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The Only Logical Conclusion to the Abortion Debate

by Arthur Goldwag

Jun 20, 2013 | Politics


How is it that the GOP, which virtually defines itself by its bitter opposition to the “Nanny state,” is working so assiduously to create a Mommy State? How is it that the same people who believe that state-subsidized health care is the essence of tyranny, and who deplore poor people for their disinclination to make tough decisions, are unable to see that mandating that every pregnancy be carried to term—even if the child is unwanted, even if it is likely to require enormous investments of state-subsidized medical care to keep it alive—is an intrusion into a profoundly personal and private space? How is it that the avowed Constitutionalists of the GOP so utterly reject Roe v. Wade’s reasoning, which  turns explicitly on the “right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action…or the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people.”

Intellectual inconsistency is in some ways a proof of one’s sincerity. Though attitudes towards abortion differ from religion to religion and have changed over history, right-wing Catholics and Evangelicals both believe that life begins at conception and that any interference in parturition amounts to murder. I have little doubt that Representative Trent Franks (pictured) and Marsha Blackburn, the authors of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which bans abortions of fetuses that are older than 20 weeks, regard those fetuses as no different in kind than the babies they are destined to become. The thought that so many pain-capable fetuses should be allowed to suffer and die (about 15,600 per year, according to the CDC), simply to gratify the selfish aspirations of women who deny God’s manifest plans for them to become mothers, is a moral rather than a constitutional issue to them.

How is it that the GOP, which virtually defines itself by its bitter opposition to the “Nanny state,” is working so assiduously to create a Mommy State?

But if their legislation comes out of a place of genuine sentiment, it is also a clever piece of rhetorical ju jitsu, as it implicitly identifies pro-Choice people as pro-Pain (just as they are already by implication anti-Life and pro-Kermit Gosnell). Though Representative Michael Burgess’s contention that 20-week-old fetuses can be observed masturbating was widely derided and debunked, his argument has an undeniable resonance. A 20-month old fetus looks much like a baby. No matter what scientists might say, to deny that it is capable of feeling pain is to insult one’s empathic and emotional intelligence.

Being pro-Choice requires the same kind of tough-mindedness that allows Second Amendment absolutists to shrug off the occasional Newtown and Aurora. Just as a libertarian might say that the principle of personal choice, even about something as trivial as the size of one’s soda cup, weighs heavier than the state’s interest in the prevention of obesity and diabetes, just as a morally consistent pro-Lifer should insist that there be no exceptions for rape or incest (fetuses, after all, aren’t guilty of their father’s sins), a consistently pro-Choice person must hold that the principles of bodily autonomy and personal privacy trump whatever pain or discomfort a fetus might or might not experience in the course of being aborted.

Pro-Lifers might not have the better case (I don’t think they do), but theirs is a much easier one to sell, since they can use cute babies and raw emotionality in their advertising campaigns. “Life” comes out of the vocabulary of religion; “choice” comes out of the lexicon of law. Restrictive legislation like Franks’ might cause some backlash on the left, but it shows their conservative base that they have principles—and it embarrasses the left.

Pro-choice people can take some of the wind out of their opponents’ sails by refusing to engage in metaphysical discussions about what fetuses feel or don’t feel, or when “viability” begins. Terminating a pregnancy may be a big decision, but it’s for no one else to make but the person who is pregnant. If you press pro-Lifers to talk about the Constitution and privacy, then they must acknowledge that their ultimate goal is to control women’s bodies.

For when all is said and done, that is the answer to the question I opened with. As jealous as they are of their autonomy when it comes to their unfettered right to pollute the water table or inject CO2 into the atmosphere, Republicans are as avid to intrude on women’s privacy as they are because they don’t believe that they have a right to any. The war on choice is very much a war on women—and on freedom in general.


Arthur Goldwag is the author of Isms & Ologies; Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and most recently The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. Follow him at @ArthurGoldwag.

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