Therefore the Lord said, “These people draw near to me with their mouths, and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is but rules taught by men.”Isaiah 29:13
Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.C.S. Lewis
As anticipated, the SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade this week, bravely on a Friday afternoon just before summer break, lighting a fuse that will now burn for the next several months, and then maybe blowing the country to smithereens after the November mid-terms.
So…. a million thanks to the super in-touch conservative justices, who thought that everything else was going so well in the US that it was the perfect time to roll back women’s rights a few decades/centuries. Luckily, our political and economic systems are incredibly stable right now, and there’s zero threat of any Covid resurgence. It’s the perfect time for a patient, mature populace to intelligently debate the theological and philosophical implications of removing a fundamental constitutional guarantee for women, men, and anyone who happens to know any women or men.
Great job, SCOTUS! Kudos for reading the times just perfectly. I’m sure, as Alito maintains, this will actually reduce the intensity of the cultural clash over abortion rights, a tranquility that he’ll respectfully watch from his summer retreat in Idaho or Branson. I wish I had that kind of pure instinctual understanding of the country’s mood.
Needless to say, abortion is a tricky issue. It goes not just to core matters of religion, sexuality, reproduction, human rights, state vs. federal power, and the like. It actually drives even deeper than that, to the very way in which we define the discussion itself. It is not just an argument over who’s right and who’s wrong, but rather about who decides how we even argue about right and wrong, and about what constitutes the realm of evidence that is admissible in the fight. In other words, underneath the myriad facets of the debate, it’s really just about power itself.
For pro-choice advocates, abortion is just one part of a sprawling complex of issues relating to how women live in the world, define their sexual identities, use labor and love to craft their lives, and how and when to create family units, and with whom. In this broad context, abortion is just one plank in women’s expanding platforms of freedom, equality, and power. Abortion is not just some arbitrary, stand-alone ability to terminate pregnancies at will, capriciously tossing out fetuses like out-of-style shoes. Abortion is part of a much broader array of choices and capabilities, options for choosing where to live, how to work, who to love. These are all vital expressions of the most fundamental right of free individuals; the right to control the movements and actions of one’s physical body. Abortion is not about abdicating responsibility for a fetus. It is about taking full responsibility for all of the aspects of one’s life, especially the choice to carry another life inside one’s own body, or not.
This full background context for abortion rights is why, rightfully, pro-choice people object so loudly to the lack of concern, among conservatives, for fetuses after they are born, or even for the quality of fetal care beyond just making sure that no abortive monkey-business is going on. Many liberals ask, “If conservatives are so obsessed with babies’ well-being, why do they not support universal health care with robust reproductive services and pre-natal care? Why are they not championing extended, federally-mandated maternity and paternity leave, along with massive federal aid for daycare, early childhood education, and guaranteed food assistance for all families that need it? Why, ‘pro-lifers,’ do you care so much about life before the umbilical is cut, and so little afterwards?”
All good questions, and questions that feel so deliciously gotcha when posed. But for religious conservative types, these are all the wrong questions, as they pre-suppose a liberal worldview that they definitely do not share. For anti-abortionists, at bottom, the issue is one of murder, plain and simple, and not of any liberal definition of ‘reproductive health and autonomy,’ and certainly not of any bloated, socialist nanny-state. For the anti-abortion movement, the battle is a religious one: protecting fetal souls and bodies from early extinguishment by a godless mass of baby-murderers.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Commentators rightly observe that abortion was not really a huge deal when Roe was decided in 1973. Support for abortion was arrayed out across political parties and even across Protestant denominations. Opposition to abortion was similarly spread out. But in the 70s, abortion had yet to be politically weaponized. Even Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, supported abortion rights (before flip-flopping to opposition when the winds changed). It wasn’t really until the 80s that religious groups and the GOP pivoted to using abortion as a wedge issue, as a judicial litmus test, and as a cultural cudgel against Democrats.
A current trope in liberal circles is that this was a long, ruthless, laser-focused political project for conservatives, just now coming to first fruition. In this view, the conservative project will broaden and deepen, with activists now emboldened to come after abortion at the federal level, to come after gay marriage, to come after contraception, and even to revive archaic sodomy laws. Liberals thus clamor for Dems to get serious, to show the same kind of ruthless singularity of purpose as the GOP, to stack the SCOTUS or eliminate the filibuster, so that federal legislation can be passed, codifying Roe.
I get these arguments, and they make a lot of sense on first examination. But let’s take some time to unpack the anti-abortion project, to see how it fits into the Polarization Industrial Complex (PIC). As with al things political in the US, the abortion clash must be seen inside the bigger structure of polarization, which limits what can actually be done in response. Liberals are fed up with the conservatives always “winning,” wile Dems bicker over stupid pronouns and preserving the X on Latinx. Conservatives are playing hardball while whiny liberal millennials are busy canceling the un-woke and alienating anyone with a blue collar or a pre-1980 DOB. So the argument goes.
