Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Cardinal Egan, supremely obnoxious Catholic Archbishop of New York, has an essay up on some Web site, complete with the standard handwringing condescension and heart-tugging photos, declaiming how desperately we need to take control of women’s bodies and impose forced pregnancy as a matter of law and culture. Its contents are typical of this well-worn genre: a lame argument about whether a human fetus is a “human being”, willful elision of the difference between biological identity and moral status, sweeping moral declarations grounded on nothing but his unreflective certainty, and of course obligatory references to Hitler, Stalin, and Dred Scott.
The heart of this superficial and nonsensical (or perhaps it could be said: “a-sensical”) piece is a photograph of a 20-week fetus – a photograph which, Egan declares, proves by itself that abortion is wrong and it is utterly worthless to even consider the actual moral issues raised by the question.
Why, you might inquire, have I not delved into the opinion of philosophers and theologians about the matter? And even worse: Why have I not raised the usual questions about what a “human being” is, what a “person” is, what it means to be “living,” and such? People who write books and articles about abortion always concern themselves with these kinds of things. Even the justices of the Supreme Court who gave us “Roe v. Wade” address them. Why do I neglect philosophers and theologians? Why do I not get into defining “human being,” defining “person,” defining “living,” and the rest? Because, I respond, I am sound of mind and endowed with a fine set of eyes, into which I do not believe it is well to cast sand. I looked at the photograph, and I have no doubt about what I saw and what are the duties of a civilized society if what I saw is in danger of being killed by someone who wishes to kill it or, if you prefer, someone who “chooses” to kill it. In brief: I looked, and I know what I saw.
Why it is that the moral attack dogs of the right wing are always so eager to proclaim their own lack of comprehension I don’t know, but it is no longer surprising as a practical fact, and still less in light of the product of their “reasoning”. But ask yourself: who would take such idiocy seriously in any other context? On what moral issue would anyone seriously say “I saw a picture of an organism affected by this subject that moves me in some way, so I refuse to think about it carefully or read what the best thinkers on the subject have said, and that justifies both my unsupported, idiosyncratic religious beliefs about it and my intention to impose them on everyone else in the country!”? Who would seriously claim that not thinking about, reading about, or analyzing a serious problem could possibly produce a correct answer, or was a proper ground for imposing a solution to it as a matter of law and policy? Well, who but a religious right-winger?
But the lack of comprehension, and the vast evasions and logical gaps, Egan’s supposed “discussion” shows are par for the course, from this source and the anti-choice brigade in general. It’s hardly worth bothering with. What catches my eye in this piece – literally – is that photo, and the way it is used. Egan seems sincerely convinced that photos have moral meanings. (” Please do me the favor of looking at it carefully. . . . The matter becomes even clearer and simpler if you obtain from the National Geographic Society two extraordinary DVDs . . . entitled “In the Womb” . . . [and] “In the Womb—Multiples”.) Now, all activist groups use photographs to illustrate their causes, and to manipulate the viewer emotionally. But they usually do the courtesy of providing some sort of argument for their position. Egan declares that none is necessary – the fetuses in the photos almost literally speak for themselves. And that fact illustrates the most important thing about the anti-choice position.
To be anti-choice is, in a fundmental and particularly vicious way, to be anti-woman. It is to declare that women may have no control over their own bodies with respect to their reproductive functions, or over their entire lives as affected by those functions – and that society, invariably men, may declare to women in what circumstances they may make their own choices and follow their own paths in life, and in what circumstances those paths will be dictated to them against their wills. And, more practically, it is to put the life of every woman on earth, before and during her fertile years at least, and afterwards as a result of that earlier constraint, entirely and completely on a contingent basis, subject to conditions determined by others (men), and forever out of the control of the women themselves. Everything any woman does, wants, or plans for can be derailed in a moment by a trivial accident of biology – a condition that can be dealt with easily, safely, and cheaply by means that men choose to criminalize to prevent women from making their own choices about. There is nothing in any woman’s life that can be depended on or confidently planned for, because everything any women chooses can be disrupted or swept away, not by being pregnant, but by being pregnant and forced to remain so against her will, physically prevented, and prohibited by law, from acting on her own choices on that matter. And every woman who lives in a misogynist society, which is to say every woman in the world (with the only partial exception of women in pro-choice countries), must live with that knowledge every minute of every day – must know that anything she thinks about or plans for more than a few months into the future of her own life can only be hypothetical if men who hate her choose to make her their prisoner, by way of her own body.
