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The Criminalization of Women’s Bodies Is All About Conservative Male Power

The goal of the wave of anti-abortion laws in America is to put female sexuality under strict and brutal state control.

JOHN AMIS/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s start by acknowledging that women are not things. Before we talk, like we have to, about what the attacks on abortion access mean for this anxious, awful political era, let’s establish as a ground rule that women are not vessels, or incubators, or an undifferentiated natural resource. Women are human beings whose human rights matter.

This week, 25 white men in Alabama decided otherwise. In a sadistic nationwide legislative binge against women’s basic reproductive rights. Draconian new anti-abortion measures have also won wide margins of approval in Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri. This has been coming for a long time. It’s all part of a strategic  frontal assault on women’s right to choose, a deliberate ploy to overturn  the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling upholding abortion access as a constitutional right in the United States. These laws are not about whether a fetus is a person. They are about enshrining maximalist control over the sexual autonomy of women as a foundational principle of conservative rule. They are about owning women. They are about women as things.

Here’s what it comes down to. Right now in Ohio, there is an a 11-year-old child who was abducted, raped, and made pregnant. It’s easy to see, by any sane moral measure, how a regime that forces a child to carry this pregnancy to full term and give birth is monstrous, heartless, and immoral. And it’s just as clear that a state that threatens to kill that child unless she bears that pregnancy to full term and gives birth is morally equivalent to the rapist—taking away that little girl’s agency, declaring that her pain is unimportant, that she has no right to decide who has access to her body.

But the crucial connective point, the point that gets shunted to the side in the culture-war rhetoric of abortion outrage, is this: It is equally monstrous to inflict the same punishment on a woman in her thirties who doesn’t want to be a mother just because the condom broke on a Tinder hookup. She, too, deserves bodily autonomy. She should not have to beg for it just because some religious extremists and Viagra-addled Republican lawmakers are frightened of women who fuck freely and without remorse. Seen in this light, forced-birth extremism is the logical extension of rape culture.

“Abortion kills babies” is an article of faith on the American right. The millions of voters who have grown up hearing nothing else are not lying when they say they believe life begins at conception. They are entitled to that belief, as long as they don’t weaponize it to punish strangers. The question of whether a fetus is a person is conveniently unanswerable. The question of whether a woman is a person, however, is not up for debate—and it is female personhood, not fetal personhood, that should decide the issue of basic bodily autonomy.

The mere fact that an abortion is taking a life—if that is truly what you believe—is not enough to justify jailing little girls for getting one. There are plenty of situations where American law permits one individual to take a life: home invasion, self-defense, membership in the armed forces. Now, I happen to believe, along with 58 percent of Americans and most medical professionals, that terminating a pregnancy in its early stages is no more murderous than a biopsy. I happen to believe that a six-week-old fetus with a heartbeat but no limbic brain activity is less sentient than what most Republicans eat for breakfast in any of the constitutionally carnivorous states of the American South. But my personal feelings about the meaning of life don’t matter here. As the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson put it, what matters more—far more—is women’s freedom to control their own lives.

Even if abortion ends a human life, forcing a woman to give birth against her will is worse. No state should be empowered to do so at the point of a gun, just as no state should be empowered to kidnap a person and drain off pints of their blood so that someone else can get a transfusion. That’s the course of action that’s morally equivalent to this clenched fistful of misogynistic laws-in-the-making.

The Trump regime was given the keys to the nation’s capital by white evangelicals mostly on the basis of a promise to criminalize abortion. Now Republicans across the country are gleefully delivering on that promise, because they like power and want to keep it, and because it makes them feel big and tough to confiscate basic human rights from pregnant people. I say “pregnant people” here because, of course, trans men and non-binary people can also become pregnant—but to parsimonious conservative pearl-clutchers, everyone who has a uterus is a woman, and therefore someone whose sexuality is by definition subject to state control.

Part of what it means to acknowledge the humanity of women is to treat them as political agents, and not walking wombs with the inconvenient habit of moaning about their personal preferences and material needs. The anti-choice Republican feeding frenzy comes from a deep conservative greed for social control. That’s why Tony Tinderholt, the Republican Texas state representative who is sponsoring a bill to make abortion an actual capital crime—again, so much for the “pro-life” position—says that the great social virtue of his proposal is to “force” women to be “more personally responsible” in their sexual lives.

The eventual aim here is to put women’s bodies under strict and brutal state surveillance across the whole of America. The same thing is happening across Europe—in Poland, in Austria, in Northern Ireland, in every polity where strongmen are elected by a population easily swayed by promises to put women and people of color in their proper place. They don’t put it like that, of course. They cosset their cowardly bloodlust in affected piety, soothe their base’s sentiments with concern-trolling about how all life is sacred—far too sacred to entrust to stupid, poor, and/or nonwhite women. Forced-birth extremists—I refuse to dignify a movement that makes a mound of women’s bodies and calls it the moral high ground with the moniker “pro-life”are not yet brave enough to make their position clear. So it’s up to the rest of us to have the guts to say what we mean.