But I’ve become increasingly impatient with this older liberal complaint about younger liberals, and I’m not just jumping on the OK, BOOMER bandwagon (I myself am an Xer, born in 1968). First of all, in a country of 330 million people, you’re always going to be able to find examples of wokeness run amok and young libs over-obsessing with identity-label minutiae. But cherry-picking those examples and blowing them out of proportion is just lazy, and it mirrors what Fox News does: find the outrageous and call it the normal business practice of your opponents. But the deeper problem is that so many libs focus on PC identity stuff because the Democratic party in general is funded and policed by the wealthy and the powerful; and that ensures that actual economic change is off the table. Liberals know this, of course, but they gloss over it by saying that the Dems have ‘lost their way,’ or have just ‘forgotten regular working people’ (meaning, of course, white people). What is needed is for the Dems to move back to the commonsense middle, and forget all the PC identity claptrap. This is the other lazy trope that misunderstands the PIC itself. “Sensible” commentators are always saying that the Right and the Left are now both dominated by “extremists,” and that we need to move ‘back to the Center.’
As mentioned many times on this blog, the image of a Right-left spectrum, with a creamy nougat center of common sense, is not only useless as a metaphor; it is a tool of the Polarization Industrial Complex itself, and actually operates to hinder any accurate understanding of what the hell is going on, and what could actually be done to fix it.
After that long detour, let’s get back to abortion. Politically and procedurally, what comes next?
Conservatives have a few different tasks on their plate now. First will be the building out of the enforcement apparatus around the abortion bans that will shortly exist in 26 or so states. I’m not a deep delver into red-state political machinery (I live in deep-blue Massachusetts), but I suspect that enforcing the state abortion bans will be incredibly difficult. Most red states are not awash in extra money, so it’s hard to see how they are going to pay for all of the extra surveillance and court costs that are entailed in criminalizing an intimate bodily function. Are these states really going to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from schools and roads, to pay for a shit-ton of pregnancy investigators and public defense attorneys?
I think that the red states, most of which have already sharply curtailed actual access to physical abortion sites, feel that this is going to be a slam dunk. They’ll just close the few remaining facilities, throw a couple of doctors in jail as a deterrent, and then just let citizens themselves do the heavy-lifting of policing their peers’ private lives, sprinkling out some rewards for pre-natal narcs. Piece o’ cake.
But I don’t see that working too well. Half of all abortions are medical (pills), not surgical. So states will need to ban certain drugs. But unlike pot or heroin, these are drugs that are legal at the federal level, and in any state without an abortion ban. How do you stop the mass migration of little pills across state lines? Then, of course, there are the enforcement quagmires that will come with actual people crossing state lines for abortions, how to adjudicate hearsay evidence about possible pregnancies, funding for the massive increase in blood tests, paternity-DNA tests, miscarriage investigations, etc. This will be an Everest-sized headache, because these states will essentially be trying to apply a simple moral rule to an advanced, sophisticated, technology-heavy society, one with an enormous legal infrastructure designed to protect individuals from arbitrary surveillance and punishment.
And oh, by the way, as many have pointed out: around the globe, banning abortion does not reduce it; it just makes abortions much more dangerous, and may actually increase the absolute number. But hey, the wars on drugs and terror have rid the US and the world of those yucky things, so this abortion thing should be easy, right?
More “realistically,” though, conservatives are probably not that concerned with state-by-state difficulties, because they have the SCOTUS now, which means that a federal abortion ban can’t be far off. Very quickly, we should see a fetal personhood test case pop up, and if the SCOTUS agrees to even hear that case, then you know that a federal ban is coming. The idea that Alito and the other conservative justices will be content with leaving the definitions of life and murder to each state’s whims is absurd. And women passing from full autonomy to Handmaid status as they drive past the “Welcome to Oklahoma” sign is equally ridiculous. I would bank on the SCOTUS accepting a fetal personhood case pretty soon, with a federal ban of some type ensuing thereafter (barring extreme mid-term results, which will be discussed below).
Before we look at how insane this is, and its exact roots in the PIC, let’s briefly cover what the Democrats’ procedural paths are. First, they need to take both houses in November. Until the repeal of Roe, it was looking grim for the Dems, as new voter suppression laws have gone on the books all over the place, and as we wallow in dreaded stagflation territory. But the overturning of Roe could backfire on conservatives, if women, LGBTQ, and other threatened people rise up in un(fucking)precedented numbers for the mid-terms, crushing the GOP and possibly relegating it to history’s ashcan. If that happens, things get relatively easy. Huge Dem majorities immediately enact full federal guarantees for abortion rights. These majorities are filibuster-proof, Biden signs it, game over. I doubt that even this SCOTUS would challenge a massive electoral mandate and the subsequent federal legislation, especially if the GOP gets eviscerated into obsolescence in the process.
