Read more of John Stoehr’s posts from The Editorial Board — eds.
The Editorial Board’s Mia Brett has been raising awareness of a new Texas law that, in effect, creates a market for abortion vigilantism. Even so, the new law hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern said today, the United States Supreme Court has just two days to decide Roe’s fate and barely anyone in the Washington press corps has bothered to take notice.
While I yield to no one in my zest for criticizing members of the press corps, I think there’s a good reason for their lack of attention. It’s the same reason the Democrats are not as mobilized as they should be—why they haven’t spent the capital necessary to codify Roe, to turn it into statutory law. The reason is pretty simple: most people don’t think anything’s going to happen to Roe. I say this knowing full well that the Democrats raise holy hell every time a justice retires or dies—but you’ll also notice they haven’t spent the capital necessary to codify Roe.
The lack of urgency comes from an additional source. Most people believe the anti-abortionists. Most people take them at their word. This, too, should be unsurprising, given that the press corps tells us over and over that the reason they want to outlaw abortion is because of their genuinely held religious belief in the sanctity of life. Given that most people most of the time have other things to do than pay attention to politics, it stands to reason most people most of the time believe what the press corps says anti-abortionists believe. And if they believe in the sanctity of life, outlawing abortion can’t be all bad.
I think things would be quite different if most people most of the time understood clearly that the fight against legal abortion and reproductive rights is really a fight against democratic modernity itself. I think things would be quite different if it were clear that opposition to legal abortion is rooted in the desire not only to maintain centuries-old hierarchies of power but also to replicate and expand them. I think things would be quite different if anti-abortionists were honest with themselves and their enemies in that the point of it all has nothing to do with “life” or babies, but instead everything to do with sex, power and property, especially with who is the “rightful” owner of a woman’s body.
Put another way, I think things would be quite different if more people in this country understood that abortion would not be a political issue at all among the people who have made it a political issue over 50 years if women simply did what they were told by the men in their lives—if they stopped acting like they are entitled to the same freedoms, rights and privileges of their male counterparts. But democratic modernity has pushed morality beyond meaning strict obedience. Morality now includes equality. And that cannot stand.
Anti-abortionists should be understood as authoritarians who cannot and will not tolerate democratic morality. Why? Because democracy, especially our capitalist democracy, is always challenging the integrity of the hierarchies of power that literally define these people’s lives. I say “literally,” because if you take them out of the hierarchies of power—for instance, send them to college for a liberal arts education—these authoritarians will come close to losing their minds.
A liberals arts education encourages individuals to develop a base of knowledge and set of skills for the purpose of thinking critically and independently in the hope of achieving some semblance of The Good Life. All of that runs counter to the point of being, which is obedience, loyalty and fidelity to the collective. A woman able to think for herself enough to get an abortion is a person who threatens to pervert all they stand for.
And “pervert” is not too strong a word. I would argue it’s quite accurate. To get an abortion is to commit a grave “sin”; not against God or religion, mind you, but against the authoritarian collective that believes the hierarchies of power are “the natural order of things” and that anything posing a threat to that order is a perversion.
The collective, meanwhile, gives meaning and purpose to the individuals who subordinate their interests and identities, even their minds and bodies (among women, at least), to its preservation and perpetuation. They say their movement is about human rights, but that’s a lie they tell, especially to themselves, to cover for its real purpose—restoring the American republic to a purer, more Eden-like, state of Christian feudalism.
Abortion is about far more than a woman’s right to choice or an embryo’s right to life, or whatever framing that’s convenient at a given political moment. As with much else after the election of America’s first Black president, the political movement against abortion is really a political movement against a democratic nation that dared defy our long history of whites-only power—and it should be seen in the same authoritarian context as the January 6 insurrection.
Indeed, the white evangelical Protestants who’ve been pushing the anti-abortion movement forward are the same ones who’ve threatened to punish any Republican who dares distance himself from Donald Trump’s failed coup d’état. To the authoritarians, loyalty to the collective is far more important than loyalty to the United States. Sharing control over the country is as unthinkable as sharing control of a woman’s body.
I don’t know what the United States Supreme Court is going to do over the next couple days, but whatever it does, it will be a consequence of six conservative justices choosing to believe lies the anti-abortionists tell everyone, but especially to themselves. If the sanctity of an individual embryo’s life were as important as they say it is, a half-century-old anti-abortion movement would, ironically, not exist.
The authoritarian collective that comprises it requires that the needs of individuals be expendable compared to the interests and needs of the collective. If the authoritarian collective really believed in the sanctity of the individual’s life, such respect would threaten the integrity of the hierarchies of power that literally define the anti-abortionist’s life. Such respect would mean psychic death.