Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

August 26, 2011

The War on Women: Reality Optional

by @ 3:21 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Personhood, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Theory, Women's Issues

Rick Santorum – humiliated in his last electoral bid, and trailing badly in the GOP primary polls – knows he needs to keep saying outrageous things to keep himself in the public eye. Plus which, he’s crazy, so saying outrageous things is never difficult for him.

He’s been in the news lately for making bizarre comparisons of gay marriage to beer, a cup of tea, and a paper napkin – all predicated upon the rather obvious but undeniable point that “it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is”. This is a claim on which Santorum congratulates himself by describing it as “sort of metaphysical”, but might otherwise be categorized as “sort of idiotic”. Apparently it means something to him, though, because he keeps saying it – most recently in a just-posted interview on the Iowa Independent Website: “It’s like going out and saying, ‘That tree is a car.’ Well, the tree’s not a car. A tree’s a tree. Marriage is marriage.” He goes on to spew a frothy mixture of crazy in a wide arc: gay marriage “minimizes what that bond means to society” (by letting people . . . form that bond . . .); “you’re gonna undermine religious liberty in this country” (his examples consist exclusively of the liberty to prevent other people from doing things); “we’ve created something that is not what it is” (so much for the tautological metaphysics).

But there’s a particular moment in the interview I want to highlight, because it captures so perfectly the ideological dishonesty, and complete divorce from reality, of the right-wing, and particularly the anti-choice movement.

If your position on abortion prevails and abortion is prohibited, Senator, what should the penalty be for a woman who obtains an abortion or a doctor who performs one?

Santorum: I don’t think there should be criminal penalties for a woman who obtains an abortion. I see women in this case as a victim. I see the person who is performing the abortion as doing the illegal act

This is a common, but relatively recent, dodge for anti-choicers. Throughout history, in the US and many other countries, when abortion was illegal (and it was not always or universally, or even commonly, so), women who sought abortion were held guilty of a crime; a woman who successfully obtained an abortion was often jailed, and women who were injured in illegal abortions were arrested when they sought medical treatment. This was a major contributor to the death rate from illegal abortion: not only could women not find safe providers, but they were fearful of seeking treatment when their unsafe abortions went wrong. This was never, for the anti-choicers, a reason not to make abortion illegal. But it was viciously cruel, and that cruelty became part of the justification for legalizing abortion. The deadly legacy of the lack of choice has likewise been part of the motivation to keep abortion safe and women out of jail, against the misogynistic war to reverse both those developments.

Yet, there is a logic (if not a “metaphysics”) to the war on women who procure abortion: if abortion really is the horrible crime the right wing claims, it’s hard to grant impunity to people who plan, solicit, and participate in that crime. If abortion is murder, surely the one who knowingly seeks, requests, pays for, and submits to an abortion, deliberately, by choice and preference, knowing its meaning and consequences, must be a murderer, at least as much so as the medical professionals who perform the procedure (and surely more so in the case of medical abortion, in which the professional’s only role is to write or fill a prescription, but the woman’s intentional agency is just as extensive as in a surgical procedure). And the idea that someone who solicits, hires out, and participates in a serious crime – let alone “murder” – is not guilty would be a travesty of the law in the case of any real crime.

The willingness to absolve women of initiating, paying for, and participating in a crime for which the person they paid, who acted on that woman’s own body at her request, will be punished under law reflects no sensible understanding of criminal guilt. It is a purely political move intended to head off a backlash against the anti-choice movement for victimizing women legally as well as medically. It is an attempt to evade the public’s revulsion at the right wing’s treating uppity women as the criminals the wingers say that they are – and to prevent the spectacle of women languishing in jail for simply claiming their own fertility through an act that one out of three women in the US has undertaken in her lifetime. It is a deliberate decision to void their own moral judgments for political expediency – to let a category of so-called “crimes” go unprosecuted to avoid drawing scrutiny to the ways the criminalization of healthcare affects women in general, and thus maintain that oppression in broader effect. It is an all-but-explicit declaration that the ideology that they claim justifies their persecution of women is itself expendable if it would get in the way of persecuting women – that making women suffer is more important than consistently and honestly applying the ideological framework that they use to rationalize that suffering.

But beyond the craven dishonesty and political expedience of the misogynist anti-choice crowd, there is a deep contempt for reality itself. To rationalize their insistence that abortion is a crime, and simultaneous refusal to hold women accountable for their choice to commit that “crime”, they have to characterize the act as criminal but the deliberate commission of it not. Who commits criminal acts but is not a criminal? People who are mentally incompetent, or coerced. Thus: “I see women in this case as a victim”.

