Commentary Politics

Making Sense of Herman Cain and Abortion

Amanda Marcotte

Hermain Cain doesn't think abortion should be legal, but he also thinks the government should "stay out of it," and that abortion should be criminal, but that you should have a choice to break the law. In a way, it all makes sense. 

On this week’s episode of Reality Cast, I have a segment about the situation with Herman Cain’s incoherent and inconsistent approach to abortion rights. Cain has been on at least two TV shows where he said in the same breath both that he doesn’t think abortion should be legal and that the government shouldn’t make that decision for you, without acknowledging in the slightest that these two positions inherently contradict each other. There’s been multiple attempts to understand why Cain is so daft about this. Some folks believe he’s trying to have it both ways, but hasn’t figured out any political trickery to allow himself to speak out of both sides of his mouth without getting caught. I theorized at XX Factor that Cain’s incoherent position reflects the incoherent position of roughly half the people who claim to be “pro-life”, but also want abortion to be legal in some or all cases.

But now we have a little bit more of a clarification from Cain on his position.

“I do not think abortion should be legal in this country,” Cain said on Fox today. “Abortion should not be legal. That is clear. But if a family made the decision to break the law, that’s that family’s decision.”

Of course, this contradicts his previous statements about how the government should stay out of it. Now he thinks the government should ban abortion, and he seems to have not considered in the slightest that breaking the law isn’t just a matter of “choice”, but that it can have very real consequences if you’re caught. Jeff Fecke has a theory as to why Cain hasn’t considered the consequences of a ban. In part, it’s because Cain is wealthy and his wealth would shield his family from the consequences of breaking such a law:

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If Herman Cain’s granddaughter was pregnant and didn’t want the kid, the law wouldn’t stop her if she wanted an abortion. Her grandfather is rich. If abortion was outlawed in Georgia tomorrow, her grandfather could, and probably would, buy her a plane ticket to New York, where she could have the procedure done legally. If it was outlawed nationwide, he could buy her airfare to Toronto. If Canada outlawed medical procedures for Americans, Cain could talk to his wealthy friends, inquiring discretely until he found someone with a connection to an ObGyn who would do him a favor. If you’re wealthy, you’ve never had a problem getting an abortion in this country, and you never will. 

No matter what Cain is thinking, I imagine this is a large part of it. What the mainstream discourse around abortion rights rarely takes into consideration is the class issues underpinning access to abortion. It’s treated more like a symbolic fight over “life” vs. “women’s rights,” when it should be treated as a battle over whether or not all women have equal access to a common and necessary medical procedure.  Even under our current system of technical legality, many women are prevented from accessing abortion because they don’t have the funds to pay for it. Making it illegal wouldn’t stop the women who can already afford abortion on demand from getting it, though it probably would mean they have to pay more for it and make a few more phone calls.

In addition to the class issues at stake, it’s always possible that Cain means that while there should be a ban on abortion written into law, the government should have no power to enforce it. Considering the mess of contradictions he’s coughed up so far, that could very well be what he means. Again, as wacky as that sounds, it may not be that far-fetched an idea. Many anti-choicers want there to be some official social consensus that abortion makes you a filthy slut, but they aren’t really willing to argue that the 1 in 3 American women who will have an abortion in their lifetimes should be thrown in jail.  A largely symbolic ban on abortion could very well be satisfying for the half of anti-choicers who think female sexuality is disgusting and shameful but that it falls short of being a criminal offense.

To really understand social conservatism, it helps to realize that they’re more interested in a world of “shoulds” than the reality-based world we live in. Talking to a conservative  about sex how it’s actually practiced in the real world is like trying to talk to someone who cannot accept that it’s raining because they believe the sun should be shining. You’d say, “It’s raining. You should bring your umbrella.” And they’ll look at you and say, “But I’d prefer it if it didn’t rain.” And no matter how much you insist that they need to worry less about controlling the sky and more about controlling whether or not their head gets wet, they go out in the rain without an umbrella. And when their heads get wet, they insist that the problem isn’t that they didn’t carry an umbrella, but that other people are lowering their standards by carrying umbrellas and simply accepting that the rain is going to fall.

It’s an imperfect analogy, I know. After all, unlike walking in the rain, having sex is fun and often good for you. However, it does shed light on how Cain is thinking. Law should be written, in his view, to establish some platonic ideal chosen for him by his religion. But of course, people are going to behave how they’re going to behave. But “sending a message”—no matter how much it’s rejected, no matter how illogical that message may be—is considered the main purpose of the law. “Sending a message,” in case that sex is wrong, matters so much that it cannot be abandoned in the face of widespread social destruction, misery, and even death. A conservative may not even fully agree with the message, but will still think it needs sending. After all, if the people who affirmed the belief that sex is wrong and the government should oppose it actually lived their beliefs, our society would look much, much different than it does now. But that’s how it is in conservative world: the fear is that if you actually come out and say something like, “Well, I wouldn’t personally have an abortion, but I think it should be legal,” people will judge you as some kind of sexual pervert who spends all their time going between orgies and the abortion clinic.  Political stances are less about reality, and more about striking a “moral” pose. And if you are wealthy enough to make sure that the rules chosen for religious idealism never really do affect you, it’s even easier to view the world in this way. 

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