[CONTENT WARNING: extremely graphic discussion and imagery, NSFW.]
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that found unconstitutional certain restrictions by states on a woman’s right to an abortion. Today, as in 1973, there is an all-out assault on that right, from exactly the same kinds of deluded individuals and Conservative Personality Disorder-inflicted factions that plague us all in so many other respects. The Forced Birth Brigades have had 40 years to lie and whitewash history in their tireless efforts to assure that all female persons are relegated to the status of subhuman breeding sows, not fully independent human beings with all of the rights accorded thereto. Think that’s a little harsh? Think again:
In no other situation does anyone ever argue that it is right to make use of another living human’s body against their will. None. Hell, we do not even make use of dead human bodies against their previously expressed wishes: we don’t harvest the organs the dead no longer need in order to save other peoples’ lives. We don’t strap people down and strip their bone marrow to save cancer patients. We don’t forcibly take a kidney from anybody—not even prisoners on death row—and kidneys are desperately needed. We don’t extract life-saving blood from anyone who does not volunteer to donate it. To do any of these things would be abhorrent, even though people are dying every day because we don’t. This human right to be free from such personal violence and coercion is so basic that everyone understands it, intuitively and viscerally.
Except in the case of pregnancy. Only in this instance—pregnancy—is it somehow perfectly all right for some other entity to make use of another living human being’s body against her will.
In an honest, fact-based debate, this would foreclose any argument to the contrary — or, alternatively, reveal that “a woman is a subhuman breeding sow” is precisely the repulsive, religion-based proposition being defended. But even an argument like this one, as instructive and compelling as it may be, does not pack the emotional punch of, say, the image of a fetus.
Pictures of embyos (gruesome or otherwise) feature prominently in anti-choice propaganda because they are emotionally powerful. They work. Even when the images are subsequently debunked as fraudulent or at best highly unrepresentative, anti-choicers are virtually guaranteed to keep using them anyway. Yet abortion advocates do not fire back with gruesome pictures of women like Geraldine Santoro, who died as a result of a botched abortion attempt. Her case generally and her picture specifically helped to galvanize the social forces that led to Roe and the moral progress that case recognized and codified. Instead, on the pro-choice side, we hear lofty arguments about abstract ideas like “choice” and “rights.” Yes, the Forced Birth Brigade’s arguments are ridiculous and fall apart under even the most cursory scrutiny, but ultimately their arguments do not matter in the slightest. They are not in the business of making valid and compelling arguments. They’re making converts to their cause — one fetal picture at a time.
In a recent conversation with Palace co-blogger (and Loyal Subject™) SJ, I proffered that one reason the forced birthers are so successful is the same reason conservatism is so successful: because the left does not, as a rule, fight fire with fire. They will not deign to use the right’s most successful tactics, and this means they are necessarily doomed to merely defending their ground for the most part, not extending it. SJ recently sent me a link to a piece by Valerie Tarico entitled Abortion as a Blessing, Grace, or Gift – Changing the Conversation about Reproductive Rights and Moral Values, in which Tarico notes:
The other side talks about murdering teeny, weeny babies and then mind-melds images of ultrasounds and Gerber babies with faded photos of late term abortions. And we come back by talking about privacy?? Is that like the right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home or doctor’s office? Even apart from the dubious moral equivalence, let’s be real: In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under twenty-five in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?
Tarico advocates a two-pronged strategy for rolling back the right’s gains in the abortion debate: (1) confront their arguments so that Americans will come to understand the moral emptiness at their core, and (2) express the pro-choice position in positive terms. “In other words,” she says, “in combination, we must show why ours is the more moral, more spiritual position.” Tarico is a thoughtful and compassionate writer, and her post is a very good read. But unfortunately it suffers from the usual defects to which liberals are haplessly prone.
Anti-abortion arguments have been repeatedly confronted and shown to be empty for decades, beginning long before Roe v. Wade. More problematically, her suggestions for “changing the conversation” ignore the reality that these enemies of women are just that: enemies of women. Saving precious baybeez is nothing but a pretext for enforcing subhuman breeding sow status on female persons. This is not an opinion, it is a demonstrable fact:
The NIH reports, “It is estimated that up to half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among those women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15–20%.” [citations at the link.]
So: untold billions of pregnancies end without any deliberate actions on the part of women. Why, then, are anti-choicers not putting even the slightest amount of time and effort into saving and re-implanting even a single one of these billions upon billions of spontaneously aborted embryos? Aren’t they precious special snowflakes, too? Not according to the Forced Birth Brigades, apparently. Further, nature’s answer to the special snowflake question — or, if you prefer, God’s answer — is also a loud and clear no: dead human embryos are a dime a dozen, and that’s being generous. Yet nobody, on the right or anywhere else, gives them a second thought. This is de facto proof that all of this “personhood from conception” stuff is complete and utter bullshit.
