Religious Revanchism in the USA and that Old Antipathy for Women
Anyone committed to educating about or protecting civil rights will see the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court on June 24 of this year as a severe reversal of decades’ worth of social progress. From the standpoint of legal scholars, it is an alarming trend among conservative members of the Supreme Court toward “new originalism.” They also explain that this particular — and until recently, idiosyncratic — approach to interpreting the Constitution was largely a response to civil rights gains made in the 1960s and 1970s. Originalism of this stripe is a means of pushing back against the changes that have been transforming American society since then. Moreover, as the overturning of Roe v. Wade so acutely demonstrates, the significance of this interpretative strategy is that it constitutes an attack on democracy or the founding “idea” of America, its promise of individual safety, prosperity, and liberty for all citizens.
A great deal in the way of focused scrutiny of the overturning of Roe v. Wade is called for, certainly. Numerous in-depth critiques on the resurgent alliance between the law and religion in the USA do exist, but outside of feminist writing there’s a paucity of attempts to suss the historical roots of the anti-abortion stance in constitutional literalism (or more appropriately, “fundamentalism”). It’s imperative, then, that we acknowledge these roots and pin down some of their salient features: American-Christian patriarchy and its indelible chauvinism. A few readers may be surprised to learn here that legal scholars point to Salem’s witch trials as vital lessons concerning procedural failures to protect basic rights.[i] Yet even these experts don’t do enough to lay bare the connections between American Christian conservatism, classical Christian theology (as it crystallized by the Middle Ages especially), and the ways that the appearance and behaviour of the “second sex” continue to be categorized or typecast. I arrive at something like a historical perspective on the reactionism underlying the bans on abortion below. However, I begin with an rundown — temporally narrower — of what the elimination of a 50-year precedent is and isn’t about at present.
First and foremost, the Supreme Court’s ruling isn’t about protecting the unborn child. If protecting children was a real concern, as countless researchers, journalists, and politicians in the US have argued, there would be far more effective legislation to limit access to firearms. More importantly, single mothers and working class families would automatically be eligible for a host of protections, including guaranteed housing. Health care would be universally available to children and parents of infants and school-aged children. There would also be legislated provisions shielding mothers from job loss or economic hardship. Broad forms of assistance for children and their parents would no doubt be an encumbrance on public funds, but wouldn’t it be only logical to offer such security (and shouldn’t all children born in the USA be instantly entitled to it?)—that is, if infants’ and children’s well-being were the real purpose of anti-abortion laws? Wouldn’t such measures make eminent sense, especially since a hefty percentage of people who experience unplanned pregnancies come from economically challenged communities, are minors, or have been subject to some form of abuse in their surrounding environments?
Before I get to the actual aims of America’s anti-abortion laws and their supporters, allow me reiterate a few facts in relation to women’s reproductive reality and how it’s instrumentalized by the six-week abortion ban. Since the length of pregnancy is calculated from the first day of a woman’s last period, six weeks’ duration is attributed as a matter of course to anyone who has missed their period—even if conception has occurred two or three weeks after the onset of the new cycle. Furthermore, since a pregnancy test measuring levels of chorionic gonadatropin (hCG) is unreliable in the very early stages of pregnancy, and because many women have irregular periods and may not suspect that anything is amiss if they’re late one week (or several), a pregnancy may very well go undetected until the six-week window, during which abortion is permitted, is closed.
There’s a clear and detailed explanation of the problem with the six-week threshold in Scientific American’s article, “The Absurd Pregnancy Math behind the ‘Six-Week’ Abortion Ban.” It’s worth highlighting here the following statement by the article’s author, Michelle Rodrigues: “[I]n reality, the six-week ban limits abortion care to only four weeks after conception, and only one week, realistically, from when a person could find out they are pregnant.” This ban—whether by design or willed ignorance—doesn’t take several crucial aspects of reproductive biology into account. It doesn’t allot sufficient time for pregnancy discovery or confirmation. It also mysteriously overlooks the fact that a foetus isn’t medically defined as such until eight weeks after fertilization, which suggests that from a legal standpoint a 10-week ban would make more sense — that is, if we were to establish from the get-go that any ban should exclude adolescents, or rape victims, or persons afflicted with health issues that would be exacerbated by pregnancy (readers should be aware that a large percentage of people have such concerns; and we should unequivocally count mental health conditions among them).
