We’ve seen an alarming increase in hateful rhetoric and smear campaigns against abortion providers and patients over the last few months. That environment breeds acts of violence. Americans reject the hatred and vitriol that fueled this tragedy. We do not accept this environment as normal. We should not have to live in a world where accessing health care includes safe rooms and bullet proof glass.
–Vicki Cowart, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, in a statement.
We’re going to talk about abortion today. I didn’t know if I could add anything to the conversation that other folks aren’t already saying and saying extremely well. But I’d been noticing something of late that I haven’t seen a lot of people discussing, and I’d like to do so now. I want to talk about how systems work, and how a system meets its goals.
(I want to make something clear before we get going: I don’t really care what people think about a topic as long as they keep their hands off other people’s rights. If someone personally wouldn’t ever choose to have an abortion but would never dream of interfering with another human being’s choices about his or her body, then we’re sympatico.)
See, I’m still reeling from the news of the Planned Parenthood shooting that took place over the holiday.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked. This violence is hardly new. Extremists see Planned Parenthood (PP) as a raised middle finger thrown in the face of their efforts to control women, and the irresponsible leaders of these extremists use language that is markedly violent, dehumanizing, and aggressive–not to mention dishonest–to get their ignorant followers whipped into a frenzy. Thus frenzied, these protesters then zero in on PP as a sign and symbol of All That Is Wrong With Murrka Today, and think that if they can defund it or terrorize it out of business then American women will quit having so many borshuns and start marrying their babydaddies and maybe start going back to church and then, oh, it’ll be so nice because everything will become just like Mad Men again but with less smoking.
I long ago stopped calling these extremists “pro-life.” A guy who thinks it’s a great idea to go shoot up a women’s clinic is not “pro-life,” whatever delusions he’s internalized or made up for himself. What he is instead is a “forced-birther.” (The term is not original to me, nor is it particularly new.) He wants to force pregnant women to give birth whether they want to or not, whether they consent or not to this medical risk and to this use of their bodies. Such a person sees the violation of a pregnant woman’s body and will as secondary to the greater good he has taken upon himself to adjudicate; he will force her to do what he thinks is right because he knows better than she does what is right for her–and of course because his opinion weighs more than hers does. And if she won’t listen to him, then fine, he’ll use violence to force her to comply with his demands.
The shooter in this case ended up killing three people and wounding many others–but clearly hoped to terrorize countless thousands of other women into avoiding clinics like the one he attacked. And he’s not alone. Anti-abortion terrorism is a homegrown American cottage industry at this point. Just as many fundagelical men use rape threats to force compliance when their overreach is denied, forced-birthers reach for violence when their lies, manipulations, and distortions don’t seem to be doing the trick.
And apparently “Jesus” approves fully of what his minions are doing while shrieking his name.
Nothing says “I have a strong moral position based on principles of honesty, compassion, and love” like threats of violence to force others into compliance, does it?
That declaration isn’t the only way that forced-birthers rationalize their desire to violate others. It’s barely even a year, right? A violation is okay if it’s just for a little while. It’s not like women’s whole lives can be up-ended by an unexpected pregnancy. And hardly anybody dies of childbirth or pregnancy complications nowadays. Why, really it’s like carrying a shopping bag with a cute little pink- or blue-frocked baby in it through the park! And look how many organizations out there are aching to help a needy woman with prenatal care and expenses! She can just adopt it out afterward or she’ll love it once it gets here! Blah blah abortion regret syndrome blah blah cancer links blah blah! Each lie is worse than the last. All I can think is that the few honest people in the movement genuinely don’t know any better.
If you let forced-birthers talk for very long, very quickly those talking points evaporate in the clear light of reality. Some of us older Disqus hands can remember that weird Christian guy who vociferously defended the forced gestation of underage rape victims impregnated by their attackers. I once heard a Christian say, with a gloating sneer, that once a pregnant woman had been forced to give birth, she and the baby were on their own; his “job,” as he saw it, was to force her to bear the baby, and after that he literally didn’t care what happened to either of them. As repulsive as his statements were, at least he was honest.
