The American Taliban Make Their Move
Alabama’s decision to make abortion illegal from the moment of conception, including in the instance of incest or rape, is just the latest in a sweep of southern states pushing through draconian legislation in the most profound challenge to American abortion rights since Roe v Wade. Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and now Missouri have been swept up by a new wave of reproductive health extremism under President Donald J. Trump. In 2019, Alabamians face much tougher sentences for helping a woman have an abortion after being raped than the rapist faces himself.
When signing the new bill into law, governor Kay Ivey referred to ‘Alabamians deeply held belief that every life is precious, and that every life is a sacred gift from God’, but not every life holds sanctity in Ivey’s world. Since taking office in 2017 the governor had already overseen the execution of six people – the day after signing the new abortion law a seventh man was executed by the state.
Like so many issues involving religious groups trying to legislate their own prejudice, the true nature of what is happening involves a certain sleight of hand. These laws keep appearing because the evangelical movement sees in the Trump presidency a generational opportunity to make a broader move against abortion in the United States. As Joyce Vance wrote in the Washington Post, ‘(the) draconian nature of the bill is its point — because its sponsors aren’t just looking to prohibit abortion in Alabama. They are looking for a clean vehicle to take to the Supreme Court’.
In fact, the push to fully outlaw abortion has three strategic imperatives. Put up state laws that are, by design, unlikely to be implemented, install right-wing judges who will not strike the laws down, and eventually get the matter in front of the US Supreme Court, which with two Trump-appointed judges may finally reconsider the whole issue of abortion in the United States.
Donald Trump has now appointed over 100 federal judges and is well on the way to changing America’s third branch of government for generations. The same week that Alabama’s new abortion law was passed, the US Senate voted on the nomination of judge Wendy Vitter, who has said that abortion causes breast cancer and that Planned Parenthood kills 150,000 American women a year. In 2013, Vitter promoted a brochure that said that birth control also causes cancer, and that its use increases the risk of (male) adultery and violence against women. There is no evidence that Vitter has changed her kooky, radical views, yet Republicans just confirmed her, for life, to the federal court.
The US Supreme Court is now the ultimate goal, after being tilted to the right courtesy of one nomination stolen from Barack Obama (Neil Gorsuch) and one confirmed in the most controversial circumstances (Brett Kavanaugh). Many evangelicals appear to believe that in Kavanaugh, they finally have a man who will cast the decisive vote in their favor. And all this takes place in the context of a President with a sexual history filled with infidelity, sexual assault, borderline pedophilia (walking in on the Miss Teen USA dressing room) and credible reports of having funded abortions following his own dalliances. They see this thrice married, porn-star screwing man as their ticket to abortion ascendancy.
The alignment of the judiciary and White House under President Trump seems to have added force and impetus to a movement that has waited years for the right time to fire back at what they see as America’s licentious shame. Yet the arguments made in favor of this new puritanism cannot withstand even the most cursory examination, and Republican men (it’s almost all Republican men) continue to make the sort of stupid arguments that suggest they have no idea about the complexity of the issue, and indeed very little knowledge of how human reproduction even works.
State Representative Vito Barbieri (R. Ohio) suggested that a pregnancy test could be taken by having a woman swallow a small camera (it cannot). John Becker (R. Ohio) said that ectopic pregnancies (where the fetus grows outside the uterus) could be remedied by simply putting the baby back in the uterus (it can’t). Senator Clyde Chambliss (R. Alabama) bested them all by arguing that a woman in his state still had the opportunity to end a pregnancy, so long as she did it prior to discovering that she was pregnant.
If it’s possible, there is an even darker undercurrent to this political movement, as the twin issues of rape and abortion are inextricably entwined – groups who advocate for rape victims to be forced to carry their attackers child often contain men who also question the legitimacy of rape itself. Alabama’s proposed exemption for abortions in the instance of rape or incest was voted down by a group of 22 state senators, all of them white Republican men, and it is white Republican men who are the very people regularly equivocating about the seriousness of rape as a crime, opining how a woman’s reproductivity is somehow rape-resistant, or debating whether certain actions constitute ‘legitimate rape’ or some lesser crime.