I hope that it’s obvious by now that the near-total or six-week bans, or the bans that don’t make exceptions for minors or victims of rape, aren’t laws that are truly intended to protect anyone. They won’t protect infants once they are born to young single mothers, or to families already struggling to provide for other children (these are the people least able to travel out of state for an abortion). How pertinent is it that an article published on August 30 in The New York Times, titled “U.N. Race Panel Sounds the Alarm on Abortion Access in the U.S.,” reported that the “influential” Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (C.E.R.D.), which convened in Geneva in August to discuss world-wide violations of human rights, issued findings that addressed directly the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The findings, backed by a 24-member delegation of American officials that included representatives of multiple federal and state agencies, “highlighted the fraught issue of vanishing abortion access in the United States. The [C.E.R.D] urged the Biden administration to safeguard access for ethnic and racial minorities and low-income people — groups that it said would be disproportionately hit by the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.”
These laws are never formulated with the welfare of pregnant persons in mind. On the contrary, they’re meant to foment uncertainty and fear, as well as sanction cruelty among those newly vested with powers to make decisions for people seeking pregnancy-related medical care. Consider recent news addressing nearly 30 cases wherein critical treatment for patients with ectopic pregnancies or a soon-to-be deceased foetus was withheld by doctors who claimed they were afraid of being charged with ‘murder.’ In states like Texas, where a foetus is legally deemed a “person,” even life-saving abortions can’t be performed until care providers obtain a sign-off from an official who is legally empowered to grant it, or until the foetal heart stops beating.[ii] Indeed, the 2014 case of Marlise Munoz underscores precisely this. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where Munoz was being kept without any detectable brain activity, rigged Munoz’s body to life support for two months, heartlessly (and, given the astronomical cost per diem, likely opportunistically) violating the categorical demands of the family, for the sake of a dying fetus. The case was widely considered “macabre” even by Texan standards, and the debates it triggered quickly honed in on the moral and political dimensions of the implementation in Texas of House Bill 2 (H.B. 2) in late 2013.[iii] In her January 2014 article for Al Jazeera, “‘Pro-life’ until birth,” Carolyn Jones wrote: “During the passage of House Bill 2 last summer [which aimed to reduce access to abortions], the Republican-controlled legislature rejected amendments that would have ensured postpartum visits for low-income mothers; provided cash, food and health benefits to members of the woman’s household;…and exempted victims of sexual assault and incest from abortion restrictions.” Is there anything that remains vague about the goals of those whose only objective is to prevent abortions?
Let us go deeper and try to disentangle this snarl of law and religious ideology — nearly always an iniquitous alliance, especially if we consider the history of lawful enslavement or segregation and the legalistic sophistries girding them. To wit, in May, one month before Roe v. Wade was buried, The Guardian published a piece, “Who will be prosecuted for abortion if fetuses are recognized as people?” The author, Noa Yachot, wrote that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers stated publicly that on top of the liabilities that already apply to abortion providers there are “thousands of crimes in the federal criminal code that may be used against pregnant people when Roe falls.” Yachot also quoted Dana Sussman, acting executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW): “We’re in a completely different universe when it comes to our willingness to criminalize people,” Sussman said. “State prosecutors throughout those states can use any law that was intended to apply to the abuse or harm of children to fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses.” In those states, it stands to reason, a person who experiences a miscarriage will be subject to scrutiny. Instead of concentrating on their emotional and physical recovery, they may find themselves in the distressing predicament of having to prove—unlike anyone standing trial for an actual crime today—that they’re not guilty of having precipitated their own miscarriage. The implications are terrifying. Margaret Atwood is no longer the author of speculative works with merely imagined dystopias.
What needs recognizing is the anti-abortion laws’ full scope, reach, and impact. They’re not just restrictive and widely punitive. They’re designed to reshape American society by curtailing, if not eliminating, the critical opportunities that reproductive autonomy made possible for women. Consider but a few lines from an article written by L. Purdy, published in Journal of medical ethics in 2006: “[Reproductive] autonomy is particularly important for women,…because reproduction still takes place in women’s bodies, and because they are generally expected to take primary responsibility for child rearing…. In 2005, the factors that influence women’s reproductive autonomy most strongly are poverty, and belief systems that devalue such autonomy.” Purdy continues: “Although lack of access to the prerequisites for exercising autonomy is often a result of anti-autonomy belief systems, it can also be a consequence of racism or limitless greed.” Of note is that Purdy identifies three motives for robbing women of reproductive choice, the third of which is profit.
