Commentary Religion

The Religious Right’s Reality: Where Doctors Pray Over Your Vagina and Fanatics Don’t Care If You Die

Amanda Marcotte

If you ever wonder how it is that the religious right can be so daft when it comes to understanding the real world effects of their preferred policies, wonder no more. It's because they just don't care. 

In a recent discussion with a woman of my acquaintance who lives in rural, Bible Belt Texas, the subject of how hard it is to get a good doctor came up. My acquaintance said that she had yet to find a decent gynecologist, because the last one she visited insisted on praying over her before performing the pelvic exam. And I mean right before. He didn’t, say, pray over her and then leave the room so she could disrobe. He waited until she was in the stirrups and then chose that moment to pray over her, like he was a solider about to go into battle or an athlete heading into the big game. Obviously, she’s in the market for a new doctor, but in the land of tumbleweeds and Bible thumpers, pickings are slim.

I bring this story up, because I think it goes a long way towards explaining how the state of Texas has gotten so bad in terms of sexual health measurements, as detailed by Martha Kempner here at Rewire. Turns out that, contrary to the claims of abstinence-only promoters, that Jesus-inflected fear and loathing of sexuality (especially female sexuality) isn’t so great for sexual health. Even within Texas, you can see the correlation between fundamentalism and poor public health outcomes. Take Lubbock, TX, which is well known for the control exerted by the religious right. Lubbock’s chlamydia rate is 33 percent higher than the national average. Part of that has to do with the fact that there’s a large university in town, but the fact remains that the high-minded promises that Jesus will lure kids from the backseats of cars to the pews have proven false, but have left those who prefer the backseats without the knowledge and access to contraception to keep themselves safe.

Trying to get decent sex education and sexual health policy past the religious right is impossible because, as I know all too well growing up in Texas, they aren’t, at the end of the day, remotely interested in outcomes.  By “outcomes,” I mean any real-world result of public health policies, such as STD tranmission rates or unintended pregnancy rates. All that is just background noise in their evidence-and-reality-free discussions about their religious ideals. That their religious ideal of everyone waiting for marriage to have sex has no relationship to real life choices—not even for the people sitting in the pews—is literally of no consequence to them.  It’s hard to pay attention to the real world when you’re constantly enveloped in pontifications about what you imagine the supernatural to be.

You can really see how this is playing out in the fight in Mississippi over a constitutional amendment that would grant fertilized eggs legal personhood status. Irin Carmon of Salon traveled to Mississippi to interview supporters of this amendment and found that they were incredibly short on the details of how such a thing would work, but quite long on the religiosity. As she notes:

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The Personhood movement in Mississippi is openly theocratic. Riley has written that “for years, the pro-life movement and the religious right has allowed the charge [of being “religiously motivated”] to make them run for cover. I think we should embrace it.” Riley, in fact, had already enthusiastically embraced Christian secessionist and neo-Confederate groups as part of his coalition.

Understanding this goes a long way towards understanding why the anti-choice movement shows so little interest in the effects of their policies, and why many of them will go so far as to fight to withhold the HPV vaccine from young women, knowing full well that some of them will die because of it. They simply aren’t interested in the real world consequences of their political preferences.

For the religious right, political activism is about winning for winning’s sake. Writing their religious dogma about the meaning of conception would represent a triumph over secular humanism. While I have no doubt that they don’t care much if they hurt women—and many are looking forward to seeing women punished for falling short of being the Virgin Mary in their eyes—the most important priority is circumventing the constitutional prohibition on theocratic rule. Making fertilized eggs “persons” gives their religious dogma precedence over science and basic human decency towards women. It falls short of creating an official state church, but it inches closer to that ultimate goal.

There’s a strong chance that pro-choicers will win the battle over the personhood amendment in Mississippi. It’s simply too extreme, even for the what may be the most right wing state in the country, especially since there’s a strong chance the amendment will be used to prosecute women for miscarrying and to restrict access to the birth control pill. Highlighting the real world effects of passing religious dogma into law is helpful when the dogma is extreme, as was shown when the personhood amendment went down in defeat in Colorado. If we win in Mississippi, this will be why.

That said, we have to do more than simply talk about the real world effects of theocratic  policy. After all, the theocrats have warmed up the general public to the idea that it wouldn’t be so bad if they got some of their religious agenda passed into law, which is how abortion restrictions and abstinence-only education slip pass the voters, even though both are direct violations of the separation of church and state. We need to talk about religious freedom as a value, and explain why the Founders considered it so important that they made it the first amendment to the Constitution. We need to explain why it’s so offensive to turn religious beliefs about female sexuality that are only shared by some in our society into laws the govern us all. Since we can’t reason with the religious right on this issue, we need to highlight how unreasonable they are to the people who keep voting for them without fully understanding what that means. 