However, I think this scenario is doubtful. More likely, the GOP does okay, maybe staying in the minority, but only just barely. In that case, the Dems can either nix the filibuster or pack the SCOTUS, or both. Many liberals are clamoring for just this right now, and I don’t fully disagree. But obviously, this could unleash the proverbial goose and gander axiom, and we could just end up with a perpetual, pendulous flip-flopping of fundamental rights. Needless to say, that’s bad for the democracy business.
As usual with this blog, we’re brought back to the Polarization Industrial Complex: where it came from, how it functions, the vacuity of its visions of the future, and the limited ways out of it. I won’t rehash everything about the PIC here. You can read through my older pieces to get the gist (maybe start here). But let’s take a look at the overturning of Roe in the context of the Polarization Industrial Complex.
As mentioned above, abortion becomes politically weaponized in the 80s, as part of Big Business reacting to the high-point of economic egalitarianism in the US, which was the mid-to-late 70s. Corporations had enough of workers and consumers having the the upper hand, so they built a sprawling apparatus of think tanks, foundations, research institutes, and advocacy groups — all pushing the core ideas of neoliberalism: government=bad, taxes=bad, shareholder value = good, unions=bad, PAC money=good, etc. Economic inequality picked up in earnest, money’s access to the political system reached critical mass, information and communication outlets were corporatized and consolidated. As the money flowed (upwards), the Dems saw the writing on the wall and joined the pro-corporate GOP in support of all things Gordon Gekko-ish. That leaves us with what we have now: a political duopoly that serves the interests of the plutocracy (and is increasingly fused with that plutocracy, which is the textbook definition of fascism), and regular people get the bare minimum to (mostly) keep us out of the streets with torches and pitchforks. You can call this the Table Scraps Economy.
The obvious problem with this setup is that it cannot last very long without a robust explanatory scheme, some rationale for why most families live paycheck-to-paycheck in the wealthiest country in the history of civilization. Enter the PIC, a massive apparatus of partisan media and fundraising, a system to launder reality and tell people that the problem is not really that a small slice of the population controls everything, but that the evil other side is blocking what we, obviously on the side of the angels, are trying to do for you. Never mind the man behind the curtain. It’s those horrible flying monkeys on the other side of the aisle that are ruining your lives and communities.
Other obvious problems ensue with the flowering of the PIC. First, it’s not generally good for a society to have tens of millions of citizens see tens of millions of their fellow citizens as their cosmic enemies. Identity-formation via a common foe is one of the most powerful features of human nature. It can be useful in combatting an external enemy, but it is domestic poison if unleashed inside a society. Secondly, because the PIC is just ideological cover for the continued consolidation of the plutocracy, things that could really help really people, beyond table scraps, just don’t get done. We little people get an occasional tidbit, but the general trends of disempowerment are not changed. Our wages get squeezed, our retirement funds dwindle, our insurance coverages shrink, surcharges and fees expand — nothing gets easier, just harder.
it is incredibly difficult to unleash this partisan rage inside a massively unequal economic landscape, without losing control of the monster. Since the plutocracy’s main goal is just to continue the unjust status quo, the masses are left to demonize and consume each other.
This is the framework in which we need to see the repeal of Roe v. Wade. While liberals see this decision, justifiably, as an assault on women’s (and men’s) constitutional rights, a rolling back of hard-won progress over hundreds of years, conservatives view it as a holy war, with abortionists trying to murder the bodies and souls not only of babies, but of Christianity and virtue themselves.
As such, I don’t think that anti-abortionists are only interested in controlling the bodies of women, per se. They want to control the bodies and lives of everyone, especially the wicked people on the other side. The PIC has been drumbeating for decades that economic inequality and injustice are not really political problems. They are moral problems, caused by your domestic enemies. The evildoers from the blue states and cities have stolen your jobs, your businesses, your farms, your towns, and your babies. As the plutocracy has maximized its reach and minimized economic relief for the masses, the PIC has had to massively ramp up its ferocity and combativeness, and we’re left with the smoking societal rubble.
So I know, as liberals, we want to fight, and fight right now. And we should. Dems should go full out to get as big a November victory as possible, to get a filibuster-proof majority and pass federal legislation guaranteeing full abortion rights. And we should obviously resist when the SCOTUS comes calling for other rights.
But in the broadest scope of things, we have to see that there is no way through the PIC to permanent “victory” over the other side. And we need to see the myth of the commonsense middle for what it is: a stalling tactic in service of the status quo at best, and, at worst, an utterly delusional hope for a future that cannot happen. (see here for more on this)
There is no way through the PIC, even in the magical middle. We must go around, and that path has not been trodden before, and is thus foreign to our PIC-formed vision. But around we must go, and we’ll signpost that trail next time.