Representative Barry Hovis (R. Missouri) said that in his opinion the vast majority of rape is what he called ‘consensual rape’, just a brief time before his home state followed Alabama in approving an extreme new abortion bill that does not allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy after being raped. Todd Akin (R. Missouri) famously claimed that women can’t get pregnant when raped because the female body, when attacked, ‘has ways to shut the whole thing down’. This ideological disregard for women’s sexual safety and autonomy is also most often espoused by those claiming religious enlightenment.
Anti-abortion stances being taken across America’s south are riddled with ethical and logical holes. Alabama’s new law doesn’t legislate against IVF clinics which dispose of fertilized eggs, as the eggs are (to quote Senator Clyde Chambliss) ‘not in a woman’. Lawmakers who tell us abortion laws will stop abortions are often the same people who resist common-sense gun legislation on the basis that it won’t stop gun crime.
If this issue was truly about abortion you would expect Alabamian Republicans to be champions of things such as adolescent sex education, contraception, female empowerment and stronger laws against rape. Anti-abortionists would campaign for universal health-care, so women could get free antenatal assistance, improving health outcomes for baby and mother. They might, for that matter, care about the lives of brown babies being removed from their parents at the southern border and put in cages. Of course none of this is happening, despite abortion in the US already being at an all-time low (due to better access to contraception).
Alabama is a poor state. It ranks 46th in education, 50th in child poverty, 50th in cervical cancer and is consistently among the poorest performers on a wide range of social health parameters. Notably, the state is 45th in infant mortality – the caring for a child seems to stop the moment it is born. Clearly Alabamian thinking is not resulting in positive outcomes, yet despite overwhelming statistics damning the current approach, the conservative sexual politics movement grows stronger.
This year, states are vying to enact the most extreme laws possible – a recently failed bill in Texas sought to permit women obtaining (or doctors performing) abortions to receive the death penalty. The logic was chillingly simple – abortion is (in their view) criminal homicide, and killers get the chair. Change the word ‘Texas’ to ‘Saudi Arabia’ here and it’s easier to see the level of ultra-extremism at play. It’s not a coincidence that people have started calling abortion activists ‘the American Taliban’.
I don’t think it’s possible for a man to even conceive of the indignity of being forced to carry your rapists child, nor the appalling emotions that must be felt by new mothers in such circumstances. Most people agree. There is not a single state in the US where support for banning abortion is above 25% (according to Data for Progress analysis). People who don’t like abortions don’t tend to have them – the sole purpose of evangelical-inspired legislation is to project their views and beliefs on others, despite the fact that religious people often use America’s ‘Conscience clauses’ to claim their own right to disobey the law, and to excuse bigotry and intolerance.
It’s not like this is an area that hasn’t been studied. We know for sure that women who can’t get an abortion are more likely to suffer economic insecurity, that they are more likely to experience violence from the man involved in the pregnancy if they are denied ownership of the options involved, and that existing children have negative developmental outcomes when their mother lacks agency. Pregnancy makes a woman vulnerable, and taking away a woman’s right to control her body makes her vulnerable to men.
The bottom line here for the so-called ‘pro-life’ lobby is that if enough draconian bills get sent up, a legal confrontation will eventually lead to the door of the Supreme Court, and it is there that the opportunity presents itself to finally strike down 1973’s Roe v Wade ruling and get abortion banned across the United States. But it would be wrong to view this as a misbegotten return to the past – this level of political extremism is new in American life, and it may just be the beginning.
You should not think for a moment that this is the last we will hear from these people – the same thinking that projects extremist morality onto others can be applied to every aspect of our lives – homosexuals, sex outside marriage, interracial marriage, democracy itself. If it’s OK for religious people to think themselves above such pesky things as overwhelming public sentiment and democratic choice, and to advocate for the death penalty for a woman seeking reproductive control, what else do you think might be on their wish-list?
Let me answer the question. Evangelical christians, who form the bedrock of support for President Donald Trump, are also a group which doubts the existence of climate change, and supports a President who says that windmills give you cancer, and is doing nothing at a critical moment in human history. Right now they may be out for women who wish to be treated as human beings, but this fundamentalist ascendancy in fact threatens us all.