Commentary Human Rights

It’s Not Helpful to Tell Indiana Residents to ‘Just Move to a Blue State’

Cynthia Greenlee

There’s certainly a lot to be unhappy with Indiana’s government right now. But the way progressives are reacting displays how comfortable people in blue states are with making counterproductive, harmful assumptions about more conservative regions.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

The brouhaha over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has turned the spotlight on two different kinds of red-state hate: first, the discriminatory policymaking that is an obvious specialty of red states, and, second, progressives’ tendency to show disdain for more conservative states. Sometimes, I wonder which is worse.

Almost immediately after Gov. Mike Pence signed the act, which could allow for-profit businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others perceived to threaten their religious beliefs, social media was aflame with recommendations on how to hit back. These only intensified with Monday’s sentencing of Indiana woman Purvi Patel for conflicting charges of feticide and neglect of a dependent. Some argued for pulling conferences or boycotting corporations headquartered in the Midwestern state; others promised ballot-box retribution.

There’s certainly a lot to be unhappy with Indiana’s government right now. And so it should be that Americans make noise and use all the weapons at their disposal—from their money to their voting power—to express their political views and opposition to onerous policies. But the way progressives are reacting to Indiana’s politics displays how comfortable people in blue states are with making counterproductive, harmful assumptions about more conservative states.

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Tweets from around the country compared Indiana residents to slaveholders, attacked them as a monolith of Bible-quoting fundamentalists, and questioned their voting choices. Memes showed supposed white “Indiana residents” looking like “Beverly Hillbillies” or “Walking Dead” rejects with dirt-covered faces and mouths of rotting teeth. It was an insult that drew equally on contempt for the poor—particularly entrenched images of the “cracker” and folks from Appalachia—and the rural, as well as those assumed to be on the wrong side of history.

I’m not siding with Gov. Pence here, and Twitter is certainly not known for nuance, but progressives need to take a good look at how apparently easy we find it to call other people bigots.

It’s not as if social movements—including and beyond those concerning LGBTQ issues—only happen on the coasts and in metropolitan America. When you look at the national assault on reproductive rights, for example, the opposite should become more clear: Places like the South or the Midwest are ground zero for the intense and gut-wrenching work of protecting reproductive freedom. Take Tennessee, where reproductive justice and reproductive rights organizations have tried valiantly to beat back a law that allows women who use drugs during pregnancy to be charged with criminal assault. Or Mississippi—the state that, along with Alabama, may be the subject of the most Southern-smearing jokes—where voters defeated a “personhood” amendment in 2011. And that was a fight that few thought could be won.

Even so, people from outside America’s “nether regions” write off entire swaths of the country as backward. This issue has personal resonance for me: I grew up in North Carolina, a state that has swung wildly between being New South, meaning better economic prospects and less racial animus, and Old South, meaning states’ rights, a nostalgia for slavery, and massive resistance to civil liberties. Like Indiana, my state also voted for Obama in 2008—not a perfect indicator of progressivism, I concede—and then voted in a full statehouse of rogue Republicans at the next midterm election. This general assembly wasted no time in giving us arguably the nation’s worst voter suppression law and slipping abortion restrictions into unrelated laws literally in the middle of the night. As these legislators shredded the social safety net and our hearts in one fell swoop, my well-educated colleagues from points farther north would say to me, “How can you live there?”

For one thing, because it’s home—and let’s not even talk about the classist assumption that everyone can just uproot themselves in pursuit of life in some more cosmopolitan land of milk and honey. And because I know that although North Carolina may be red now, the vagaries of politics mean it won’t be crimson forever. And because politicians’ actions don’t have anything to do with my integrity.

Meanwhile, there’s the emotional payoff for people who live in blue states. They get to have a superiority complex purely due to accidents of geography and the perception that their largely Democratic governments are for the people. In fact, blue states aren’t even all that progressive: To use but a few examples, Oregon recently floated a 20-week abortion ban, and Rudy Giuliani’s regime in New York City and its “tough-on-crime” stance should disabuse notions of metropolitan progressivism when it comes to criminal justice.

And this kind of faux concern hurts more than just feelings—though I don’t want to disregard feelings, either. Yes, there are real differences between the reddest and the bluest of states, and many of those differences have to do with the types of families deemed ideal and acceptable. But saying “that’s just how they are out there” makes it easy to ignore these “marginal” states and difficult to build deep and sustainable relationships across regions and between grassroots, state, and national organizations.

It means that people who live in red states, who are often keenly aware of how others see them, may wonder if blue-staters can be effective partners; navigate our cultures with relatively few assumptions and missteps; and believe that we’re smart enough to know what it is we need. It means that potential supporters and funders are more hesitant to collaborate for the long haul with local organizations, which are often starting out behind in terms of resources, social capital within and outside of their home region, and infrastructure.

So there are far better questions to ask residents of red states other than those that amount to “Why don’t you just move?” or “What’s wrong with you people?” Instead, ask those that recognize the agency and variety of viewpoints from people in these states: “What do you think about the controversy?” “What are various takes on this issue in this state?”

