Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

It Really Isn’t About Abortion

I’ve written before about the actual origins of the anti-abortion movement, as recounted by noted religion scholar Randall Balmer. Ballmer (whose account is confirmed by several other historians of religion) reminds us that it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe v, Wade—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”

Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating the Religious Right, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. 

According to Balmer,

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

Ballmer has reported on the anger at civil rights laws expressed by those running the segregation academies, and the strategic success of Falwell and Weyrich’s decision to tap into the ire of those evangelical leaders. They were, as he reports, “savvy enough” to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would encounter moral blowback. The anti-integration message worked for Evangelical leadership, but they would need a different issue to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.

Bottom line: the catalyst for the Christian Right’s political activism was not, as often claimed, opposition to abortion. The real roots of Christian Nationalism –as has become very clear–can be found in the movement’s racism and defense of racial segregation.

I thought of that history when I read this report from the DesMoines Register.

The number of abortions performed in Iowa climbed nearly 14% in 2020, after jumping 25% the previous year, new state data show.

Iowa had seen years of steady declines in abortions before 2019. But that trendline has changed. 

The state saw 4,058 abortions performed in 2020, up from 3,566 in 2019 and 2,849 in 2018, the new numbers show. 

The new data were shared with legislative staff Thursday by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The turnaround in abortion numbers came in the wake of Iowa’s 2017 decision to withdraw from a federally funded family planning program, which helped thousands of Iowans gain birth control supplies and information on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The program was replaced with a state-run version, which barred Planned Parenthood’s participation and has served fewer Iowans.

If “pro-life” activists really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, they wouldn’t oppose family planning. They certainly wouldn’t fight so ferociously to ban sex education in the schools. And as numerous observers have noted, “pro life” is a curious label for people who are unwilling to have government provide any support for children once they are born. 

Perhaps the best summation of this hypocrisy is reflected in an oft-quoted observation from Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister:

“I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, the hypocrisy of the Christian Right position has become especially clear. It’s obvious in the righteous indignation of GOP mask “refuseniks” and anti-vaxxers, who insist that they have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. That is a right they are unwilling to extend to women, even though a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy doesn’t endanger the community at large, as a refusal to wear a mask or be vaccinated does.

The origins of the cynically-named “pro life” movement are largely unrecognized, and I’m sure there are sincere people who believe that abortion is morally wrong. But the continued strength of the movement isn’t found in a concern for babies; it’s firmly located in the continuing belief of Christian Nationalists that women, like Black people, must be kept subservient.

 

 

 

How Do You Spell Despicable?

One of the most telling accusations against self-proclaimed “pro life” activists is that they aren’t really pro life, they are pro birth. If they were really concerned about protecting life, they would support feeding hungry children, and oppose everything from dangerous pollution to gun violence to the death penalty. Instead, their concerns magically vanish once the fetus emerges from the womb.

A report from the Guardian underscores that observation.

At least 10 US states have siphoned millions of dollars from federal block grants, meant to provide aid to their neediest families, to pay for the operations of ideological anti-abortion clinics.

These overwhelmingly Republican-led states used money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (Tanf), better known as welfare or direct cash aid, to fund the activities of anti-abortion clinics associated with the evangelical right. The clinics work to dissuade women from obtaining abortions.

In all cases, the states used these funds even as Covid-19 caused the worst economic upheaval in nearly a century, left one in four families without enough to eat, and resulted in mass layoffs that had a disproportionate effect on low-income and racial minority Americans.

Among the states that have diverted dollars from feeding hungry children in order to line “pro life” pockets are Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Despicable is too nice a word.

These 10 states funneled the money through “Alternatives to Abortion” programs, part of state budgets established by conservative legislatures and often run through state health departments. They not only send millions in federal welfare funds, but also state taxpayer dollars to such centers.

The article details other measures imposed by the states that effectively prevent TANF and other social welfare funds from reaching their intended beneficiaries. A number of those measures are demonstrably racist, but they all begin with the assumption that poverty is evidence of moral failure; the resulting legislation is thus punitive, rather than ameliorative.

Back in 2017, I reported on a survey that found religion to be a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty. Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual moral deficit.

The article cites Missouri as an example of the results of that view:

“We’ve created a new class of Missourians,” Glenn Koenen, a hunger adviser with the left-leaning group Empower Missouri, said at the time the reforms were passed. “We now have legislated that some of our neighbors are too poor to get help from anti-poverty programs.”

Between 1 January 2016, when the reform went into effect, and April 2021, more than 71% of beneficiaries dropped off Missouri’s program. That included 28,643 children and 16,942 families.

