Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ramblings on the South Dakota Law, etc.

I've been thinking some more about the recent legislation in South Dakota banning abortions in almost all cases, and about similar legislation that's moving through state legislatures across the country. Ohio is proposing an even more extreme statute, though Mississippi appears poised to become the second state to follow South Dakota's lead, and its right-wing governor, Haley Barbour, has unsurprisingly declared that he'll sign the bill when it crosses his desk. I've also been thinking about the fact that the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has now shifted even further to the right, and the newest justice, Samuel Alito, is now on record as having sent "a valentine," to use Max Blumenthal's term, to one of his strongest proponents, the virulently homophobic religious patriarch, James Dobson of Focus on the Family. In several prior posts, I stated that I was for a woman's right to choose, and more specifically, to have an abortion and to have one. More clearly, I believe that if a woman wants or needs to have an abortion, not only should the state should not restrict her in any way, but I also believe that the woman--all women--should have direct, unimpeded (i.e., no harassing fanatics, no waiting periods, etc.) access to safe, affordable, medically sound abortions in safe, affordable medical facilities, which should be accessible and available in each and every US state and territories. I connect these beliefs with my conviction that with improved comprehensive sexual and personal health education in late elementary and secondary schools, the widespread accessibility of safe and affordable medical and physical contraceptives, and the widespread availability of in-home, early stage abortifacient medications, the need for and prevalence of medical abortions will (continue to) diminish, though they should always be an available, affordable, safe option.

These beliefs undoubtedly place me on the far end of the ideological and political spectrum on this issue in the United States, though until recently I had two US senators (Lautenberg and Corzine) who agreed in principle and practice with these ideas, and a Congressperson (Menendez), now an interim Senator, whose abortion views seemed to be somewhat less liberal, though he is considered at the very least to be "pro-choice." (I should add that I have not ever voted for him, choosing instead the Green or Democratic Socialist candidates to his left--though in a contest where he'd be facing a Republican of whatever stripe and did not have a huge lead in the polls, I'd probably vote for him). Most of the sitting Democratic US Senators, and the majority of the Democrat US House Representatives, would consider themselves to be "pro-choice," though not, I imagine, pro-abortion, and some who are pro-choice (like Harry Reid of Nevada) affirm personal anti-abortion views, and so while they would not vote to uphold laws banning abortion outright, they have agreed to some of the array of legal restrictions that, as Keguro has repeatedly pointed out in his comments to my posts on this topic, all but make abortion unavailable for many women, especially working-class and poor women, and which also have, in conjunction with social and economic forces, endangered the survival of abortion clinics in numerous states. Nearly all of the Republicans in the Senate and House, I would venture, are not only anti-choice, but anti-abortion. Some are rabidly so (as are a few Democrats). A small number, like the liberal Republicans from the Northeast and Northwest, claim to be pro-choice, because they believe in access to abortions or because it's politically attractive, but if I'm recalling correctly, nearly all the Republicans in the Senate voted to seat two rabidly anti-abortion (among other ultraconservative views) Supreme Court Justices nominated by President Bush. The court itself is almost perfectly split between anti-and pro-abortion justices, with conservative, Catholic jurist Anthony Kennedy of California now near, if not in, the middle; and the executive branch has pushed an anti-abortionism since it took office in 2000. Thus at the federal level, one could argue that an anti-abortionist viewpoint holds sway, and is abetted, in the legislative branch, by "pro-choice" politicians who are not, in many cases, either in theory or practice, in favor of women's unimpeded right and access to safe, affordable abortions, let alone the presence of affordable medical clinics that perform abortions.

Many anti-abortionists (and even those with apposite and oppositive views) like to use the term "pro-life," but I have always tried to forgo that term because 1) most of the "pro-life" people I've come across, and in particularly major US politicians and leaders of many "pro-life" organizations, agree with the death penalty and have no problem with non-defensive killings in war (wouldn't this make them anti-life?); 2) most of them seem to show little concern for children, especially poor and working-class children, let alone people, who actually leave their mothers' uteruses; and 3) they aren't especially concerned with the fate of poor fetuses either, particularly in terms of pushing for better and more affordable health care for poor and working-class women and families.

Other writers, far more knowledgeable and theoretically grounded, in philosophy, the law, religion, and so on, than I, have laid all of this out before, so I admit that I may be repeating or mangling some of their ideas. A basic point that I used to see some critics making in the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of anti-abortion fanaticism, was how reductive and problematic the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" were. (And even "anti-abortion" and "pro-abortion" are problematic, but I'll stick with them for the purposes of this rumination.) The unpacking of the terms rarely occurs, particularly in the mainstream media, which is invested in slogans and simplicity in any case. I see there being a spectrum of views, but I want to focus on the most extreme one, because I think it's got the most juice right now and has for some time: absolute anti-abortionism, which is basically anti-right to abortion, anti-access to abortion, anti-abortion procedures, and pro-criminalization of the abortion procedures, the doctor performing it, and to the extent possible, the woman electing and undergoing the procedure. Absolute anti-abortionism has, I believe, gained supremacy within the larger discussion of abortion rights and restrictions, and its leaders and advocates have been able to direct not only the public discourse, but now pulls the strings in terms of not only some state legislatures, but the three branches of the federal government.

