Some time ago, probably while
cooking up the oxymoron "compassionate conservatism"
in the propaganda dungeons of the right, it occurred to anti-choice
forces that their image was suffering from the (correct) perception that
they want to curtail women’s rights because they don’t have very
warm feelings for women. Clearly, they needed to put some lipstick
on that pig and convince the public that, all evidence to the contrary,
they do give a damn about women. It was a momentous task indeed.
After all, women themselves–with their paychecks, right to vote, and modern ideas
about controlling their own lives–were the problem.
The solution, as it
has been throughout history, was to construct a mythological Good Girl
to defend against all those Bad Girls, with their sex-having, paycheck-drawing
ways. The Good Girl is sweet, submissive, religious, maternal,
and self-sacrificing. She doesn’t like sex and doesn’t want
to be in that scary world of work. But she does love marriage
and babies, and is willing to tolerate sex to get the marriage and babies. Bad Girls
like sex, and want to have it even if they can’t get pregnant.
Bad Girls think about other things besides marriage and babies, even
if they do want to get married and have a baby or two.
The clever contribution anti-choicers
made to this millennia-old Madonna/whore dichotomy was the theory that
all women are, deep down inside, baby-loving, sex-reluctant, marriage-crazed
Good Girls. Bad Girls only exist because they’ve been broken
by feminism and legal abortion. Bad Girls are mentally ill, and
just need to be forced into motherhood by losing access to abortion
and contraception to turn them into Good Girls, who may not be happy,
but are well — in the sense of functioning properly.
Because this is a silly theory,
there’s been a long-standing hope that science would come in and save
the day, by proving once and for all that women who have rights and
use them are broken, especially if they use their right to abortion.
Anti-choicers concocted a fake mental illness called "Post-Abortion
Stress Syndrome," and hoped that the psychological establishment would
one day validate it, and their beliefs. The idea was that Bad Girls
who do the most Bad thing you can do — get an abortion — would be
more likely to be mentally ill than other women, demonstrating that
having rights is damaging to women.
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Well, anti-choice activists,
who are well-stocked with science-wary fundamentalist Christians, will
be telling themselves that they should have known those liberal college
science types were never on their side, because the American Psychological
Association has once again determined that abortion poses no risk to
women’s mental health.
The reality of the Madonna/whore dichotomy was not discussed in the
report, but it was implicitly debunked. It turns out that women
are actually not stupid or crazy as a rule, but perfectly capable of
making their own decisions. Like men. Like citizens.
It was clear to me that if
the APA had found anything for anti-choicers to cling to, they would
have immediately moved on to creating a mental illness to describe women
who use contraception. Artificial Infertility Disorder, maybe?
Symptoms: Sleeping through the night, a bank account of an unseemly
size for a woman, a stunning lack of shotgun weddings, an unfeminine
enjoyment of her sex life, and a really unfeminine loss of stress in
her sexual relationships with men.
It’s hard to celebrate this
news, though, because the idea that women are, as a class, less competent
than men and unable to make important decisions about child-bearing
without threatening their especially fragile mental health has taken
off in the mainstream discourse even as the APA finds it scientifically
unsound. Women-as-fragile-incompetents instead of as citizens
has been enshrined in the Supreme Court
decision Gonzales v Carhart.
Even, distressingly, pro-choice
politicians are beginning to feel they have to pay lip service to the
idea that women are especially incompetent and that our rights have
to be considered in that light. Linda Hirshman counted
out the ways.
The Hyde Amendment pulled
Medicaid financing for the poorest and most desperate women. In 1992,
the Clinton campaign reframed abortion as an unpleasant last resort.
Last term, the Supreme Court finally broke, affirming the criminalization
of certain late-term abortions. And Democratic candidate Barack Obama,
in The Audacity of Hope, compared women’s regrets over their past abortions
to white people’s regrets about past bigotry. This Clintonian compromise–that
abortion was a necessary moral evil–had become the most progressives
could hope for.
Every time a pro-choicer tries
to appeal to the "mushy middle" with these tactics, they reaffirm
the idea that there are Good Girls who have lots of children and not
lots of sex, and Bad Girls who are just Good Girls who’ve lost their
way. It might win votes–no one could accuse Barack Obama at
this point of having a poor political compass–but it ultimately comes at the cost of undercutting
abortion rights. Because if abortion is always wrong, always the
bad choice, always a regretful action–that is, if there are so many
broken Bad Girls out there–then it becomes impossible to really defend
How? Well, Good Girls
are fundamentally defined as those women who realize that they are powerless
to run their own lives and have to submit to men and to their traditional,
submissive roles in order to hold their fragile female selves together.
Bad Girls are hot messes, who didn’t submit and therefore are falling
apart. What they have in common is that they, being women, can’t
make their own decisions, and only do well when controlled by others.
In other words, every time
you wax poetic about women’s regret, or frame abortion as the terrible
last resort of the terminally incompetent, then you’re reaffirming
the belief that women can’t handle freedom, and therefore shouldn’t
have it. And the first freedoms to go will be reproductive freedoms.