February 3, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
How anti-abortionists learned to stop worrying and love punishing women for having sex
Once Roe fell, the truth was revealed.
Anti-abortionists have always had a weak spot. It was veiled as long as Roe was in place. Now that Roe is gone, that vulnerability is coming into view. It’s pretty much what you’d expect it to be. Yes, I’m talking about sex.
Anti-abortionism is, at its root, about the beast with two backs. Not that sex is bad. If you’re a man, it might be bad, or good. It depends on your age, your rank in society, your money, and so on. It is not about morality, since, as a man, morality is mostly what you say it is.
It’s not that sex is bad for women. That depends. If it’s according to iron gripped, aggressively enforced social boundaries, it’s probably good, “morally” speaking. But it’s probably bad, sexually speaking, on account of those iron gripped, aggressively enforced social boundaries.
Again, it depends.
What’s certain is that anti-abortionism is, at its root, not about “the sanctity of life,” “fetal personhood” or some made-up thing. It is what conservative protestant white men have always said it was: a means of controlling women, a quasi-legal set of bylaws that punish disobedience of conservative protestant white men but reward submission to them.
In other words, a way to monopolize sex.
Men setting the terms
That’s the root of it, but that’s a terrible, just awful, basis for a political movement, because, yanno, who’s going to organize, fundraise and mobilize around the hoary conviction that a woman’s place is in the home, that a woman’s exclusive role is as caregiver, for children and men, that women should never enjoy sex, and that sexual access to a woman is predicated solely on her husband’s authority over her?
Yeah, that’s going nowhere fast.
So the anti-abortionists got creative. They didn’t stop believing what their lineage had believed. They just stopped talking about, mostly, what their lineage had believed. That wasn’t enough, though.
To truly broaden the appeal of something that’s fundamentally unappealing to a wider audience, the anti-abortionists had to make some shit up that sounded like it had nothing to do with maintaining the dominance of old white protestant patriarchy, but was, in spirit and goal, about white protestant men maintaining the old dominance.
It couldn’t be concrete. That would give the game away. But it couldn’t be so abstract as to alienate or lose the attention of conservative white protestants who’d normally take offense at the thought of a woman enjoying sex with a man who was not her husband, or just enjoying sex.
It’s hard to say.
It had to be concrete enough to mobilize true believers but abstract enough to 1) avoid driving away potential collaborators and 2) inspire them to organize, fundraise and mobilize for this made up thing that may be, and was, in reality, about white men setting the terms of life.
Revealing the truth
Historically, however, the protestants had no model.
Fetuses had no place in the natural order of things, because a fetus wasn’t a person until it kicked its mother. After that, its place, as for everyone, was in the hierarchies of power established by a biblical God in which He ruled over Mankind, men ruled over women, parents ruled over children, and white people ruled over everyone else.
For the protestants of old, babies were, first of all, women’s work. Second of all, they were not as important in the grand scheme as mothers were. My own mom, an old-time fundamentalist, supported abortion on those grounds. Kids, born and unborn, were to be subordinate. If a pregnancy ended prematurely, God would save them.
So the protestants turned to the Catholics, who had had a working model. While “life” was a meaningless word to protestants who were trained to believe in the proper place for children, it was nevertheless a useful term for achieving their anti-abortionist objectives.
“Sanctity of life” – oh, that was better! The phrase rang with religious overtones. “Fetal personhood,” however, tops them all! It would resonate with the sounds of criminal law and constitutional rights.
The anti-abortionists could grow their movement against women having sex without giving away their real motives. Yes, some idiot like Todd Atkin, a one-time senate candidate, would sometimes provide a glimpse into the real anti-abortionist intentions with talk of “legitimate rape” (read: “rape” applies to criminals only; husbands can’t be rapists).
But otherwise, the making-shit-up strategy went a long way, all the way to the Supreme Court, where a supermajority of rightwing justices decided to pretend to believe the anti-abortionists’ made-up shit.
Everything was soooper after Roe fell. Women would soon return home. Eden would be restored. As long as the anti-abortionists true intentions were hidden, as long as lawmakers didn’t overreach.
Exposure and overreach, however, come with success.
Eventually, the movement cracks, revealing the truth.
Back to the ur-believers
According to Vice News, lawmakers in Arkansas and Oklahoma have introduced legislation that, instead of punishing abortion providers, the case for decades, would punish abortion seekers, namely, women.
It’s a growing trend. There’s probably no stopping it. Why?
Because new technologies (mifepristone prevents embryos from attaching to the womb), a patchwork of state laws (some states have decimated access while others have increased it), and globalization (Indian drugmakers don’t care about abortion laws) have created new and greater incentives to target women themselves, not their doctors.
That creates a new set of factors for the anti-abortion movement, which, when seen in their proper light, will erode, though perhaps not stop, the anti-abortion movement down to its ur-believers.
Take away the carnival barking over “the sanctity of life” and “fetal personhood,” and who’s going to fight for the hoary conviction that a woman’s place is in the home, that caregiver is her God given role, that women should never enjoy sex, and that sexual access to a woman is predicated solely on her husband’s authority over her.
Yeah, that’s going nowhere fast.
Crimes are punishable
The first factor is that pro-abortionists have for years accused anti-abortionists of the desire to punish women for having abortions (ie, for enjoying sex). That’s the logical outcome of the current push for “fetal personhood” in some anti-abortionist states. If a fetus is a person, abortion is murder. Murder is a crime. Crimes are punishable.
The second is that this momentum toward “fetal personhood” is itself putting the lie to decades of anti-abortionist propaganda. For years, they said we don’t want to punish women. We want to protect “the sanctity of life,” or um, “civil rights,” yeah! But that won’t work when it’s more apparent that the goal is criminalizing “illegitimate” pregnancy.
The third is that some anti-abortionists have stopped pretending. Suddenly, the “sanctity of life” isn’t as important as sending the message that “actions have consequences.” Here, the “consequences” means an unwanted child. If that’s the consequence, the “actions” would be what the anti-abortionists have said was never their focus. They said it was “the life of the child.”
What you always expected
It was sex all along.
Specifically, women having it — enjoying it — outside the iron gripped and aggressively enforced social boundaries that were created for the benefit of the white protestant patriarchy. If women won’t have sex with conservative white protestant men, well, they won’t have sex at all.
Cracks are showing.
The truth is revealed.
This is the soft spot the anti-abortionists have always had. It was veiled as long as Roe was around. With Roe gone, that soft spot is coming into view. It’s pretty much what you had expected it to be.
But only now is the movement’s momentum betraying it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.