Most of his peers aren’t. They cloak their desire to control women’s lives behind sanctimonious platitudes about “women’s health” and “precious babies.” They squinch up their Preacher Eyebrows and whine about their man-pain over “letting” “their” women get abortions, and everyone else is just supposed to ignore the bizarre paternalism present in these teary confessions. We’re also supposed to ignore that these women and their babies drop off forced-birthers’ radar once they progress past the legal time limits for having abortions or ever need serious assistance. We must also ignore the devastated women forced to carry dead fetuses in their bodies to satisfy these paternalistic busybodies–or the prevalence of reproductive coercion and contraceptive sabotage in abusive relationships. We must especially ignore that most women who get abortions are women with kids, or who need therapeutic abortions that forced-birthers dither about for so long that the women who need them die. We must finally forget all those other women who otherwise don’t fit anywhere in the forced-birther narrative of the young, ignorant, sexually-profligate girl who flits from bed to bed and only wants to slip free of the “consequences” of her unapproved sexing-around.
That narrative of escape-from-righteous-punishment shapes most forced-birther rhetoric and actions; the rest revolves around their Pollyanna-ish ideas about how easy pregnancy and childbirth are, how trouble-free adoption is, how evil abortion providers are (and how dangerous they erroneously think abortion is), and exactly how much help is available to women who comply with their demands. With all these distortions and misrepresentations in mind, they’ve designed a system that they think gives them the ability and the right, even the obligation and duty, to decide for a pregnant woman what she’s going to do about a situation happening inside her very own body. She does not own herself, so obviously her owners must make that call. She clearly cannot be trusted to drive her own body; other people with far more wisdom and discernment than she possesses must sometimes step in to correct the headstrong, reckless little filly before she does any damage.
They can drape their control-lust and paternalism in as many platitudes and lies as they like, but the reality is this: the system they’ve designed isn’t going to produce the results they say they want–but it has been perfectly designed to produce exactly the results they’re actually getting.
The essential disconnect in the system’s design.
If someone from another planet were to look at what forced-birthers are doing without knowing a single thing about the goal they claim to want, that person would be hard-pressed to come out of that viewing thinking that “saving lives” was anything close to that goal. I think such a person would get a radically different impression of what these activists’ goal really was.
The Christian Right, which drives and shapes the forced-birther movement, is not even remotely interested in saving “babies,” promoting women’s health, or doing whatever else its leaders are saying they want. They’re in this self-created, self-fueled culture war of theirs because they know that consent is the most serious threat to their religion that has ever existed, and they need to eradicate it.
Self-ownership–especially as expressed by bodily integrity and the right to consent over the use of one’s physical body–is one of the most important rights there is, and a woman who knows she owns herself and doesn’t owe anybody else her body’s use under any circumstances is a woman who is already primed to reject most fundagelical teachings about relationships and society. If she rejects those teachings, then their religion falls a little further down the hill of relevance. They can’t lead if nobody wants to follow. Their whole culture is based around a hierarchy of authority–and self-ownership, especially in women, destroys that hierarchy.
That’s why people in the Christian Right hate and fear feminism so much–and their hatred has nothing whatsoever to do with righteous indignation and everything to do with the threat that empowered women pose to Christian leaders’ power and self-image. They call this threat the “curse of independence” and are willing to do whatever it takes to eliminate it–for women’s own good, of course. Their leaders’ obfuscation of this goal is, even today, one of their most successful marketing efforts. Indeed, many of their most fervent rank-and-file believers actually think that their efforts to criminalize abortion and terrorize women are going toward “saving babies.”
This disconnect between stated vs. actual goals is one of the major aspects of forced-birthers’ system design. It’s required; the system can’t work any other way. Adherents can use violence and murder to advance a philosophy they claim is based in “the sanctity of life” because the real thing they’re trying to defeat is consent. That’s the whole reason they can use violence in the first place. Violence is the ultimate expression of contempt for consent, and it is quite effective as a method of stripping consent from others. This violence is meant to support and underpin barbaric legislation meant to enshrine the removal of women’s consent into law. If forced-birthers really cared about “life,” then they would be incapable of using violence to advance their agenda; it’d be unthinkable. But because what they care about is stripping women’s consent from them, violence fits into that agenda perfectly well.
