It’s only natural that on
HBO a drama about fundamentalist Mormon polygamy brims with
a commentary on our culture at large. In fact, sometimes the religious
framework of "Big
Love" has seemed
like a thin excuse to portray an unconventional family situation and
play with ideas about gender, the American family, and power dynamics.
This season, though, the focus
of the show has zoomed in closely on the religious aspects of the Henricksons’
lives – a raid on the polygamist compound! A potential fourth wife to
help the family attain celestial immortality! And even so, its relevance
to American life, and American issues of gender and sexuality, seems ever more urgent.
Only five episodes in, "Big
Love" has already tackled many of the sexual politics we see on the
news and in our lives. The initial Mormon-prophet-on-trial arc is a
clear echo of this summer’s raid on the Texas
FLDS compound and
Jeffs case. The
show posits communal coercion of arranged marriage of young women as tantamount to rape, but plays with
the tricky ethics of the government interfering with citizens’ private
lives. "Big Love’s" recently-introduced teen pregnancy
plot is reminiscent of Bristol
Palin, while its
exploration of repressed homosexuality in religious settings inevitably
links to the saga of Ted
Haggard. And then
there are further subplots: the family’s "courting" of a fourth
wife who’s not ready to commit brings up the sexual double-standard,
and Nikki, the most religious wife, secretly
takes birth control pills
while urging her sister-wives to procreate. It’s the "reproductive
choice for me, but not for thee" phenomenon.
On "Big Love," we see life
through the eyes of a family that is conservative in nearly every way:
they believe in modesty, chastity outside of marriage and "family
values." But the show’s creators – incidentally, a gay couple who
ventured deep into polygamist territory for research – clearly have
an enlightened and liberal view of human sexuality.
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"Big Love"s characters
are all deeply sexual beings. The women in the Hendrickson household
all love and crave sex for their own satisfaction as well as their husband’s.
The show’s teenagers are blooming, flush with hormones and naturally
curious. While no one in their world can be openly gay, many characters
experience same-sex desire, sometimes clear, sometimes ambiguous, but
always painful to repress.
Furthermore, the show’s writers
delineate the Henricksons, who are polygamist and communal by "choice,"
from their relatives on the Juniper Creek compound, whose lives are
strictly regimented by a patriarchal prophet and a cruel set of rules.
We wouldn’t want to see Bill Henrickson arrested or his family forcibly
broken up. But we long to see the young girls on the compound, whose
pictures are put in a "joy book" for men to browse, vindicated by
At the same time as "Big
Love" depicts the Henricksons living a life of their choosing, though,
it does not shy away from the problematic existence Bill has set up
on his suburban street. Bill, who grew up in Juniper Creek and
was thrown out – as young boys often are – believes that he has defined
his life in opposition to his childhood home. But has he? In many ways,
Bill has set himself up to be as a more modern version of "the prophet,"
with three wives that act like the children to his father figure. He even lives
on a mini-compound of three houses surrounding a pool. Everything in the Henrickson family orbits around his star, and like the prophet of Juniper
Creek himself, Bill has no problems manipulating his wives against
each other and laying down his fatherly authority when he feels it’s
Meanwhile, his wives find their
designated lives as alternating baby-makers fulfilling only in theory – hence
conservative Nikki popping birth control pills on the sly and all of
them longing for careers. And the damage done to the children, particularly
the older ones, is stunning. Sarah sleeps with her boyfriend without
protection because she was taught to be "chaste"
rather than safe, while Ben, after feeling humiliated when he loses his virginity
with a long-term girlfriend, decides to follow in dad’s footsteps
and live "the principle" by planning to take multiple wives. His
mother, who claims to be happy with her lifestyle, is horrified.
So this patriarchy-by-choice
has left its participants thoroughly messed up in ways it won’t be
easy to fix – even Bill struggles in vain to be a decent human being.
But there is one primary appeal to the world of "Big Love," which
is the family’s communal values. It’s fascinating that the women
are willing to share a partner, to share kids, to love each other as
sisters. Their intertwined lives are so different from the isolation
of our modern existence.
