“Finally, considering the right's success in capturing state houses, the ever-rightward tilt of Congress, SCOTUS' recent Hobby Lobby decisions regarding contraception, and their ruling on buffer zones, prochoice activists must feel like Roe is as vulnerable as a wildebeest at a watering hole. Indeed, the lions of the right would certainly like to devour it. Were that the case, then the religious right's ascendance would bring another tipping point not just for abortion, but for the very nature of governance in the United States.” – Douglas Jamiel, July 22, 2014
Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017, during the March for Life. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite AP/Press Association Images
Thousands of people gathered yesterday in Washington, DC, as they have for 44 years, for what is known as the March for Life. This anti-abortion protest takes place annually near the anniversary date of the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court’s landmark abortion rights decision. Yesterday’s marchers, whether they individually like Trump or not, were happy, hopeful, and enthusiastic in the knowledge that his administration is so clearly and explicitly “pro-life.”
The March was a celebration of the right’s electoral victory, the result of decades of work that had almost nothing at all to do with Donald Trump or his personal goals and pathologies. His election has enabled the religious right’s movement, one that has coalesced around abortion rights for decades, to gain political power. This march, and not Trump’s inauguration, should be the focal point for understanding the new administration’s rejection of modernity, science and secularism, as well as its undemocratic policy objectives.
This assertion might mystify people inclined to think, “The problems we face are so much more than about abortion.” The point isn’t abortion per se, but the model established by a right wing Christian ideology. It’s a model of strategies and tactics, arrayed against women’s rights during the past fifty years, now being applied more broadly. When public harm is going to be done, perpetrators usually practice first on women and children, to see what society will tolerate. This situation is no different.
The conservative right’s pro-life agenda – anti-science, anti-secular, and anti-equality – has been a fertile practice ground for decades. Religious ideas infuse personhood for fetus theories, medical truths are ignored and overlooked, and the deleterious political and economic effects of compulsory pregnancy on women are trivialized.
Additionally, the anti-abortion movement’s use of language and framing also presaged what we see today. In anti-abortion activism, “alternate facts” and “fake news” have long distorted public understanding with expressions such as “partial-birth abortions.” Verbal and visual slights of hand are the lingua franca of the movement.
On a deeper level, however, the anti-abortion movement starkly illustrates the right’s authoritarian and anti-democratic core. Despite the intent of individual people, the political anti-abortion movement willfully subsumes women’s autonomy, privacy, dignity, bodily integrity and moral competence in religious beliefs about innocence, sin and the promised rewards or punishments of an afterlife. Hardline religious conservatives that dominate “pro-life” activism and politics fundamentally assume that women are to men as men are to god and, as such, that women are subject to male intervention and governance. In the same way that biblical notions of gender hierarchy, submission and guardianship was used to established the basis for racialized slavery, this treatment of women has been used to establish the basis for undermining broader and intersectional equality.
Trump is vehicle food to the religious right, whose ideas about gender hierarchies and roles overlapped just sufficiently enough with his to justify the rank hypocrisy of purportedly religious people supporting a man who so thoroughly embodies the abject failure of the compassion, empathy, respect, dignity and love that they claim to hold so dear. The animating force in this relationship is hierarchies and status – first based on gender, because it operates intimately, then on everything else.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the March for Life. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta AP/Press Association Images
Trump himself has, over the years, vacillated in his opinions about abortion, but his Vice President, Mike Pence, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have been among the most vocal and rabid anti-choice advocates in US politics in decades. Under Pence’s governorship, Indiana enacted draconian laws criminalizing pregnant women in violation of their civil rights. Ryan, a believer in personhood for fertilized eggs, supported what came to be called the "Let Women Die Bill" and was recorded explaining that, after all, rape is simply another method of conception. Both men endorse practices that, despite what they might say or believe, perpetuate systemic racism and sexism. Both believe, fundamentally, that men govern and women nurture; men produce, women reproduce. Information to the contrary, information that challenges status, is rationalized out of existence.
What is interesting in either case – the right using Trump or Trump using the right – is the degree to which winners are perceived in terms of dominant and powerful ‘masculine’ ideals, and losers in terms of defeated, submissive and weak ‘feminine’ ones. The “pro-life” movement is steeped in ideas about gender hierarchies and those hierarchies now define the corruption of democratic ideals.
