There’s a tendency among prominent anti-choicers to speak elliptically of their beliefs, knowing that straightforward statements of hostility to sex and women’s rights tend to run ordinary people off. But occasionally one of them gets a little slack and ends up saying to the public at large the sort of things they usually try to say only to each other. That’s how Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant ended up saying on the radio recently, “[T]he true hypocrisy is that [liberals’] one mission in life is to abort children, is to kill children in the womb.”
This is like saying that the only reason policymakers and public health professionals want to ensure access to emergency rooms to treat victims of accidents and traumatic health events is because they like people to become victims of accidents and traumatic health events.
The question that comes to mind for the non-idiotic when contemplating a statement like Bryant’s is, “Does he really believe that garbage? Does he really think that abortion is some amazingly pleasurable experience that pro-choicers do for no other reason than to do it?” I’m going to go out on a limb and say no, that Bryant is lying here about what he thinks pro-choicers believe. The reason I can say that with some assurance is that everything else in his entire rant was a lie. Bryant made this statement in the middle of an extended claim that new and pointless restrictions on abortion in Mississippi are about protecting women’s health. Literally no one actually believes this. Both anti and pro-choicers know that the new restrictions are about shutting down abortion access in Mississippi, which actual experts in women’s health routinely point out is bad for women. Since every other word in Bryant’s speech was a lie, it’s safe to say that his claim to believe that pro-choicers are all about “abortion parties” is also a lie. Pure B.S. is the lingua franca of the anti-choice movement.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn anything from this sort of right wing fantasizing. While Bryant doesn’t literally believe that pro-choicers want to abort every pregnancy, I do think this statement reveals the utter terror and hatred of feminism, particularly of feminist demands for women’s sexual liberation, that is at the heart of the anti-choice movement. Knowing that “abort/kill children” is hysterical anti-choice code for “have sex on your own terms without apology” helps translate Bryant’s nonsensical rant to one that actually makes sense and gets to the heart of what he’s actually saying. It is, in fact, true, that most progressives want to make sure that every woman can have sex on their own terms without apology.
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That shouldn’t seem so terrifying to conservatives, but it clearly is. It has been terrifying to conservative forces throughout history and across cultures, so there’s no real reason to be surprised or skeptical that we have that problem in the United States. By ensuring access to safe, legal abortion, the government ensures women have a right to sex without facing unwanted consequences. That kind of validation of women’s right to be free, independent human beings is and always has been what this war is over, which is why anti-choicers have to create this elaborate code language to talk about their views. In this country in 2012, it’s just politically unfeasible to state outright that you think it’s better to keep the patriarchal boot on women’s necks.
This is why I doubt that Republican Party leaders are going to be able to put a lid on the overflow of misogyny we’ve been witnessing for the past couple of years now know as the War on Women. It’s hard to say in the short term why these past couple of years have seemed like the breaking point for reactionaries, causing them to lose all sense of what they look like when they pass pervy trans-vaginal ultrasound laws, attack access to contraception, and fight to kill the Violence Against Women Act. But if you step back and look at the big picture, why they’re so upset seems crystal clear: All their worst fears about feminism are coming to pass.
The hope of conservatives who rose up against feminism in the seventies is that they would be able to kill it off. All other concerns were secondary; they knew that the social effects of feminist victories wouldn’t be felt for decades after the initial waves of legal reform and widespread social agreement that women do deserve equality. Well, even though they did major damage to feminism, they did not, in fact, kill it. What they feared has come to pass: Women are making exactly the gains feminists of the second wave hoped they would: Rape and domestic violence rates are down, contraceptive use is up, women are delaying marriage and childbirth, more women are going to college than ever in history, women are popping up in leadership roles in government and media, and heterosexuality is becoming less compulsive. Any fool can see that most of this wasn’t possible without women gaining control over their reproductive systems. Realizing they’re losing, conservatives are making a big last stand to turn back the clock by taking this critical control away. The fear of female sexuality feels hysterical, primal even, but if you’re dedicated to patriarchy, it actually makes perfect sense to fear letting women control their own sex and reproductive lives. Even though it’s politically damaging to the Republican Party to let this outrageous war on women continue, for conservatives, giving up right now feels like losing forever.
This leaves feminists in an ambiguous position. On one hand, the absolute panic on the right over women’s rights should remind us that we are the ones in the right, and we are the ones who are winning the culture war, regardless of how many backlash-y pieces news magazines may run. But on the other hand, the tide of history is creating massive desperation on the right. Clearly, they are willing to do anything to turn back women’s gains, which is why any adherence to basic honest was abandoned years ago. That kind of desperation can be very dangerous, and we should not underestimate its power.