And as much as we see the unhappiness inherent in their family units, there is also unhappiness when those units
are broken. When Bill’s business partner Don, also a polygamist, sees two of
his wives run away (it’s hinted that they may be having an affair
with each other) he breaks down over having limited recourse to track
down and see his kids–in part because of the harassment polygamists face in the business
and legal world. This scene evokes
gay couples face when their bonds are not legal.
Of course, the situations are not morally parallel, and the show doesn’t
want them to be: Don’s polygamous relationship was far from egalitarian
and his misery also arises from feeling pathetically "unmanned"
by the loss of his extra wives. But while the ultimate sympathy lies
with the escaped wives, "Big Love" also shows us the pain of any family
bond going unrecognized by the law.
Don, too, is a victim of the
system that he perpetrates, and the previews hint that Bill may be headed
for a comeuppance too. Like patriarchy in general, polygamy can
hurt all involved. That’s the humanity at the core of "Big Love" – the show truly lives up to its name by being pro-love, pro-sex and anti-authority. It demonstrates the way fluid and strong human desires chafe
against containment by externally imposed rules: private or public,
our rules or theirs.
As the season progresses it
will be fascinating to see what happens to Bill’s universe as some
of the younger female characters – Sarah, Bill’s younger wives and
young women on the compound – continue coming to terms with those needs
and desires and begin to question whether they are being met by Bill
and their "alternative" lifestyle.
"Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options," Feuer said. "And therefore every day is a day that a woman's health could be jeopardized."
Three Los Angeles area fake clinics, which were warned last month they were breaking a new state reproductive transparency law, are now in compliance, the city attorney announced Thursday.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a press briefing that two of the fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, began complying with the law after his office issued notices of violation last month. But it wasn’t until this week, when Feuer’s office threatened court action against the third facility, that it agreed to display the reproductive health information that the law requires.
“Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options,” Feuer said. “And therefore every day is a day that a woman’s health could be jeopardized.”
Feuer’s office in May launched a campaign to crack down on violators of the law. His action marked a sharp contrast to some jurisdictions, which are reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach as fake clinics’ challenges to the law wind through the courts.
Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Some 25 fake clinics operate in Los Angeles County, according to a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California, though firm numbers are hard to come by. Feuer initially issued notices to six Los Angeles area fake clinics in May. Following an investigation, his office warned three clinics last month that they’re breaking the law.
Those three clinics are now complying, Feuer told reporters Thursday. Feuer said his office is still determining whether another fake clinic, Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, is complying with the law.
Fake clinic owners and staffers have slammed the FACT Act, saying they’d rather shut down than refer clients to services they find “morally and ethically objectionable.”
“If you’re a pro-life organization, you’re offering free healthcare to women so the women have a choice other than abortion,” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents several Los Angeles fake clinics fighting the law in court.
Asked why the clinics have agreed to comply, Bowman reiterated an earlier statement, saying the FACT Act violates his clients’ free speech rights. Forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs,” Bowman said.
Reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, Googling “abortion clinic” might turn up results for a fake clinic that discourages abortion care.
“Put yourself in the position of a young woman who is going to one of these centers … and she comes into this center and she is less than fully informed … of what her choices are,” Feuer said Thursday. “In that state of mind, is she going to make the kind of choice that you’d want your loved one to make?
Rewire last month visited Lost Angeles area fake clinics that are abiding by the FACT Act. Claris Health in West Los Angeles includes the reproductive notice with patient intake forms, while Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the notice in the waiting room.
“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”
Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.
The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.
Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.
DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.
Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishingits policy goals.
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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue.When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”
Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.
“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.
Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”
“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.
While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.
“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”
Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.
Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”
Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.
Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.
Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”
Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.
Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”
She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.
“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”
The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.
Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active”chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.
Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.
As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.
Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.
Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.
Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.
If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”
Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.
“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.
She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.
Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.
“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.
Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”
“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”
That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.
“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”
Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.
“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”
To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”
“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”
“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”