An understanding of gender as an ordinal frame of institutional life is important to parsing how it is that Trump and his administration can so cavalierly seem to ignore the constitution, a tradition of compromise, and ultimately violate our rights as citizens.
Many people believe that women’s equality means giving us access to what men have historically had, need and want. But gender isn’t only a matter of individual expression or behavior, nor does the movement of women into traditionally male spheres erase sexism and bias. Ideas about gender, persistently stereotypical, infuse everything from the organization of labor in homes and at work to the language and metaphor that shape our thinking. These ideas, to our collective detriment, remain, overwhelmingly, binary and hierarchical: men and women; higher status and lower status; public and private; strong and weak; dominant and submissive; leaders and lead; protectors and nurturers; rational and emotional; public actors and privately acted upon.
It is in this framework that Trump is treating the polity in the way that women, threats to their equality and their “issues”, have been treated. What women say, experience and need remains minimally consequential to men and the institutions that they dominate. This approach has been the standard political, public and media response to gross violations of women’s human and civil rights for decades – rights that have often been challenged by anti-abortion politicians.
Donald Trump signs anti-abortion executive order surrounded by men. Credit: CNP SIPA USA/PA Images
Men dominate coverage of abortion and other reproductive rights issues in all media. They are also the majority of cited and sourced experts. On US cable programs, Catholic officials are six times more likely to appear as media experts to discuss abortion than gynecologists or obstetricians. The last to be consulted, in media or in legislatures, are women. Media also, for example, failed to explicitly call years of extremist abortion clinic attacks terrorism, hate crimes or direct challenges to women’s equality and citizenship.
If, as the result of anti-abortion violence and laws, women’s rights were degraded, if women were criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies, if their dignity was routinely impugned, if their lives threatened, if their ability to support themselves and their families was reduced, and if their freedom of movement and choice were monitored and restricted, well, there are always more critical Section A issues. Media has, for years, failed to consult women and scientists in matters of women’s health and needs or to hold public office holders accountable to women as citizens. Media is, therefore, entirely complicit in cultivating a poor public understanding of abortion, one that hinges on the disingenuous pitting of a woman’s selfish wants against a “baby’s life.”
This is the same sort of vacuous “tell both sides” false equivalence that feed widespread climate denial and the rejection, in the United States, of theories of evolution. The same standards had the destructive effect, in coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s candidacies, of suggesting that they were equally potentially unfit or dangerous. If women’s rights were considered part of the fundamental scaffolding of democracy, instead of private matters or negotiable political bargaining chips, then our culture might not have been as primed to ignore the dangers represented by Trump’s candidacy or the ascendance of an authoritarian conservative white supremacist religious right in the White House.
It is an interesting development that what can be perceived as multiple re-institutionalizations of women’s inequality may indeed be a symptom of just the opposite, in that men and women, to consider an unprecedented upside, can now be categorized under the universal generic, “women,” because that’s how this administration, an administration that puts white male aggrieved entitlement on display in spectacular and destructive ways, is going to treat everyone. Equally.
If you are a man, and you find yourself thinking, “How is what is going on even possible?” congratulations, you are now a woman. If you are saying, “That makes no sense. It’s not true or accurate, not medically or scientifically sound,” welcome. If you are wondering why the media persists in framing critical issues “neutrally” by employing dangerous false equivalences, it’s nice to have you. If you wonder how anyone can take senseless language seriously, happy to talk. If you are enraged that your rights, needs and experiences are being ignored, or worse, still, if you are being told that others know better what is good for you, get in line.
We are all women now.
When Donald Trump outlives his usefulness and popularity, the conservative leadership of the Republican Party will do their best to make light work of him, leaving Mike Pence and Paul Ryan to fill offices they could never have been elected to. Along the way, and via techniques well honed in the battle against women’s rights and access to safe and legal abortion, great damage will be done to women, LGTBQ communities, racial, religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the economy and the environment. In other words, less palatable words, heterosexual white male supremacy will have politically exerted itself.
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