Missouri then spent funds not paid to families on other programs, among them the Alternatives to Abortion program. Since 2017, it has sent $26m to anti-abortion clinics, according to state budgets. The average monthly benefit for a Missouri family is $256.

Evidently, the Missouri legislature was perfectly okay with punishing 28,643 children for their parents’ perceived moral deficiencies.

The article proceeds to document the medically-inaccurate “facts” and outright lies routinely told by these “Crisis pregnancy” centers to the women who visit them, and it reports on the religious indoctrination to which they must submit in order to get the minimal help–diapers and milk, for instance–that the centers offer. It also points out that nationally there are far more such centers than there are abortion providers– more than 2,500 ideologically focused, anti-abortion clinics, compared with just 800 abortion providers.

There are a lot of adjectives we might use to describe a refusal to feed and clothe living children in order to force women to give birth. Pro-life is definitely not one of them.

I Guess Consistency IS The Hobgoblin Of Little Minds…

Surprise! Indiana’s pathetic Attorney General evidently has come around to a view long expressed by civil libertarians and Planned Parenthood.

Rokita has joined members of the General Assembly in defending citizens’ right to control their own bodies. According to multiple media sources, he has issued a (non-binding) opinion in support of that position, which was admirably articulated by Martinsville Representative Peggy Mayfield:

Hoosiers should have the right to make healthcare decisions that best suit their families, their personal medical circumstances, and a broad interpretation of their religious beliefs – a concept that we’re disappointed to see Indiana University has rejected.”

The genesis of this remarkable turnaround–not just by our desperate-for-attention AG, but from a number of firmly anti-choice legislators–was Indiana University’s decision to require students and employees to be vaccinated in order to return to in-person instruction. In an opinion that most lawyers–and several members of the General Assembly–described as “a reach,” Rokita is claiming that a  bill passed during the last legislative session prohibits the University from doing so.

I will leave the legal arguments to practicing lawyers (noting only that IU is advised by some pretty excellent legal experts and that I have never heard Rokita described as a particularly skilled lawyer) , but I can’t restrain myself from focusing on the unbelievable hypocrisy displayed by that quoted position and Rokita’s pious support for the “fundamental liberties” protected by the Bill of Rights.

The statement that Hoosiers should have the right to make healthcare decisions that best suit their families and religious beliefs is, without a doubt, correct. It is precisely the point of the pro-choice position, which I will note is not a “pro-abortion” position. The issue is not what decision is made–it is who has the authority to make it.

In both cases–pregnancy termination and vaccination–the decision should rest with the individual involved.

That does not mean that institutions like IU cannot act to protect the lives and health of their students and employees; it means that individuals who choose not to be vaccinated and who do not fall within permitted exceptions to IU’s policy may choose not to attend–just as women who make a personal medical choice inconsistent with the teachings of a particular religious institution may find themselves unwelcome there.

In neither case should state or federal government agencies or legislative bodies get involved. They certainly may not make those decisions for those individuals.

What is particularly ludicrous about this sudden concern for an individual’s right to control of his or her own body– coming as it does from rabidly “pro life” folks– is that it is so inconsistent with their willingness to trample those same constitutional protections in order to appeal to constituencies displaying absolutely no regard for the protection of personal autonomy.

Ironically, Indiana University’s decision to require vaccinations is self-evidently a “pro life” decision. The University is following the science and acting to protect the life and health of the University community. (Of course, the people they are protecting have already been born, which evidently makes a difference…)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” the point he was making was that only small-minded people refuse to rethink their prior beliefs.

Perhaps Indiana’s Attorney General isn’t as small-minded as he has seemed? Perhaps he is re-evaluating and rethinking his belief that government should get to decide what  citizens–including female citizens– can do with their bodies?

Or, on the other hand, perhaps he is simply too dim to recognize the inconsistency of the various positions he chooses to take in the course of his constant political pandering.

 

 

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Supreme Court–newly dominated by a conservative majority–has accepted an abortion case out of Mississippi. It is widely expected that the Court will use that case to further erode a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy–not explicitly overturning Roe v. Wade, but effectively eviscerating it.

Talking Points Memo considered the likely political effects of that decision, pointing out that, since the justices waited until the end of the current term to say that they would take it up, with a decision likely next June, it can hardly avoid being a front-burner issue in the 2022 election cycle.

Linda Greenhouse sees the decision to accept the case as the “end of the free ride” for anti-choice activists. She began that analysis by listing a number of situations in which state legislation curtailing abortion rights has been struck down by the courts, allowing “pro life” politicians to posture without incurring the electoral wrath of those who disagree.

