August 09, 2007

Of Abortion, and Women as the Ultimate Source of Evil

There are a great many aspects of today's world that are variously horrifying, ghastly, destructive and appalling -- and among the very worst is an idea that appears to be rapidly gaining support: the noxious notion that all questions relating to abortion rights should be returned to the states. For many reasons, only a few of which are discussed below, this idea is completely incoherent as a matter of political theory, and it undercuts any defense of individual rights on the most fundamental level. If you give a damn at all about the liberty of a single human being, you should oppose all such attempts to your last breath.

The human being to which I refer is not the developing fetus, but the woman who carries the child. I well understand that many people believe that the fetus is a human being long before birth, with all the rights that attend to that designation. In the political context, I consider all such beliefs irrelevant, no matter how sincerely and deeply held. Only one ultimate point matters here: whether you think the developing fetus is a human being or not, the fetus is contained in and supported by the woman's body. If the woman's body did not exist, neither would the fetus. Only the woman's existence makes that of the fetus possible.

The fetus only exists because of the woman's body -- not yours, not that of some possibly corrupt and stupid politician in Washington, and not the body of some possibly ignorant and venal politician in a state legislature. As I have watched this debate develop, and as I have considered with astonishment the increasingly byzantine efforts to " draw lines" about the point of viability, the time at which a full set of rights attaches to the fetus, and all the rest, I have become increasingly convinced that the right of the woman to control her own body when she is pregnant must be absolute up to the point of birth. All the attempts to craft legislation circumscribing that right prior to birth quickly become enmeshed in what are finally subjective claims that can be disputed into eternity, and impossible of proof in one direction or another.

Certainly, the woman's right to an abortion must be absolute in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. And even in the third trimester, up to the time of birth, that right must be absolute, and the decision must be that of the woman in consultation with those medical personnel she chooses. Yes, a decision to abort late in pregnancy may be agonizingly difficult, just as it may be at an earlier time -- but whatever agony is involved is that of the woman, not a politician or bureaucrat who is unjustly empowered to make decisions that affect someone else on the most profound level. The responsibility and the consequences are the woman's, and no one else's. The choice is also hers, and no one else's.

In terms of the political theory involved, the basic question is a stark and simple one: if you cannot control your own body, what other rights can you possibly have? If your body is not yours, what does it matter if you can freely express your political and religious convictions? The principle involved is similarly simple: as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights, your right to control your own body is absolute. Period. For the reason indicated above, the fetus is not a person in the same sense the mother is: the fetus would not exist but for the woman who carries it. The woman's right to her own body must, in fact and in logic, take precedence over whatever rights you believe the fetus possesses, up to the time of birth.

I must note that the same principle makes any kind of military draft or mandatory national service equally invalid, and equally destructive of individual rights. If the government can take control of your body for two or four years, and possibly even send you to your death, what does it matter if you have the right of free speech, or any other right? Liberals in particular ought to note that the argument is the same with regard to abortion and in connection with a draft or national service. If they want to engage in blatant contradictions, and support abortion rights and simultaneously advocate a draft or national service, they surrender any claim to intellectual coherence and consistency, and they will get precisely what they deserve. Tragically, many women and many other citizens will also suffer the consequences.

There are numerous insurmountable problems with the arguments in this Radley Balko article, but let's focus on these two critical paragraphs:
Abortion policy, then, is about drawing lines and setting community standards. Such issues are best dealt with in those diverse laboratories of democracy, the states. A federalist approach would allow a wide array of abortion policies that better reflects the spectrum of public opinion on the issue. That isn’t to say a federalist approach would leave everybody fully satisfied. There would still be people stuck in states whose laws don’t reflect their personal values. But that much isn’t very different from the way things stand today. Roe prevents any state from banning abortion outright, but in places like Utah and Mississippi abortion is extremely rare, due not just to legal restrictions—waiting periods, mandatory counseling, parental notification—but also to the fact that prevailing community values mean there isn’t much of a market for the procedure. Mississippi has just one abortion clinic in the entire state.

The main difference between a purely federalist approach to abortion and what we have today is that in the former each side wouldn’t be clamoring to control the federal government so it could impose its favored policies on the rest of the country. The battles would be fought in the state legislatures, and national politics would no longer be held hostage to the abortion issue.
As long as we have our current form of government, there is one task that must unquestionably belong to the federal government: the protection of those rights without which no other rights are possible. The most fundamental right is the right to one's own body. If you don't have that right, it is ridiculous to speak of other, derivative rights. Highway speed limits are optional; the right to your own body is not.

