Whatever word there is for a feeling of utter non-surprise is necessary to describe my reaction to the news, reported Wednesday morning by the Huffington Post, that Scott DesJarlais, a Tennessee congressman who has aggressively voted against abortion rights and contraception access, pressured one of his many mistresses 12 years ago to abort a pregnancy. What would genuinely surprise me is hearing a story about an anti-choice politician who, out of sincere belief in the sacredness of fetal life, urged a mistress to keep a pregnancy. Having a former partner in adultery mother your bastard children does tend to hurt campaign donations, after all.
Calling DesJarlais a hypocrite is a fun way to spend an afternoon, but the sordid tale’s real value is in demonstrating what’s really going on with the anti-abortion movement. Anti-abortion politicians will often speak of abortion bans as “ending abortion,” even though everyone but perhaps a few sentimental Christian teenagers knows that making abortion illegal simply drives it underground. As DesJarlais’s case shows, attacks on abortion (and increasingly on contraception) serve a different purpose: Putting men in a position of power over women. But that doesn’t sound as good as waxing poetic about “life,” which would explain why they rarely talk about it in those terms.
The biggest difference between legal and illegal abortion isn’t how often it happens, except insofar as abortion tends to be more common in countries that heavily restrict it. No, the biggest difference between legal and illegal abortion is who controls abortion, and therefore who has power over women’s bodies and lives. Prior to Roe v. Wade, if a woman wanted a safe abortion, her best bet was having a wealthy man to help her. Women rarely had the connections or the financial ability to set up illegal abortions with reputable doctors for themselves. For women who weren’t the mistresses or daughters of wealthy men, it was either take your chances on the black market or have the baby.
Conservative men’s anger at having lost control of these matters comes across clearly in the transcript of DesJarlais’ phone call with his former mistress. He insists repeatedly that she owes him this, claiming at one point she is solely to blame for the pregnancy. When she insists on her right to make the final decision in an attempt to get some concessions from him, he loses his temper. As a listener, you finally begin to understand the conservative male longing to return to the abortion laws of the 50s, when a pushy mistress could be controlled with the threat of social ruin and the promise of granting her access to a safe abortion.
Of course, you can never really go back. We live in an era of affordable pregnancy tests, and women control much more money than they did then. Banning abortion wouldn’t suddenly shift all this power back into male hands, as women of means would probably just create the connections to safe providers themselves. All a ban on abortion would really do is hurt poor women, with no material benefit for men at all.
Still, in our modern age where the conservative movement seems to be fueled mainly by the politics of resentment, such a Pyrrhic victory might be enough. Voters in DesJarlais’s district were made aware of his serious problems with women during the 2010, but he still beat the Democratic incumbent by 18 percentage points. Conservative voters may not be able to return us to the good ol’ days when women had very little power at all, but they can keep us from moving towards a future where women achieve actual equality.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and journalist. She's published two books and blogs regularly at Pandagon, RH Reality Check and Slate's Double X.