All of their arguments have been likewise soundly refuted, shown to be utterly disingenuous if not laughably ridiculous. And yet they persist in making them, because this is about something else entirely: only when a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant is there suddenly grave and profound concern for a blastocyst. Uh-huh.
Confronting and soundly defeating the right’s arguments has gotten us exactly nowhere. If we really want to “change the conversation” enough to have any impact, we will have to stop pretending that we are talking about baybeez and abortions. We are talking about controlling, enslaving and subjugating women. Period. We will have to stop pretending that we are having a rational debate. As if such things can be rationally defended, or should ever be subject to debate, at all.
Talrico’s second prong — expressing the pro-choice position in positive moral terms — holds more promise. I agree that this can and should be done with more frequency (and that platitudes like the Clintonian “safe, legal and rare” do much to undermine the moral case for abortion on demand). Ironically, the very reason the positive case is not made more often is that pro-abortion activists and writers are endlessly bogged down with Talrico’s first prong: confronting and refuting the right’s long-dead, shallow, bankrupt arguments, and all to no avail. We are so busy defending our ground — and losing, by the way — that we have lost both the imperative and the ability to make the case for abortion, not just for “choice.”
Today in these United States, anyone exploring the matter of abortion is inundated with images of precious little fetuses, and (fortunately) not so much with tragic stories of dead, maimed, desperate and debased women and unwanted children. We USians are far removed, however precariously, from the blood-soaked tableau of yesteryear (although thanks to the Catholic Church many places on the globe are not). But in this fragile interim, we have also lost something: a sense of urgent moral outrage at the inherent injustice of forced pregnancy. There are now generations of women and men who have no knowledge of the nightmarish world that existed in the U.S. before Roe, and certainly no living memory of it.
And therein lies the problem.
Below is a fairly ubiquitous image found in anti-choice literature, originally published in 1971 by Dr. J.C. Willke, president and founder of International Right to Life, in his book Handbook on Abortion. It depicts a ruptured tubal pregnancy, one which hopefully had not already killed the woman who hosted it. Regardless, in no event could any such pregnancy result in a viable fetus. Dr. Willke describes this picture in his book as a normal fetus at six weeks gestation. Of course a fetus at six weeks is actually the size of a BB pellet, not the larger (and extremely deadly) potential little humanoid pictured here:
When I urge employing the right’s effective tactics in the abortion debate, I do not mean lying and exaggerating as they do. There is no need to, because all of the salient facts are on the pro-choice side. What I mean is this: show me a picture of a fetus? Okay. I’ll show you a picture of Geraldine Santoro:
That is what the Forced Birth Brigades are advocating. We ought to be reminded of this fact at every opportunity.
Require, as the state of Texas does, that women seeking abortions be told lies about a link to breast cancer? Fine. Providers can also tell them the truth: abortions actually exert a strong protective effect against endometrial cancer, as well as a protective effect against colon cancer — oh and FYI against breast cancer.
Require that a woman view a fetal ultrasound before aborting? Fine. Offer to show her a video of a difficult labor and delivery, and/or give her the actual statistics on the safety of abortion vs. childbirth: a woman carrying a baby to term is 14 times more likely to die than a woman who has a legal abortion.
As well meaning as Tarico undoubtedly is, her approach represents several steps backward from the kind of advocacy that made Roe v. Wade possible in the first place. It was not polite, pleasant and respectful conversation that swayed the cultural zeitgeist in favor of legalized abortion. It was growing horror at the undeniable consequences of illegal abortion. It was devastated lives, dead and maimed women, unwanted children.
Now more than ever it is worthwhile to take a page from Anne Nicole Gaylor’s 1975 book Abortion is a Blessing (from which this post’s title was shamelessly stolen). Gaylor eloquently recounts in unsparing detail why she became involved in abortion access; it offers raw, first-person testimony that makes Tarico’s piece seem painfully naive regarding exactly what is at stake here and how to confront it effectively. You can read the whole thing online here.
Anti-choicers know perfectly well that outlawing abortions doesn’t stop them, it only makes the procedure far more damaging and deadly for women who are determined to terminate anyway. It’s just a simple fact that women with unwanted pregnancies die and suffer horrific injuries where abortion is illegal. Interestingly, although this fact seems quite jarring today, Christian clergy and religious congregations were in the vanguard of the movement to legalize abortion. (What would Jeezus do? Alleviate the needless suffering and death of thousands of women, apparently. But only in the early 1970s. Not so much now.)
Watch this video if you still have any doubts about whether women, their families and their societies are better off without access to safe, legal abortion on demand. Scroll up and take a good look at that photograph of Geraldine Santoro. Picture piles of her, stacked up, Holocaust-style. And on this day, and every day, please consider what actions you can take to ensure that picture represents the past, and not the future, for all women.