When I was back in high school — a Catholic girls’ school in Cincinnati at the beginning of the sexual revolution — our religion class covered the abortion issue in approximately 45 seconds.
“Abortion is murder,” said the priest who was giving the lesson, before moving on to more controversial topics, like necking and heavy petting. I still have a vivid memory of being marched into the auditorium for a lecture from a visiting cleric who assured us that when Jesus was dying on the cross, he was tortured by a vision of the sins of mankind — notably adolescent girls “making out with boys in the back seat of a car.”
Now, that was a long time ago, and the bottom line was at least clear and consistent: no sex except for married couples who want to have babies. You don’t hear that specific message too much in today’s political debates about reproduction, but as a way of thinking, it’s most definitely still there.
On Wednesday the Senate failed to pass a Democratic bill supporting women’s right to choose in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision going in the other direction.
During the debate, Republicans claimed most Americans are opposed to late-term abortion, while Democrats noted that polls show the public wants abortion to be a matter between a woman and her doctor. Easy to imagine both being true — most people are uncomfortable with the idea of ending a pregnancy when the fetus is well developed, but there’s long been a deeply reasonable yearning to keep the government out of a matter so private and personal.
It’s pretty clear where we’re going. The Supreme Court’s Trump-constructed majority will reject the by-now-longstanding understanding that a woman has the constitutional right to decide whether she wants to end a pregnancy. In at least 13 states, laws banning abortion could kick into place almost immediately.
Welcome to the land of my high school religion classes, people. The governor of Mississippi, when asked whether the state would move on to a ban on contraception, said, rather unnervingly, that it’s “not what we’re focused on at this time.” And the dreaded Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn has denounced the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which covers the use of contraceptives for married couples under the constitutional right to privacy.
Blackburn says Griswold is “constitutionally unsound.” Not the only unnerving position — when Republican candidates for Michigan attorney general were asked about Griswold in a debate earlier this year, they didn’t seem to know what it was about. (One pulled out a mobile device to look it up while another complained, “I didn’t know we could have our phones up here.”)
Anyhow, the question is whether states that are able to ban abortion will march further into anti-birth-control territory. There’s bound to be a next step. The many, many activists who have focused their political careers on constraining women’s sexual activity aren’t going to just declare victory and go home.
In Louisiana, lawmakers are considering a proposal to classify ending a pregnancy at any point from the moment of fertilization as homicide. And the Idaho State Legislature may hold hearings on outlawing emergency contraceptives, a reminder that when we’re talking about “states’ rights,” we should think about trusting your fate to a roomful of state legislators.
All this is basically about punishing women who want to have sex for pleasure. It’s a concept with a long tradition in American history. Back in 1873, Congress began to pass a series of laws prohibiting dissemination through the mail of birth control literature, drugs or devices. Later, when a journalist asked Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Commission on the Suppression of Vice, whether it would be all right for a woman to use contraceptives if pregnancy would endanger her life, Comstock snapped: “Can they not use self-control? Or must they sink to the level of beasts?”
OK, the current debate is probably not going to get quite that far. But it’s important to note that the policies we’re talking about here are basically a matter of legislating the religious beliefs of just one segment of the public.
The goal of the Democratic Senate bill was mainly to get the public focused on the reproductive rights issue before the fall elections. And that certainly couldn’t hurt. There have to be voters out there who aren’t all that geared up about going to the polls but who might be moved if they got to hear the speech by Republican Steve Daines of Montana that praised anti-abortion laws as being similar to ones “that protect the eggs of a sea turtle or the eggs of eagles.”
Those sea turtles have been coming up a lot in this debate. Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma, in a long, emotional speech, recounted a confrontation with abortion rights demonstrators who pointed out there was a difference between laws protecting a woman’s right to choose and laws protecting endangered species.
“And I’m called the extremist,” Lankford declared. He added, “If people call me a radical for believing children are valuable — so be it.”
Actually, people call Lankford a radical for believing that the reproductive experiences of female water-dwelling reptiles are comparable to the experiences of human beings whose offspring will need and deserve many years of constant care and concern in order to prosper.