Pat Brewer wrote an Introduction to Frederick Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, where she explained how the insights gained from Engels conformed with many of the conservative trends she was witnessing: “A campaign is currently being waged by the capitalist class and its governments to reduce real wages.…The job market has been restructured such that full-time work (and its accompanying living wage) is being transformed into part-time and casual employment, predominantly filled by women” (Brewer 8). To be clear, Brewer argued, it’s not that women are currently being pushed out of the workforce; it’s that their contingent status (made more so by the loss of reproductive autonomy) opens them up to increasingly exploitative employment strategies. Casualized employment practices “make women more vulnerable to increased exploitation, by driving down their place in the work force (lower wages, fewer hours, less job security, fewer holidays, more piece work, less safety and less unionisation)” (8).
One doesn’t have to be a student of Marx and Engels to see the piling evidence backing Brewer’s analysis. It’s available in labour statistics, which indicate that women constitute the largest portion of the contingent workforce, as well as in articles such as “What’s Really Holding Women Back? It’s not what most people think,” published in a spring 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The authors, professors Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic, scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, begin their article with the following: “Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the 1970s and 1980s, but that progress slowed considerably in the 1990s and has stalled completely in this century.” Ely and Padavic collected interview data and discovered a set of pervasive and damaging suppositions about the preferences of women with children: “Unlike men, they were encouraged to take accommodations, such as going part-time and shifting to internally facing roles, which derailed their careers…[because] firm members attributed distress over work/family conflict primarily to women.” Yet aren’t such assumptions (frequently also made about childless women, as Ely and Padavic determined) a correlate of traditional belief systems? Unsurprisingly, these views just happen to align at once with upper management’s notions regarding women’s ‘primary’ role (which quickly becomes identical with their ‘obligatory’ role) and employers’ preferences for economizing on highly skilled labour.
What Ely and Padavic don’t make explicit, unfortunately, is that the idea that woman aren’t whole (or wholesome?) if they’re not caring for children — a belief the two scholars found circulating even in corporations where women’s advancement is declared a company mandate — is part of entrenched gender ideology. Furthermore, this set of long-held and interrelated convictions constructs women’s essential purpose — when all other fugacious pursuits are swept aside — as maiden (and virgin), then wife and mother? Virtually the same belief system framed the 19th-century, Victorian-era middle-class home as the natural domain of women, without regard for age, education, and individual aspiration.[iv] Today’s extreme right in the USA would like a return to a version of Victorian society, with a few minor differences: the present-day iteration of these traditional arrangements would make room for working women, but in contingent and lower-level employment so as to capitalize on the labour of poor, racialized, immigrant women, and other marginalized groups, like temporary agricultural workers. This way religious fundamentalism and neoliberalism become bedfellows in an alliance that legitimates and perpetuates both the sexual division of labor and the exploitation and oppression of women.[v]
How can we doubt, then, that young and working-age people will be made vulnerable by anti-abortion laws in multiple ways. In “What the ‘Roe v. Wade’ Reversal Means for Educators, Schools, and Students,” published in EducationWeek, Sarah Schwartz reports that “many education groups condemned the court’s decision… [since] the decision stands to reshape the contours of the school-age population and the people who work in it.” Not only will the Court’s decision be “putting new demands on schools in a system that some experts argue already fails to support teen parents in academic success and graduation”; it will also affect educators, given that approximately “76 percent of teachers are women, and most don’t have access to paid parental leave or health plans that cover abortion.”
Of course, this grossly understates the potential impact of anti-abortion laws on careers in general, especially those that require individuals to earn postgraduate or professional degrees. Think of practices such as law, medicine, graduate-level research or teaching. These are but a few examples that instantly come to mind; numerous other professions entail years of intensive study and on-the-job training.
I often wonder wistfully what my academic career would’ve looked like had I not married in my early 20s and born two children in quick succession. The majority of my current colleagues decided to have children in their late 30s and early 40s, and then — usually — they limited themselves to one child. Ageism and gender bias already conspire against women’s interests in many professions (academe included). The postponement of one’s career even by five years generally means that one is left watching from the sidelines as other colleagues, often jaw-droppingly less accomplished (too often younger and male) are handed coveted positions.
As for elite sports, it goes without saying that the repercussions of abortion bans in the US will be momentous. Even before the overturning of Roe v. Wade, hundreds of top-ranked athletes, coaches, and players’ unions for two major women’s sports leagues, filed an amicus brief that outlined the devastating effects on athletes if abortion were made illegal. On June 24, the very same day the Supreme Court overruled the decisions in Roe v. Wade (1973) and in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Time published an interview with former American swimmer, Crissy Perham. The two-time Olympic gold medalist had never before acknowledged publicly that she had an abortion before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The abortion enabled her to continue training, win a major competition, and then qualify for the Olympic Games. Her story, one that must mirror those of countless other professional athletes, is punctuated by what “she sees [as] a terrible hypocrisy in the timing of today’s Supreme Court ruling, coming a day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated equal athletic opportunities for women and girls.” “How ridiculous is it that 24 hours ago, they’re praising Title IX,” Perham said. “And literally the next day, they said, ‘By the way, if you get pregnant, you’re gonna have to have a baby.’”