But if we are going to talk about "community standards" and "the spectrum of public opinion," where do we draw the line as to which issues are subject to such concerns? Should the right of blacks to intermarry with whites be up for grabs? How about the right to censor whatever the "community standards" might consider pornography? How about the criminalization of marijuana? If the states are such wonderfully "diverse laboratories of democracy," why not let the states decide these and many other questions? We already do this on certain of these issues and others -- and the results are an unnavigable nightmare, which make any consistent defense of and approach to individual rights impossible, and they put everyone's rights in grave peril. (See this article for a discussion of how a politician like John Edwards takes this indefensible approach to gay marriage.)

Note that the advocates of turning abortion over to the states frequently and conspicuously avoid these other logically implicated questions. And they do so for an obvious reason: if all such issues or even a significant number of them were consistently turned over to the states, the continued existence of anything like a "nation" would dissolve in an incomprehensible patchwork of conflicting laws. Certain television programs could be shown in some states but not others; certain publications would be available in 2/3 of the states, but not in the other 1/3 (and God only knows what would happen when you throw the internet into the mix); a marriage between a black woman and a white man would be valid in 34 states, but meaningless in 16; and the list could go on endlessly. If you're going to walk down that road, go all the way: let the 50 separate nations bloom! Now, there's an idea I could get behind, especially if it meant the dissolution of the American Empire -- but it's not going to happen, so it's pointless to talk about it.

I repeat: the federal government must protect those rights without which no others are possible. It must protect a woman's right to her own body.

I note one final point. I have written several essays about our culture and our political system, and how they are dominated and structured by white, heterosexual men; see, for example, "We Are Not Freaks," and "Living on the Inside...and Living on the Outside." And I see now that I ought to change the title of this essay to, "Of Faggots, Freaks, Niggers and Women." Many people often claim we would never have this kind of discussion about abortion if it were men who got pregnant. I think that claim is undeniably true.

In an essay from November 2005, "Let's Talk About Sex!," I examined pornography and prostitution in the context of the West's cultural tradition that views women, sex and the human body in general in extraordinarily negative terms. At the conclusion of my discussion of one of key myths underlying these views, that of Adam of Eve, I wrote:
There are other versions of the Adam and Eve story, and some of them are more "positive" in tone, both with regard to sex in general and women in particular. But the unfathomably negative one suffuses our culture, even today. It is almost impossible to capture just how negative and damning this myth is with regard to women, especially when you add in all the attitudes that flow out of it And this is just one myth.
It is critical to understand that the particular version of this myth that suffuses our cultural attitudes toward women didn't just fall from the sky, as much as the adherents of certain religions might wish to believe it did. It was invented -- and it was invented by one man in particular.

In "The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children," I offered an excerpt from Jamake Highwater's, Myth and Sexuality. I offer this passage again here, because if you want to understand the ultimate roots of the contemporary debate about abortion and the vilification of women, it is this tradition, one deeply embedded in the way we view the world, that you need to grasp:
Make no mistake: almost every single one of you reading this has internalized, at least to some extent, the indefensible notion that sex is sinful and corrupt. And your problem is not James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, or even much less extreme religious leaders of today. Your problem is Augustine, and his reinterpretation of Genesis. I will analyze the overwhelming significance of this intellectual tradition in more detail soon. For the moment, consider these excerpts from Jamake Highwater's Myth and Sexuality, from the chapter entitled, "The Body as Sin":
By and large, Christians borrowed only the negative elements of Judaic sexual mores, and gradually devised what is arguably the most sex-negative tradition of world history. In fact, men and women who converted to Christianity often adapted attitudes about sexuality that were considered bizarre by their families and friends. It is curious that the attitudes about sexuality arising from so-called Judeo-Christian origins are now considered to be both normal and obvious, despite the fact that in early Christian times attitudes such as the disapproval of divorce and polygamy and the approval of chastity and nonreproductive marriage would have been viewed as quite abnormal.


The influence of the Gnostics on the Church was more subversive than political, contributing an enduring element of dissent in ecclesiastical matters. Their position on intellectual freedom, however, was largely replaced by an emphasis upon spiritual freedom, a concept which provided moral support during the difficult years when Christians were political subversives in he then-pagan world of Rome. Then gradually, during the third and fourth centuries, the Christian movement gained power throughout Roman society. With this shift in their political situation, the insistence upon freedom of choice was no longer a viable cause for Christians. The emperor had given them that freedom. The world had invaded the church and the church the world. How was Christianity to deal with the worldliness of its Church, in which a bishop now provided many civic rewards, such as tax exemption, increased income, social power, and even influence at court?

