatory for women seeking an abortion. But if those images are so powerful, how come it’s the “transvaginal probe” laws that finally rallied mass awareness, and mass outrage, about just how dangerous to women’s rights these laws are?
It may have to do with the word “transvaginal”, sure, but I think it parallels the way Americans have to be pushed into a corner when it comes to distasteful outcomes. We have to be faced with the NSA reading our private emails to care about the balance of security and privacy. We have come to believe that marriage equality is bigotry, not mild disapproval, to reject discrimination. And we have to think about a doctor needlessly, and against her will, putting a wand in a woman’s vagina to think twice about her right to do what she want with her body in a more general and less literal way. What the polling trumpeted by anti-choicers really suggests is continued broad support for women being able to make private decisions. I don’t take lightly the steady, overwhelming majority of Americans who say that abortion of definitely be legal under some circumstances – competing with discomfort with the idea of abortion. This disconnect exists because what we live in not a post-sonogram world but a post-back alley abortion, post-free-condom one. It’s the inverse of how we have become acclimated and accepting of gay rights because we now see gay men and women all around us.
Today we have a whole generation a majority of whom has never themselves had a friend get sick from an abortion performed in unsterile environment, never had to had unsafe sex because they simply didn’t have access to birth control, and only on TV seen a teenager give up for adoption an unwanted child – and there, the situation is santitized, if not idyllic. As other feminists have argued, the unspeakable horror that came to light in the trial of Philadelphia abortion “doctor” Kermit Gosnell was not an illustration of the horrors inherit in a post-Roe world, but in a pre-Roe one. And it’s only because abortion is comparatively safe and legal that we confuse the two. Backed into a corner, confronted with the predictable end-game of anti-choice logic, people resist. Why do we have to get to that point? What will it take to awaken voters to the fact that reproductive health does not obey the rhythms of an election cycle? The whole point of reproductive health is exerting some control of over cycles. It begins with women just being present in the halls of power. No woman takes lightly even the most subtle encroachment into these most private of decisions. And lately, the encroachment has been anything but subtle.
[Angry woman via Shutterstock]