Consider the willingness of even well-meaning employers in those states where the abortion ban is now in effect to hire or promote employees of child-bearing age. Aren’t they’re more likely to tell themselves now that it will be less problematic to hire men? Think again about the broader long-term social and economic objectives of anti-abortion laws. Better yet, take another look at Brewer’s arguments regarding the mounting offensive to push women back into traditional roles: “The family is the one major sphere of capitalist society in which labour replacement services can be absorbed without payment — women pick up the burden unpaid…. Monetary concessions for the one-wage household have been put into place…. If women [employed part-time or on a contingent basis] have children, their wages barely cover their childcare costs and jeopardise any family allowances paid by the state” (Brewer 8). In other words, mothers with children at home are strongly discouraged from finding work or maintaining the jobs they had before giving birth.
A number of articles and essays have been catching my eye of late because they’re pertinent and offer additional clarity. Some are recent, with authors responding to the June 24 decision. One such piece is by Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Brennan Centre for Justice is a “nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving systems of democracy and justice.” The article, “Originalism Run Amok at the Supreme Court,” published on June 28, gets at some of the manipulations (the plainly specious arguments) that bore the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Waldman writes: “Justice Samuel Alito’s use of originalism in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization shows it to be dangerous and reactionary.” Waldman adds: “Dobbs distorts history too. Abortion was legal at the time of the founding (up until quickening), but faced bans later in the 19th century. But here was the heart of Alito’s opinion: ‘The Court finds that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.’ What that means, in practical terms, is the Court looked to a time when women could not vote or sit on juries, when Black people were slaves, when sexual orientation was a shameful secret….in terms of the Constitution, it would repeal the 20th century.” Please note the other significant upshot of Waldman’s analysis: since the Constitution was ratified in 1788, it’s no longer possible to dissociate current-day law (or, in this case, the “majority opinion” representing the lex terrae in the US) from the societal rules, conventions, and prevailing religious beliefs of the 18th Century.[vi]
Another recent essay is Dayna Tortorici’s rousing “Your Body, My Choice: The movement to criminalize abortion,” which n+1 Magazine published in its Summer 2022 issue (titled Unreal). Tortorici doesn’t mince words or their meanings. She begins by declaring, “Those who wish to ban legal abortion are not ‘pro-life’; they are pro-criminalization. Those who wish to protect the right to abortion are not “pro-choice”; they are anti-criminalization. Reframing the conflict in these terms clarifies the stakes.” Here you have it then: an unambiguous statement of what anti-abortion is and isn’t about.
Referencing philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, and pointing out the hypocritical neglect of conditions that predispose pregnant workers to miscarriages, as well as the absence of consideration for the precarious circumstances into which children of impoverished parents are born, Tortorici decimates anti-abortion supporters’ arguments on philosophical and empirical grounds.[vii] She follows this up with the question: “What motivates the criminalization of abortion if not an invidiously discriminatory animus against women and people interpellated as women by the Court?” Precisely. The next thing that needs asking is Why? But Tortorici doesn’t supply an answer, or at least not one that digs deep and far enough into the past to explain the “serious gender revanchism” she sees being driven by “white, religious, conservative men who dismiss the evidence put forward by medical professionals that the treatment in question saves lives.” Yet explanations for belief systems that deprive people of reproductive autonomy can be marshalled, especially if one is willing to trample on some of Christianity’s oldest, most cherished articles of faith.
To be continued
In an article, “How the Salem Witch Trials Influenced the American Legal System,” Author Sarah Pruitt quotes Len Niehoff, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, to demonstrate the Witch Trials’ continuing relevance for today’s legal scholars. Niehoff states: “It is in my view difficult to draw a direct line from the Salem witch trials to a specific existing legal doctrine, but I would argue that they have had an immense influence on how we think about the law….The trials are filled with cautionary tales about how catastrophically bad things can go when legal proceedings fail to offer certain minimum guarantees.” Niehoff goes on to mention that these became a useful reference for attorneys defending accused Americans during the McCarthyist period. For more scholarship on the subject, see Martha M. Young’s “The Salem Witch Trials 300 Years Later: How Far Has the American Legal System Come? How Much Further Does It Need to Go?”