To use Foucault's term, the "politics of truth" had drastically changed. The Romans were no longer the instruments of Christian suffering, no longer providing them with the emotional basis for their acceptance of denial, self-sacrifice and martyrdom. The world of the senses was becoming less corrupting than the world of power, luxury, and wealth. To resolve these contradictions, some of the most ardent Christians decided that the renunciation of the world through elective poverty and celibacy must become essential elements in their search for spiritual freedom. Thus, the vast changes in the political life of the Church had a fundamental impact on Christian ideologies. For nearly four hundred years Christians had regarded the supreme significance of Adam's disobedience and his subsequent suffering as a testament of freedom. For many tribes and nations subjugated by Rome, that stance had been a powerful incentive to be converted to Christianity. The embrace of freedom was a great comfort to the politically brutalized subjects of the Roman Empire who were converts to the new faith. It had given Christians motivation to become members of a dissident church and the courage to endure the punishment that resulted from such membership. Then, with the emergence of Augustine as the major force in Christianized Rome, this frame of mind suddenly changed.

In the late fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was living in an entirely different political world from his Church predecessors. Christianity was no longer a dissident sect but the state religion of Rome. Christians were now free to follow their faith and were officially encouraged to do so. Such a drastic transformation of the social circumstance of Christians required yet another revision of the reading of Genesis. It was Augustine who undertook this new interpretatioin of Adam and Eve, resulting in a viewpoint vastly different from the majority of his Jewish and Christian predecessors. As [Elaine] Pagels notes, what had been read as a tale of the right to quest for human freedom now became an Augustinian story of human bondage. Hitherto, most Jews and Christians had understood from Genesis that God gave humankind the right of moral freedom, and that Adam had misused it and thereby brought death and pain into the world. Augustine, however, was not content with the travails of such an interpretation, and he went a good deal further. He contended that Adam's sin not only caused our mortality but also corrupted our sexuality. If these notions contradicted the notorious sexual conduct of Rome, they indirectly sanctioned the limitations placed on the political freedom of Romanized Christians, a forfeiture that the followers of Jesus paid to Rome for its sanction of religious freedom. It was Augustine who reread Genesis to fit the limitations of Christian freedom within the Roman world. He observed that Adam's sin had not only made sex irreversibly corrupt, but it also cost us our free will, rendering us incapable of genuine political freedom. "Augustine's theory of original sin offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better or worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and the major influence on their psychological and political thinking." (Pagels)
The references to Elaine Pagels are to her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which I urge you to read. I will be returning to several of her themes. Here, I want to emphasize two crucial ideas. The first is that sex is "irreversibly corrupt." As I have indicated, this deeply destructive notion has become embedded in our cultural traditions, and you can witness its horrific effects everywhere in our world today.
Our culture today views the body as inherently sinful; this belief is treated as an axiom beyond challenge. Sex is especially sinful -- and the final responsibility for the evil of sex and of the body is located in woman. Adam would not have sinned but for Eve's initial transgression.

Evil is located in woman, and in her body and its potentialities. Such evil must be channeled and controlled: it must be brought under the whip of righteousness. The campaign to limit or even eliminate abortion is not about pregnancy or the fetus at all: it is about controlling the body, and controlling pleasure, especially sexual pleasure.

For the most part, men run the world. They are not interested in controlling themselves, and they will still pursue their own pleasure as they choose -- but evil must be resisted. So they turn to their eternal scapegoat, and what they view as the final source of evil in this world, the barrier between themselves and redemption: woman. If our world and men are to be saved, they must be saved from woman.

This is, finally, what the battle about abortion concerns. To the extent people choose to limit a woman's right to her own body, they accept and reinforce this endlessly destructive cultural tradition -- and they believe in Original Sin, even if they are atheists. Religion holds no exclusive claim to irrationality of this kind. They seek to control abortion because they seek salvation, whether they recognize that fact or not. To bring salvation nearer, women must be eternally subordinate, and they cannot be allowed to do anything other than what men allow.

Don't let them do it -- not even in a single state. Personal liberty, and the liberty of women, must not be subject to "community standards," or "the spectrum of public opinion," or to ignorance and hatred. Ignorance and prejudice of this kind have held sway for thousands of years -- and look around you, to see their ghastly effects.

Let it stop.