Her recitation reminds me of a conversation I had with an Indiana legislator several years ago. He was in my graduate Law and Policy Class, and I knew he was aware of First Amendment precedents prohibiting state endorsement of religion, so when he voted to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings, I challenged him. His response was candid: he could vote the way the “folks in Mayberry” (his small town) wanted, keeping them happy, secure in the prospect that the courts would “bail him out.”

Abortion politics has taken a similar path.

Ever since the 2010 election ushered new Republican majorities into state legislatures, politicians there have been able to impose increasingly severe abortion restrictions without consequence, knowing that the lower courts would enjoin the laws before they took effect and save the people’s representatives from having to own their actions.

Greenhouse explains how the Court can effectively demolish Roe without actually and explicitly overruling it, and then considers the politics involved. Her analysis is worth quoting at some length:

It’s a dim memory, but a salient one, that in Mississippi itself, a voter referendum that would have amended the state Constitution to grant personhood status to a fertilized egg was defeated in 2011 by a margin of 58 to 41 percent, despite endorsement by leading politicians and widespread predictions that it would pass. That’s when the anti-abortion forces decided that friendly legislatures were a better bet than the will of the people.

Last fall, in each of four nationwide polls, including one conducted for Fox News, more than 60 percent of registered or likely voters said they did not want the Supreme Court to overturn “Roe v. Wade.” I put the case in quotes because that’s how the pollsters asked the question; although Roe obviously carries strong symbolic meaning, the 1973 decision is in many respects no longer the law.

The question as the polls’ respondents processed it was most likely “Do you want to keep the right to abortion?” And no wonder the answer was yes: nearly one American woman in four will have an abortion. (Catholic women get about one-quarter of all abortions, roughly in proportion to the Catholic share of the American population.) Decades of effort to drive abortion to the margins of medical practice have failed to dislodge it from the mainstream of women’s lives.

For the cynical game they have played with those lives, politicians have not paid a price. Now perhaps they will. Of course, women themselves will pay a heavy price as this new reality sorts itself out, particularly women with low incomes who now make up the majority of abortion patients.

And there’s another price to be paid as justices in the new majority turn to the mission they were selected for. The currency isn’t votes, but something even more important and harder to win back: the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

There’s no free ride for the court either.

What Greenhouse doesn’t address is the extent to which the GOP has depended upon both the energy of anti-abortion activists and the relative lack of political activism by pro-choice voters who have assumed that the courts will protect their rights. If Roe is either over-ruled or–as is more likely–eviscerated, it may well shift that dynamic to the detriment of “the folks in Mayberry” and the GOP.

 

 

A Female Perspective

I was asked to make a (Zoom)presentation to a group of O’Neill women students, focused on “women and politics.” This is what I said.
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I think I have always been a “political” person, in the sense that the question that has always fascinated me is a question that most women wrestle with in one way or another: how should people live together? What sort of social and political arrangements are most likely to nourish our humanity and promote—in Aristotle’s term—human flourishing? If the old African proverb is right, if it “takes a village to raise a child,” what should that village look like, and how should its inhabitants behave? How do we build that kind of village? Politics is the process of turning our answers to those questions into policy—and since women’s answers have been shaped by our life experiences, it is important that women’s voices be part of the policy process.

You have asked me to share my experiences as a professional and political woman, so let me get the biography out of the way. I was born in 1941, and I am very much a product of the 1950s, way before any of you were born. It was a time when women went to college to find a husband, a time when we were expected to be decorative and submissive—or at the very least, quiet. (You can see why I had a problem.)

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where being Jewish was at best exotic and at worst, Satanic, and where I was usually the only Jew my classmates had ever encountered. Those experiences undoubtedly deepened my interest in social divisions and the effects of marginalization. They also kindled an ongoing fascination with the ways in which religions shape our worldviews.

I left Anderson for college when I was 16. I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. That left teaching. Because I was so young, my parents sent me to Stephens College for Women, a two-year school that took very seriously its obligation to act in loco parentis. After Stephens, I briefly attended the University of North Carolina, where the most indelible lesson I learned was that when you pay Full Professors 3000/year, you get what you pay for. (Even in the 1950s, 3000 wasn’t much.) I transferred to IU Bloomington to finish my undergraduate degree, got married and divorced, and later did a semester at Butler, pursuing an MA in literature that I never finished.

I married a second time and took my first job (well, first if you don’t count the summer I worked for my father’s friend at his—no kidding—Cadillac-Rambler agency, where I was billed as Anderson’s first female used car salesman.) I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom. The theory evidently was that the kids would know what we’d been up to…

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children (four if you count the husband I had at the time). There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity… the few women’s restrooms were for the secretarial staff and inconvenient for students. After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at what was then Baker and Daniels.