In 1989, the supreme court upheld a Missouri law that stated in its preamble that “the life of each human being begins at conception,” and that “unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and wellbeing.” In effect, this served as a precedent for establishing “fetal personhood,” and according rights to a foetus even in the earliest stage of development. See legal scholar Michele Goodwin’s book, Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood. Goodwin refers to Black women as the “canaries in the coal mine.” Yachot supplies the following telltale stats: “A study by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) found that 52% of cases of women targeted for pregnancy outcomes between 1973 and 2005 were Black, despite Black women making up about 14% of people of reproductive age.” Regina McKnight, a Black woman in South Carolina, was the first woman convicted for “homicide by child abuse” for a stillbirth due to drug use. As Goodwin points out, her case “inspired similar prosecutions of other poor black women and then of other women.” McKnight spent seven years in prison before her sentence was overturned.”
See Rachel E. Swindle’s “House Bill 2: The Effect of Reducing Access to Abortion Providers on Educational Attainment in Texas.” Based on her findings, the author asserts “that the effect of H.B. 2 is associated with a decrease in graduation rates of over six percentage points and is significant at the 99.9% level.”
I recommend Anita Ilta Garey’s book Weaving Work and Motherhood. Garey writes, for example: “Parenthood and employment are gendered institutions; that is, the system of social relations embedded in these social institutions are organized differently for men and women and perpetuate gender differences.” Garey argues that certain models that figure women’s ‘orientations’ toward either professional or domestic spheres unnecessarily bifurcate these preferences, tendencies, or aspirations; it’s as if women can’t negotiate the demands of both, or as if one sphere doesn’t enrich or make possible the other.
Nor is the “the rejection of feminist ideas that confront th[is] naturalistic fallacy” confined to the USA, argues Gabriela Arguedas-Ramírez. Latin America became rife with it, particularly after US-led insurrections in the 1970s that overthrew left-wing governments and their then left-leaning Catholic supporters. Associate Professor Arguedas-Ramírez, who is a member of the gender studies department in the London School of Economics, published a piece on the Religion and Global Society blog of the LSE (the piece is part of a larger regional research project on anti-rights and anti-gender politics in Latin America). In “Gender Ideology, religious fundamentalism and the electoral campaign (2017-2018) in Costa Rica,” Arguedas-Ramirez wrote: “For these neoconservative movements, there is a morality of sexual difference defined by nature. The notion of gender as a socio-historical product is incompatible with patriarchal values and traditions, which are structural within religious fundamentalisms. From a neoliberal perspective, the denial of feminist postulates and gender theory has to do with naturalized ways of perpetuating and justifying the sexual division of labor and the constant exploitation of women’s bodies, particularly of impoverished women and women of color (on this, see for instance Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici).” In the second footnote to this piece, Arguedas-Ramírez informs readers: “It is crucial to bring to this discussion the historical account of how evangelical missions (and its ramifications) came to Central America and established their operative centers and alliances with right wing political parties and the local oligarchy during the Cold War. The U.S. foreign policy targeted Social and grassroots organizations related to the liberation theology, which was considered a leftist distortion of Catholicism. One of the political and cultural instruments used to halt their expansion was evangelicalism.” See also Michael Cangemi’s “Catholics, Evangelicals, and US Policy in Central America.”
For a Canadian perspective and analysis, see “Roe v. Wade’s fall sets a ‘frightening precedent,’ retired Canadian Supreme Court justice says” by Sean Fine. This piece offers a retired Canadian justice’s reliable analysis how legal precedent was violated by the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and the implications for other precedents. Another excellent explanation of the attack on substantive due process that the originalist strategy deployed can be found in “The Attack on Substantive Due Process: Roe v. Wade and Beyond” by Helen Guan, published in Spheres of Influence, a Canadian online publication.
Tortorici is armed with helpful data: “Pro-Crime would have us stay in the realm of the hypothetical forever, as if plain facts were not before us. According to the Turnaway Study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, people who are denied abortions are almost four times more likely than those who are granted them to wind up in poverty, even if they began on equal economic footing. Sixty percent of people who seek abortions in the US have at least one child (CDC), and almost half are poor: 49 percent live below the federal poverty line. An additional 26 percent are low income (Guttmacher Institute, 2016). The median cost of a first-trimester abortion is $508; a second-trimester abortion, $1,195; and a later-term abortion can cost $3,000 or more (Guttmacher, 2018),…Meanwhile, the average cost of raising a middle-class American child from birth to 17 years of age is $233,610 — $292,051 in 2022 dollars (USDA, 2017).”
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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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