I’m ashamed to say that I was one of those rank-and-file believers once. Realizing exactly how dishonest and cruel their tactics, practices, and arguments were was what broke me of my allegiance to the movement. While the story recounted in that blog post happened back in the early 1990s, the arguments remain the same–and so does that essential disconnect.
Nothing says “I have a strong respect for the sanctity of life” like gleefully celebrating the actions of a clearly-disturbed criminal who shot a bunch of people, does it?
If you needed a good mad for today, here’s a colleague of mine describing the celebrations going on among right-wing Christians in response to the Colorado shootings. Someone committed a ghastly crime, hurt people, terrorized people, savaged people, used brutal methods and crude fear and pain to gain compliance, and there are oodles of Christians who are nothing but happy about it. (I guess terrorism is only bad if it’s done by scary brown people.)
And Christians wonder why their religion is losing so many people and being rejected by so many others. Our rejection has nothing to do with “wanting to sin,” I can assure them.
It’s because we can see that their system’s goals aren’t what Christians say those goals are. When they celebrate terrorism, mayhem, and death, when they cheer on a disturbed murderer who destroyed many lives, they are telling us:
Our agenda was advanced. Our cause was furthered. Our mission statement was honored.
Our system’s goals were met.
We hear this message loud and clear and we are repulsed–not only by the celebration of violence but by the sight of people honestly and sincerely embracing truly repugnant system goals. That’s why we feel heartened when we see a group’s leaders strongly condemning and disavowing violent deeds and hate speech–and are weirded out when the very people advancing the worst and most inflammatory rhetoric about a subject try to about-face by offering mealy-mouthed condemnations of the killer behind the latest round of violence against women’s clinics. We are meant to ignore that they are condemning a man who did absolutely nothing but show the ultimate respect to exactly the hateful, deceptive message they themselves peddled to their ignorant sheep.
The criminal at the center of this latest incident of violence against women’s clinics is nothing but the end-run of decades of inflamed and violence-advocating rhetoric offered by the Christian Right and its leaders in an increasingly polarized atmosphere of politicized religiosity. His masters honed their message very well, picking and choosing talking points guaranteed to drive people like him into a frenzy. When he was arrested, he spouted the exact same lies to the officers who subdued him as his leaders spouted to him: “No more baby parts,” in reference to a particularly well-loved lie making the rounds among Republican leaders–with one person aiming for the Presidency repeating and drilling down on her lie when confronted with its lack of truthfulness.
Indeed, since the “baby parts” talking point got popular, there’s been an intense upsurge in violent threats against women’s clinics all over the country–with an increase in vandalization and arson to boot. Do these Republicans weeping over the latest murders committed by people propagating their exact talking-points care so much about ending that violence that they’ll stop lying about abortion?
Haha, yeah, no.
Their agenda is being advanced. Their cause is being furthered. Their mission statement is being honored.
Their system’s goals are being met.
From the sound of it, the forced-birther message this particular killer absorbed was only a part of the whole fundagelical marketing machine fed to believers: Obama is evil, government is bad, etc. His past includes accusations of domestic violence, abuse of animals, and peeping on women. Gosh, who could better decide what is moral or not moral for total strangers? Who better to take other people’s lives into his own hands over perceived wrongdoing? He’s internalized their message so well and is such a stunning hypocrite that I’m only surprised that the Republican clown car hasn’t canonized him by now.
Bear in mind that we’re not 100% sure that the shooter is, himself, a member of the Christian Right. He might merely be a non-believer who bears the indelible stamp of its most primary teaching: men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, to obedience, to domination. Certainly one can easily find even atheists who think the same way; as I’ve said repeatedly, misogyny transcends religion. But I think we’re on safe ground with this one. Non-Christians do not often become indoctrinated with violence-excusing rhetoric. Certainly fundagelicals are the people who are celebrating this attack, so if the perpetrator is not one of theirs, then they’re at least glad to extend him an honorary membership in their tribe.
We’re going to talk a little more next time about this disconnect, because forced-birthers aren’t the only ones who do this and I think it’s useful to examine how to tell there’s a disconnect–how it manifests, and how it looks in action. We’ll see you Thursday.
UPDATE: Yes, the terrorist who shot up that clinic was totally a proud member of the Christian Right. I was hedging my bets on him, but yeah, even by fundagelical standards he’s a hypocritical extremist–just like the system is meant to produce.