Or let’s go one better: “Who’s working on this issue in your state?” followed by, “What can people outside your state do to help, if you want it?” That, to me, is much more helpful and productive—and a way to enact real change rather than falling back on tired stereotypes and suggesting mass migration to California and Canada.

Analysis Abortion

What Would Change If ‘Roe’ Were Overturned?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Forty-two years after the Supreme Court's historic decision affirming a woman's right to choose an abortion, access to reproductive health care remains out of reach for a majority of Americans.

Read more stories commemorating the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade here.

Anti-choice activists have never hid the fact that they want Roe v. Wade overturned. Now, 42 years after that landmark decision, with legal challenges to pre-viability abortion bans from states like North Dakota and Arkansas circulating in the federal courts, Republicans in Congress intent on passing similar federal restrictions, and an anti-choice majority on the Supreme Court, their wish has never been more likely to come true. That’s a terrifying thought, yes, but can we honestly say we’d notice?

If Roe were overturned and states suddenly had the power to re-criminalize abortion, would clinics be forced to close overnight? If the implementation of HB 2 in Texas is any indication, that answer is yes, at least in many parts of the country. States like Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota already have laws on the books that would automatically criminalize abortion should the decision be overturned. Meanwhile, 11 other states, including Arkansas and Wisconsin, have pre-Roe laws criminalizing abortion that are still technically in effect and could be resuscitated following a reversal. 

Would women face prosecution for stillbirths? Well, jury selection begins this week in the case of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman facing contradictory felony charges of neglect of a dependent and feticide after Patel admitted to hospital staff that she’d delivered a fetus she believed to be stillborn. So that’s already happening.

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In fact, it’s hard to think of one of the many nightmare scenarios of what life would be like in a post-Roe world that isn’t already taking place somewhere in this country. As of 2013, according to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of the states qualify as “hostile” to abortion rights, meaning they have at least four reproductive health-care restrictions on the books. Meanwhile, a federal appeals court is currently giving serious consideration to the argument that fetal viability begins at conception, because during in vitro fertilization a fertilized egg can “survive” on its own for a few days prior to implantation.

It’s worth noting that if the federal appeals court buys that argument, it would set the stage for the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade—and possibly reverse it for good.

“Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in Gonzales v. Carhart, the 2007 Roberts Court decision that upheld the federal ban on “partial birth abortions” by granting lawmakers the latitude to “pick sides” on matters that they determine to be in “scientific dispute,” like when a fetus can feel pain or if abortions cause cancer.

“While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” Kennedy wrote.

Forty-two years after Roe v. Wade, it’s Justice Kennedy’s infamous “abortion-regret” passage from Gonzales that perfectly sums up the state of abortion rights jurisprudence in the federal courts today. Instead of decisions grounded in science and fact, the courts continue to reinforce motherhood as some mystical state of being—a “phenomenon,” to borrow Justice Kennedy’s words, that defies measurability by “reliable data.”

In other words, celebrating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade is tricky business. Before Roe, 30 states criminalized abortion outright while others, like Washington and New York, had much more liberal access to abortion servicesOn the one hand, the decision remains a historic recognition of the fundamental legal autonomy of women and the limits on state power to regulate our most private areas of life. On the other, abortion-rights advocates today face a largely hostile and conservative federal judiciary, which appears more willing than ever to roll back all historic civil rights achievements, including reproductive rights.

The abortion-rights landscape is an ever-shrinking map of concentrated access in urban centers and “blue” states. Thanks to the Hyde Amendment, poverty remains a primary indicator of who can and cannot access abortion care in this country. And thanks to decades of targeted campaigns by anti-abortion radicals who disguise themselves as soft-spoken grannies looking to counsel lost, wayward patients, providers must navigate increasingly treacherous waters just to do their jobs.

When I look at the myriad efforts by anti-choice advocates to undermine abortion rights—everything from “personhood” measures dressed up as so-called heartbeat bans, to restrictions on medication abortions that jail women like Jennifer Whalen, to attacks on family planning services and contraception access—I no longer see Roe v. Wade as a tale of victory for abortion rights. Instead, I see it as a tale of caution: Just because the courts say the right to an abortion exists does not make it so.

Instead of expanding on the basic premise of Roe—that no state has the power to make the ultimate determination for whether a woman continues a pregnancy—the federal courts have spent the last 40 years limiting that premise and endorsing obstacles like the above, which place abortion access out of reach for most of the country. Instead of creating a Roe doctrine that builds on that decision and recognizes the fundamental right to be free from state-compelled pregnancy, the federal courts have created a Roe hypothesis, where a right to abortion exists in theory with no discernible way to access it in reality. Instead of fully embracing women’s legal autonomy, they opened for debate the merits of rape exclusions in abortion bans and reinforced the social stigma surrounding all women’s sexual and reproductive health-care decisions, but especially abortion.

It’s not that this country risks going back to the patchwork of laws in place before Roe. It’s that, in too many ways, we never left.