Anti-Choice Woman-Hating Goes Mainstream

Carole Joffe

In some extremist anti-choice circles, full-throated woman-hating never went away.  But among other "mainstream" anti-choice groups, latent mysogyny is now out in the open.

She consented in the murder of an unborn child.  There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child.

With this brief quote, the speaker, the Rev. John Ehrich, medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix, deserves credit for achieving a twofer in a recently revived (if not formally declared) misogyny competition that is now sweeping the anti-choice world.  He is not only stating that a gravely ill woman (the mother of four children) should have been left to die, rather than being permitted an abortion; he is also explaining why Sister Mary Margaret McBride, the nun-administrator of a Catholic hospital  who authorized the abortion (thereby saving the woman’s life) deserves to be excommunicated. 

This case, which has received wide coverage in Rewire and other media, has predictably stunned many people, across the abortion divide. Some have pointed out that the Phoenix diocese misinterpreted Catholic health care directives, and that abortion is permissible under these rules when a woman’s life is at stake. Others have made the common sense observation that if the woman had died, not only would her four children remain motherless, but the 11-week old fetus would not have survived either. Inevitably, some commented on the disparity between the nun’s swift excommunication and the fact that none of the identified pedophile priests have received such punishment.

But while the Phoenix case may cause the most jaw-dropping, with its undisguised preference for a woman’s death over an abortion, there are other recent instances that similarly suggest an upsurge of blatant woman-hating in the antiabortion world. Take the notorious Utah law passed earlier this year in response to the deeply sad case of a pregnant teenager who paid a stranger to beat her in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. (In spite of the severe beating that occurred, the pregnancy resulted in a live birth). Outraged that the male in question received a jail sentence but that there was no legal mechanism with which to charge the teen, a Utah legislator pushed through legislation that criminalizes the seeking of an illegal abortion, and which many observers believe has the practical effect of making all miscarriages in the state theoretically suspect. Had this law been in effect at the time of the incident described above, and had the fetus not survived, the desperate young woman could have received fifteen years to life.  As the untroubled sponsor of the bill told a reporter, the young woman “has to face the consequences of her barbaric actions.”  No one stopped to ask under what conditions she had gotten pregnant nor why she took such drastic measures.

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Then there are the mandatory ultrasound laws.  These are occurring in a number of state legislatures, but nowhere to date with such viciousness as the one recently passed in Oklahoma. There the new law stipulates that one hour before her abortion, the patient must receive an ultrasound, with the monitor positioned so that she can see it, and the doctor must point to and describe the heart, limbs and organs of the fetus.  There are no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.  

The current Supreme Court has also shown an unprecedented and disturbing hostility to women with respect to abortion. In its most recent decision on the subject, the 2007 Gonzales v Carhart case which upheld a ban on a certain abortion technique (intact dilation and extraction, or so-called “partial birth abortion”), the Court, shockingly, for the first time upheld an abortion restriction which did not allow any exception for a woman’s health.     

Do these examples of misogyny represent anything new? To be sure, in some extremist anti-choice circles, full throated woman-hating never went away. (See, for example, this video from several years ago of Flip Benham screeching at women entering a N. Carolina clinic that “Satan will drink the blood of your child!”) But in other, more mainstream quarters of the movement, the heated, and hateful rhetoric of the period immediately after Roe—where women seeking abortion were routinely called “sluts” and “baby killers” —gradually became replaced by a new frame: abortion hurts women.  Given that by the early 1980s, about 40 percent of American women were estimated to have an abortion during their reproductive years (the number now is about 33 percent), arguably such hate speech was counterproductive for the opponents of abortion: too many Americans either themselves had had an abortion or knew someone who did. Thus, antiabortion rhetoric shifted to professed sympathy for women, and abortion providers—those doing the hurting—became the main objects of demonization.   

The nature of laws restricting abortions has also undergone changes in the recent past, reflecting a heightened mean-spiritedness. While all such laws have as their goal the objective of making the procedure more difficult to obtain, earlier laws—for example, the waiting periods, or the TRAP laws governing minute, arguably irrelevant physical features of freestanding clinics– these measures did not have quite the same blatant cruelty as current measures do, given the mandates to force a woman to hear a description of her ultrasound or to be told terrifying lies about supposed links between abortion and breast cancer, suicide and infertility, as is required in a number of states.

Why has this increase in undisguised misogyny occurred?  Certainly part of the answer is the election of Barack Obama.  Like other sectors of the rightwing, the antichoice movement has been both enraged and energized by the Obama presidency. There not only has been a change in rhetoric and in the quantity and quality of abortion legislation since the 2008 election, but also an upsurge in aggression and violence at the site of clinics themselves (though most of this violence to date has been directed at providers, rather than patients, as we saw with the tragic murder of Dr. Tiller one year ago).

Another explanation lies in the considerable success the antichoice movement has had in stigmatizing abortion, and therefore those who both receive abortions and provide them.  As the overall number of abortion patients drop, and as poor women of color disproportionately comprise the population of abortion patients, it has become far easier for mainstream actors in the antichoice movement to see a split world, in which good women do the “right thing” when faced with an unwanted pregnancy and bad women don’t.   This deeply stigmatized view of abortion recipients enables the “respectable” opponents of abortion—the legislators, the Church officials and so on—to go a rhetorical place where their extremist colleagues have always been.

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