Because of Roe v. Wade and the 1973-2006 ideological constitution of SCOTUS, which issued decisions that have upheld the legality of abortion in principle if not in practice, people on the anti-abortion side initially decided to take an gradual incrementalist approach to making abortion inaccessible (if not illegal); on the legislative side, they would keep pushing laws to restrict access, penalize clinics and doctors performing abortions, implement waiting periods and constraints on minors, end comprehensive sexual education (and in particularly any discussions of abortion in schools), and underwrite "conscience" decisions on the part of religious and private hospitals, while also destroying the public hospital system (for other reasons as well), which once served as a site for abortion procedures. On the social and cultural side, they would foster an anti-abortion climate in the country (which led, during a long stretch in the 1980s into the early 21st century, of almost no movies or TV show plots involving characters choosing, let alone undergoing abortions), through a private and public machinery of anti-abortionist sentiment, through symbolic and real violence, and through the increased assertion of religious (though sometimes in secularized form in the discourse around "abstinence") anti-abortionist discourse across all media, inculcating a widespread societal doxa concerning discussions and representations of abortion (even if people by a statistically significant margin still believe in abortion rights). Economically, by legislatively cutting off public funding and abortions in public hospitals, by increasing financial burdens on abortion providers, and so on, they could push abortion providers out of business. (I am old enough to remember the Bill Baird clinics of two decades ago.) The result, again, as Keguro pointed out, was that while abortion is still legal--i.e. de jure--in all states, access to safe medical abortions has been, de facto, severely constrained in some places. For working-class and poor women it is in some states almost unavailable, or very difficult to access without hardship and delay (impeded).

But I think I realized back in the 1980s, beginning shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan, the increase in the murderous statements, and then actions, of some anti-abortionist fanatics, and this led me to conclude that this de facto situation was in the end not going to be enough for the anti-abortionists. The James Dobsons and Phyllis Schlaflys, and more broadly, the Roman Catholic Church and Mormon churches, other conservative religious sects, and the increasingly right-wing Republican Party, are in essence anti-liberals and anti-libertarians (and anti-neoliberals at that); they are anti-liberals even in the classic sense of this term (that is, anti-conservative and anti-classic liberals); their guiding principles lie in natural law and philosophy, authoritarianism and patriarchy (and in some cases in proto-fascism); their beliefs are not guided by reason in the least, but by externally derived moral values, usually but not always from religious tenets. They therefore were not going to be satisfied if, say, women in Mississippi had no access to safe medical abortions in their own state but could, theoretically hop on a bus and receive a safe, economically affordable one in Arkansas, or Missouri, or Texas. (Or if the entire South, save Florida, for example, banned abortions, get on a bus or train or plane to Illinois or Wisconsin or Iowa or Michigan, all of which would be less than a day away.) This is the current state of affairs. Because ultimately, the idea of choice would still remain available in theoretical form, as would the basic legality of abortions (even if there were no places to have them). So the plan had to become an all-out assault after the neoliberal, economically conservative and socially moderate Clinton presidency, with the election of someone who would use the SCOTUS selection process to appoint justices who, once on the court, weren't going to equivocate or look to changes in societal mores or foreign precedents, but take a firm, anti-liberal anti-abortionist view. (Clarence Thomas has libertarian leanings on some issues, but is firmly anti-abortion.) Once this occurred, the assault could then proceed at the state level (hence South Dakota), which would then allow a series of lawsuits to trickle up that would, ultimately in the view of the anti-abortionists, effect a federal ban. That way, there would be no outs whatsoever, except for wealthy women, who would be able to travel to Canada, the EU countries, or wherever they chose to have abortions, while most working-class and poor, and even many middle-class women, would not have this option.

Alongside this legislative and judicial assault on abortion would come attacks first on abortifacient medication, such as RU-486 and on the "morning-after pill." Given the Griswold decision upholding the right to contraception, the anti-abortionists have tried to (and in some cases succeeded) to expand the definition of abortifacience (which they have begun to do), with the result of keeping such medications from the market altogether or severely restricting access to them, while also pushing for "conscience" options for pharmacists not to prescribe them (which led Illinois's governor to direct the passage of a law preventing this). But the long-term goal, which might not exactly be so long-term anymore, would be to ban medical contraceptives, including the pill.

