Politicizing a woman’s body

May 28, 2019


By Robert C. Koehler

White men rule!

That’s the uber-message quietly emerging from the new anti-abortion laws recently passed in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Missouri, no matter that the public remains predominantly supportive of safe, legal abortions.

That doesn’t matter, see. The fact that the Republican Party controls the legislatures in so many states where it lacks majority status, not to mention is able to put presidents in office who fail to win the popular vote, indicates that we live in a rather limited-definition democracy: rule by the most determined cheaters. Or as some would put it, rule by divine decree.

As Ari Berman pointed out recently in Mother Jones, this divine decree is achieved primarily by voter suppression and gerrymandering, as exemplified last year in Georgia’s gubernatorial race.

“As secretary of state, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp essentially oversaw his own election and instituted a series of policies that hurt his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams,” Berman writes. “On Kemp’s watch, Georgia purged 1.4 million people from the voter rolls from 2012 to 2016; put the registrations of 53,000 people, 80 percent of whom were voters of color, on hold before the election; and closed 214 polling places in six years. On Election Day, there were four-hour lines in heavily black precincts.”

In both Alabama and Georgia, Berman points out, “extreme partisan gerrymandering” has also shaped the states’ legislative districts. For instance: “After winning control of the redistricting process following the 2010 election, Georgia Republicans concentrated black voters into as few districts as possible in order to maximize the number of heavily white Republican seats. In 2018, Kemp narrowly won with 50.2 percent of the vote, but Republicans held nearly 60 percent of state’s legislative seats.”

And so on. In Alabama, it was just as lopsided, with the result being legislative control by the most full-of-itself minority, whose implicit promise to its supporters, as Leonard Pitts put it, is: “Vote for us and we will repeal the 20th century.”

So that’s what has begun: a return, or at least an attempted return, to the old days, before the civil rights era and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and certainly before 1973’s Roe v. Wade, when women did not have legal control over their own bodies. This was the era before racism and sexism were officially recognized as wrongdoing and discrimination could be openly and bluntly imposed as, simply, The Law.

Now it’s not that simple. The moral authority of white racists and sexists has been slapped down a few times and has had to regroup, regaining its power as best it can in legislative stealth.

The anti-abortion legislation that is, so to speak, being birthed — and the looming Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade — may be the most blatant example of the resurgence of the old days. And it all feels like a joke: a desperate, “they can’t be serious,” temporary reclamation of power just to remember what it feels like to have so much power. But even if that’s the case, what’s happening is scary and will have consequences.

“Lost in this posturing — mostly by male politicians — is the basic reality,” writes Jesse Jackson. “Passing laws that outlaw abortions won’t end abortions. They will simply make them less safe, putting more lives at risk. And the posturing totally ignores the deep injustices surrounding reproductive rights, as whatever the law is, rich women will retain the right of choice — even if it requires going to a hospital in another country — while the lives of poor women, already locked out of any federal support for the counseling and choices they need, will be at ever greater risk.”

A further effect of these laws will simply be to muddy the waters. One of the provisions of the Alabama anti-abortion legislation is that doctors who perform an abortion could face up to 99 years in prison. This, writes Dr. Warren Hern in the New York Times, could “discourage doctors from even practicing medicine in that state, lest they be accused of performing an illegal abortion and sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the vagueness of the law and the confusion is the point. Vagueness and confusion are tools of tyranny.”

Ultimately, a belief in one’s moral authority, when it’s the sort of authority that manifests not in compassion and complex understanding but in domination and punishment, results in dehumanization of the Other. The term “moral righteousness” has a fiercely negative connotation for that reason. Such righteousness is merely simplistic certainty, achieved by projecting evil beyond oneself to the Other. Doing good becomes a matter of doing harm to the dehumanized Other.

And the harm begins with the dehumanization itself — the stripping of one’s rights. Denying a woman the right to have control over her own body is dehumanization of the highest order.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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