To be anti-choice is to take women out of their own lives in a fundamental way. It is longstanding principle and practice of the right wing that women exist as functionaries for men – they are important insofar as they are fulfilling the roles that have been appointed to them as wives, mothers, sexual servants, housekeepers, purity symbols, or what have you, but they may not choose their roles for themselves, and they may not choose roles outside their position of inferiority to those who dictate those roles. (Slight exceptions are made for women who use their public positions to keep other women down.) Women’s lives, under misogyny, are tools for men’s comfort, and women are what men decide they will be. The anti-choice position takes this perspective to a sickeningly literal extreme. Invariably, anti-choice literature and arguments are focused entirely on the fetus. Indeed the degree of fetus-worship on the religious right is unsettling, and often very creepy. (One Catholic group stole aborted fetuses from a hospital, baptized them, and buried them in a religious ceremony in explicit violation of the instructions of the women who had aborted them. Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum and his wife took a miscarried fetus home in a box, named it, and made their other children hold it. Anti-stem-cell-research advocates paraded their own children before Congressional committees dressed in T-shirts reading “Former Embryo”.) Invariably, there is no mention of actual women in anti-choice discussions of abortion. Women are simply not part of the issue of abortion, for the right wing. Abortion, for them, is only and entirely a question of something happening to a fetus – which they invest with full moral standing for virtually incoherent reasons almost always grounded on sectarian religious beliefs – with no question at all of what it means for the woman who is pregnant against her wishes, a woman of actual moral standing, with a full life well underway, plans and projects hanging in the balance, moral interests to be taken into account, and moral agency of her own that should vest her with control of that life and those plans and projects. She literally does not exist, in almost any right-wing discussion of abortion.
And Egan, with his airily articulate photo, makes this ludicrously plain. The photograph of his morally magical fetus proves that the fetus is indeed magical in one way: it exists outside any woman’s uterus. The strangely pristine and carefully-arranged fetus in this picture floats against a plain backdrop with no hint that it should be connected to, let alone that it lives inside, the body of a thinking, feeling, reproductively mature woman actively engaged in her own life, with thoughts and desires about how that life should go and whether or not she chooses any particular path for it. (There is a hint of umbilical cord and the fetal side of the placenta, but of course they don’t attach to . . . anything.) The fetus that speaks so eloquently to Egan has no visible connection to the woman who could actually speak, and articulate her own decisions about her own body, if she existed at all, which she does not in the picture Egan says tells us everything we need to know about abortion. And when Egan contemptuously dismisses the concept of “person” with scare quotes, because it would “cast sand” into his eyes to consider the difference between this fetus and the actual person whose body it is living inside, that person whom Egan declares has no power to choose whether anyone or anything can live inside her own body, he again sets real persons at nought, in favor of the fetus whose interests (so to speak) stand unopposed by those of the non-existing woman it lives within.
It takes some trick to remove women from pregnancy, but the Catholic church has that one down pat. In his 1,300-word paen to forced pregnancy, unembarassed by any actual thinking, he manages never once, in any context, to use the word “woman”. He does, of course, work in “mother” – 10 times. Women, for Egan, do not exist – only mothers do. A pregnant woman is a mother – there is no distinction for Egan. She is certainly not a woman who faces a choice whether she wants to be a mother, or whether she will or can become a mother. And women who are not mothers, apparently, don’t exist at all – they simply live their lives knowing that nothing they choose or want can stand against their eventually becoming a “mother”, when Egan has decided that is what they are, whether or not they want to. Remarkably, fetuses do not exist for Egan, either: not a single use of that word. Every reference to the fetus employs the phrase “human being” (it appears alone 9 times; “innocent human being” 16 times). Egan has already embraced ignorance of the difference between “human being” and “moral person”, so perhaps he thinks he is saying something when he says that, but notice that “human being” is never used in reference to a woman (pregnant or otherwise). Only fetuses are human; only mothers are women, and women are only mothers; women are not human. That’s all you need to know about abortion.
Unless, of course, you take women seriously – seriously enough at least to notice that they exist, but more importantly seriously enough to acknowledge they are moral agents and have interests and values that demand respect in their own right. If you think women matter, and that women are part of the question of abortion, and if you are even passingly aware that women care about their own lives and the direction and contents of those lives, you might bother to put women into the equation, at the very least.
Or you could be a smarmy, anti-intellectual, contemptuously misogynist asshole. There’s plenty of company for you there.
[NB: Cross-posted at Lean Left, a political blog I contribute to.]
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