To give you a flavor of the time—serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions—this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC. Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like some sort of radical bra-burning feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

I practiced corporate law for three years, until Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to serve as Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis–or, to the best of my knowledge, in any major metropolitan area. At the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb, and I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” I guess it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or even because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to. Gotta sell papers…

I left City Hall to be the Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, running against Andy Jacobs, Jr., in what was then Indiana’s 11th Congressional district. That was back when Republicans were still rational, and political campaigns less toxic. I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and I won a Republican primary. The worst name I called Andy was Democrat. My youngest son later served as his Congressional page, and after Andy retired, he and I would occasionally have lunch. As I say, things were different then….
I also remarried during that campaign and I’m happy to report that the third time was the charm—it’s been 41 years and counting.

After losing the election, I practiced law, started a Real Estate Development Company that went broke during the recession of the late 1980s, and served six years as the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU. I joined IUPUI’s faculty in 1998.

I’ve lived through the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, the 60s, the sexual revolution (I missed it by 6 years!), the gay rights movement, the decades of religious zealotry that a friend calls “America’s most recent Great Awakening,” and a dizzying explosion of new technologies. As George Burns once said, I’m so old I remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

I became politically active at nineteen, as a Republican. I was persuaded—and remain persuaded—by what has been called the “libertarian principle,” the belief that the best society is one in which individuals are free to set and pursue our own life goals, determine our own telos, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others. Back then, with some notable exceptions, the GOP understood the importance of “so long as” in those last two caveats. Times, obviously, have changed. The political party to which I belonged no longer exists, except in name.

For those who begin with the libertarian principle as I just shared it, good faith political arguments tend to revolve around the nature and severity of the “harms” that government can legitimately prohibit or regulate, and the extent of government’s obligation to provide a physical and social infrastructure to be paid for through citizens’ “dues,” called taxes. Needless to say, we are not having those good faith arguments today—instead, we are in a culture war– what may well be an existential struggle between science and reason on the one hand, and a variety of fundamentalisms on the other.

Women do not do well in culture wars.

Of the nine books I’ve written, the two that taught me the most—the ones that required the “deepest dives” into our philosophy of government and suggested some answers to Aristotle’s question—were God and Country: America in Red and Blue and my small textbook Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth.

The research I did for God and Country provided me with a lens through which I’ve come to understand so much of our current political environment. Policymaking has become a power struggle between Puritans who believe government should make the rest of us live “godly” lives, based upon their particular version of what’s godly, and those of us who demand that government act on what John Rawls called “public reasons,” based upon logical persuasion and scientific and empirical understandings. Contemporary Puritans remain deeply antagonistic to the Enlightenment and to secular ways of knowing—especially science—and they utterly reject the notion that each of us gets to define our own morality. Scroll down a Facebook page, or read the comments section of an online newspaper, and you’ll come across posts from fundamentalists of various stripes who wrap themselves in victimhood whenever government fails to impose their preferred worldviews on everyone else. And as most women understand, those preferred worldviews almost always include a “biblically-mandated” submission of women.

Another example is the effort—in Indiana and elsewhere—to exempt so-called “bible-believing Christians” from compliance with otherwise applicable civil rights laws. In our system, religious citizens have absolute liberty to believe whatever they want—that’s the individual rights pole of the continuum. But religious or political beliefs, no matter how sincere, don’t entitle people to sacrifice newborns or bomb abortion clinics, and they don’t entitle them to engage in behavior that is contrary to America’s cultural and legal commitment to civic equality. That’s the public good end of the continuum. There’s no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to America’s social health.

Let me just share a final observation: Social justice is a term we don’t hear very often these days. Social justice is aspirational, and its elements are subject to debate, but at its heart, the concept is concerned with mutual obligation and the common good. In its broadest outlines, a just society is one that meets the basic human needs of its members, without regard to their identities, genders or social status—a society that doesn’t draw invidious distinctions between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist, Republican and Democrat, or any of the other categories into which we like to sort our fellow humans. It is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person.

We should want to make our society more just for many reasons, practical as well as moral: for one thing, a more equitable society is in the long-term best interests of even those people who don’t feel any obligation to feed hungry children or find jobs for ex-offenders or make health care accessible to poor people. That’s because in order to remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to make use of all its talent. Social systems that prevent people from contributing their talents cost all of us in lost opportunities and unrealized promise.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and I also know that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Systemic barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

Even more daunting, when I look at today’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people. I see crazy people.

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” Black and brown people and “uppity women” are obvious targets.

I have hopes that your generation will be able to reverse this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We humans flourish through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

And women only flourish in a society that understands that.