This is another popular trope of the misogynist right: women are incapable of agency in their own disapproved choices. The idea that women are commonly “pressured” into abortion is a staple of anti-choice activism, as is the idea that they don’t really know what they are doing. This, of course, makes no sense legally: whether or not you are “pressured”, you can’t plan, schedule, show up for, pay for, and participate in a crime – after extensive discussion, preparation, and informed consent! – and claim you were acting under duress. (It didn’t work for Patty Hearst, and she was truly coerced.) Nor can you claim, after all that, that you didn’t know what you were doing, nor – the legally important part – does that claim matter as a defense to a criminal charge. (“Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”) For women to be exculpable of crime for a crime they planned and participated in, they have to be not just unknowing, or a “victim”, but actually mentally incompetent – a mental child, lacking legal autonomy, unable to give consent for her own choices.

That is the characterization the right wing puts on women – any woman having, or even seeking, an abortion – as their out for criminalizing the act but not the actor. That is how Rick Santorum – and all his Wingnut Woman Hater’s Club fellows – describe every woman who makes a choice they disapprove of: incompetent, non-autonomous, “victimized” by choices they themselves have freely considered, endorsed, and enacted.

But these are not simply more of the crazy opinions and perverse perspectives on women and the world that the right wing wallows in. They are claims of fact – claims about what it is actually like to be a woman who wants an abortion, or simply be a woman who believes abortion is one of the tools she can use to control her own life, take care of her own body, and achieve her own goals. To be a “victim” of one’s own choices and goals, it must be true in fact that you are mentally deficient, not capable of decision-making about yourself as the owner and inhabitant of your own life and body, oppressed by circumstances to the point that you cannot, in literal fact, think straight about yourself. These are claims of psychological fact – claims about the actual mental states of women attempting to assert sexual autonomy – claims about all such women (since the get-out-of-abortion-free card is made available to all women on these grounds).

It is simply impossible that such a claim could be true. It is patently obvious that it is not, in fact, true even about most or very many of the women who choose abortion. (All such women undergo intake counseling and an informed consent discussion. Repeated studies have shown again and again that they are at least as mentally healthy after the fact as are women who have not had an abortion.) The actual facts are clear: women who choose abortion are not mentally deficient, mis-informed, or incapable of making their own decisions. The claim Santorum and his ilk rely on to absolve themselves of the consequences in public opinion of their own misogyny is simply not true. But since it was never intended to be true – only to sound like something that would help them if it were true – that has no effect on their willingness to keep saying it.

What this cashes out as, for me, is the absolute necessity to put women and women’s needs at the center of any discussion about abortion. A third of all women in this country will have an abortion in their lifetime – and that’s with the grinding barriers and hurdles the right wing has put in their way. Tens of millions of them have already had abortions – women from every part of the country, every ethnic and religious group, almost certainly every extended family. In the same way that the “I had an abortion” T-shirt makes that army of normal, everyday, free and independent women visible, and forces the misogynists to question how far they are willing to go in targeting their own friends and family members, we need to make it clear also that those women are not “victims”, nor criminals.

Unless you are willing to call some vast percentage of women in the country – family members, co-workers, the women who raised all those children, taught all those classes, earned all those college degrees, held down all those jobs, accomplished all that they have accomplished and are still doing, and in the course of it knowingly and deliberately and self-affirmingly chose to abort an unwanted pregnancy and were better off for it – mentally ill, mentally incompetent, not in control of their own lives or choices, unable to control their own lives and choices, then you cannot claim their are victims for having made those deliberate and conscious choices. You will have to confront the reality that the women who choose abortion are, in largest part, strong, self-aware, competent, autonomous, and fully responsible for their own lives, values, goals, choices, and actions. And that being anti-choice is an assault on those women and their status as independent and autonomous persons.

4 Responses to “The War on Women: Reality Optional”

  1. Dan M. Says:

    It’s somewhat encouraging to see the religious authoritarians successfully learn from an event in reality. It’s much more discouraging that what they learnt was that they could dodge one of the criticisms of forced pregnancy by simply removing women’s legal agency, and it’s not like that’s very much of a change from their previous stance.

    (Quibbles: You use the phrase “medical abortion” where you appear to mean “pharmacological abortion”. Relatedly, you’ve left out all the spontaneous abortions that occur without medical intervention; that’s reasonable in context but could use clarification.)

  2. Kevin Smith Parr Says:

    I dont think anybody will take him seriously if he keeps on making statements like, “Abortion in any form is wrong,” “Except for my wife. If your wife’s life was at stake and the only thing that could save her was an abortion, well, too bad. Your wife will have to die. It was different with my wife. You see, I love her. I don’t even know your wife’s name.”

  3. Otunba Ganiyu Says:

    Interesting article and i think Santorum statement”I don’t think there should be criminal penalties for a woman who obtains an abortion. I see women in this case as a victim. I see the person who is performing the abortion as doing the illegal act” further shows he is a mediocre seeking public attention.

  4. Klara Says:

    this area of law is very special and young. in opposite the other scenes of law, which has got more hundred years of tradition, this one is a baby. but it must be handle with care. i think we should learn from the netherlands maybe.

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