We are now witnessing the second part of the anti-abortionists' all-out anti-liberal assault. South Dakota's position is resolutely anti-abortion; all abortions are banned, including in the cases of rape and incest (or the combination). While this would and ought to be unreasonable to most people (certainly most women, I would imagine), and while Survey USA's September 2005 poll on abortion views suggests that in South Dakota the pro-anti dichotomy is very close (49% of South Dakotans hold "pro-life" attitudes, while 47% hold "pro-choice"--which explains the refusal to allow a popular referendum on the issue), the anti-abortionists see this extreme position as the best option. South Dakota's law is the first in the anti-abortionist experiment to see how far the state-by-state ban plan can go, and what outer limits (such as criminalizing interstate commerce in abortion, etc.) might be established in the process, with the ultimate aim of provoking a fairly draconian federal ban. The goal would be a kind of anti- Lawrence v. Texas, by which I mean, a blanket ruling in the reverse anti-liberal/anti-libertarian direction (and that law may not hold if Bush gets to appoint another SCOTUS judge.)

For the anti-abortionists, taking a conservative "states-right" or libertarian viewpoint is insufficient, because what might result would be a legal state-by-state patchwork that would certainly include a handful of states that allowed unfettered access to (Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island) and perhaps even public funding for abortions (Vermont) to states with laws with varying degrees of restrictions (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland), as is currently the case, to states where there was an outright blanket ban (as South Dakota has legislated, and as Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi want to join). Indeed, wouldn't conservative "states' rights" demand this? Instead, by forcing the hands of SCOTUS, a federal ban would achieve the ultimate goal--negating once and for all the concept of choice as it's construed, as well as the far more pressing issue of legality. The only choices for many (most?) women would be as they were in the pre-1973 period: have the baby or have an unsafe abortion.

This brings me to the following point that I've been mulling over, which is: how do and can we, in collective fashion, advance a liberal, progressive position--in philosophical, socioeconomic and practical terms--on this topic (and so many others) into the public sphere in a climate in which the discussion and discourse have shifted so radically to the right, employing rightist rhetoric and memes, and in which there appears to be no political body or viable political parties or forces through which to open up, charge and change popular discussions and viewpoints, and eventually laws in liberal-progressive ways concerning abortion, and other issues of concern to those on the left? Must we reach the point, as Keguro suggested in, of a striking down of Roe v. Wade and an outright ban to reformulate the discussion and recharge the progressive legislative process? But then, if that die is cast, would it be possible to roll it again? (Think about 1976 SCOTUS Gregg v. Georgia ruling overturning the 1972 Furman v. Georgia anti-death penalty ruling--that institutional abomination continues in states across the country, despite the increasing prevalence of DNA testing undergirding studies that demonstrate the effects of prosecutorial and police malfeasance and incompetence leading to wrongful convictions, and the overall societal-wide fall in crime. The 2004 Roper v. Simmons ruling was a step in the right direction, and Kennedy was the deciding vote.) I was mentioning to C. last summer that in terms of the popular mainstream media, the only TV channel that I could think of that treated the issue of abortion with complexity, and that actually presented a scenario in which a woman underwent an abortion without negative psychological, emotional and physiological results, was MTV. But MTV alone won't and can't do it. It shouldn't, and in any case, media representations alone are no substitute for grass-roots and large-scale political and sociocultural work. MTV's logic is the ((neo-?)liberal?) market(place), and not political action and praxis. The Democratic Party, at least as its currently constituted, and particularly as its been yoked around by the conservative-leaning/neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council, offers few options at the national level. They have repeatedly capitulated to the extent that we are no longer near the center of this debate, but on its far right edges. So what to do? That is the pressing question....


  1. "The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity."

    You know, as this new tape comes to light showing that Bush knew well beforehand about the devastation Katrina would wreak, and having told the hot lie that he didn't know in front of the whole world, and yet we still yawn and turn front page of the paper to the funnies, I'm going to have to side with Keguro. I do think we (Americans and the rest of us living here) will have to go straight to the bottom, ie. be legislated out of all of the freedoms and perks of civilization we've become accustomed to, before we collectively go, wait a minute; this isn't cool. Of course the question then will be, as you say, will there be any going back?

    Kai in NYC

  2. It's a chilling time. Georgia is overturning the law in degrees as I imagine most states will continue to do, now proposing a law that requires doctors providing abortions to take a sonogram of the fetus and offer to show it to the still expectant mother prior to performing the abortion. Another bill proposes that pharmacists have to right to refuse to fill prescriptions for RU486 (the morning after pill). At the same time it looks like Georgia will become a part of the first group of states to pass the new "Shoot First" laws whereby if you are acting in a legal fashion and are threatened in what you perceive to be a threatening manner you can shoot the person, and if you feel yourself to be in mortal danger shoot to kill. While one Black woman state senator commented that this was a recipe for disaster ([D] Savannah - whose name I cannot find) because it could turn into the word of the living shooter versus the dead "and we all know the dead can't talk" this one is passing. So many contradictions, it is mind-boggling. Reading your post, I wondered if small pockets of folks are in training, studying the work of JANE, readying themselves for if and when Roe v. Wade is overturned.