I believe there should be no legal restrictions on abortion whatsoever.

Right now, that’s an extremely unpopular position, but I don’t see why it should be. I don’t see what’s unreasonable about regulating abortion like any other medical procedure—if we work on the basis, again, the women are not things. Criminalizing abortion makes female sexual agency a crime. That is what it is designed to do; it is very much the point. Give the Tony Tinderholts of the world some small credit for candor: They’ve come forward to confirm that what they actually care about is that they’re here to punish slutty slutbags who think they can just have sex without being afraid of the consequences. And they’re also here to ensure that the consequences will be nine pounds of raw screaming need, delivered at gunpoint in the shadow of the electric chair. If such measures weren’t about punishing women for having sex, the rank hypocrisy of the few remaining “exceptions for rape and incest” would ring out even to Republicans pickled in their own precious self regard.

We live in a society that is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence, but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex. This is why there are vast swathes of society who are comfortable giving vast executive and judicial power to men credibly accused of sexual assault—as long as those same men promise to confiscate women’s power to sexually self-determine.

Female sexual freedom is the basic moral outrage that unites the religious right and libertarians convinced that the state should shrink until it’s small enough to slip into a woman’s underwear in inarticulate rage. The appeal to “choice” does not work on people to whom women’s freedom of choice is a fearful thing. We are told that women who choose to have abortions for “social reasons”—i.e., because they simply don’t want to be pregnant—are selfish. Sure, some of them are, if “selfish” means actively choosing to prioritize your own needs and desires above those of a potential child. Selflessness should not be a legal duty imposed on women on pain of death or jail. Choosing to have a baby you don’t want to raise, to give it up for adoption, might make you a very nice person indeed. But women should not be threatened with imprisonment and death for not being nice enough.

The biggest lies about women’s rights are told by people who are trying to take them away. In anxious, violent times, when oppression is enacted under a deafening barrage of propaganda, it’s important to listen out for the silences. It’s vital to listen, in other words, to what’s not being said by those who are making the most noise.

The cacophony of outrage shapes itself around a painful silence, one that prevents us from pronouncing the actual stakes at play. We still can’t quite say that there are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to force pregnancy on a woman against her will. None. Because that’s a monstrous thing to do to a person, and women are people, not things.

Instead of affirming that essential truth, we are still arguing over when a fetus becomes a person and therefore worthy of dignity and protection. Six weeks? Twelve weeks? Twenty? We urgently need to be asking the far more pressing question of when women will be allowed to be people and therefore worthy of protection.

Two distinct legal persons with absolute rights to self-sovereignty cannot occupy the same body. Thanks to this deranged counter-moral calculus of moral deliberation, regimes of male supremacists and religious extremists around the world are now in agreement that a six-week-old clot of cells is more of a person than any adult woman. After all, that clot of cells might be the next Mozart, the next Mandela. The idea that a pregnant woman might be the next Mozart or the next Mandela, of course, does not compute.

This mind-bending determination to bring women’s bodies under maximum control, at all conceivable cultural costs, helps explain why this week’s actions have been so coordinated, swift, and brutal. After Alabama’s all-male senate majority voted to force women to give birth against their will, their counterparts in Georgia went further still, arranging to institute effective life sentences for abortion providers, while placing women’s bodies under strict and callous state surveillance. Indeed, the eventual aim here, beyond the repeal of Roe, is to put women’s bodies under rigid and brutal state surveillance across the whole of America.

It’s a race thing, too, of course, and it always has been. It was anti-choice evangelicals who—together with some carefully timed voter suppression—gave Brian Kemp his razor-thin, contested victory over Stacey Abrams, his black, female Democratic opponent. Across America and Europe, conservatives have been happy to trade away women’s freedom for a chance at power. Kemp is now delivering on the promise he made to white evangelicals—and Donald Trump, who is making increasingly manic mouth-sounds about babies being executed at birth, looks likely to do the same.

Sexual oppression and racial paranoia have always run together under the skin of the story America tells about itself. Any student of racial oppression can readily recognize the ruthless denial of agency, the deep and structural downgrading of persons into objects from the heyday of slavery and white supremacy. Indeed, the forced-birth movement in the United States has always gone hand in hand with white supremacy. Before abolition, white women were tacitly permitted to terminate pregnancies as they chose. In fact, the earliest case law regarding abortion was not designed to protect fetuses, but to protect women from shady doctors operating without licenses or a working knowledge of germ theory. There had long been folk remedies for ending an unwanted pregnancy, and the women who were punished for doing this were to a significant degree African American.

White male slaveowners, meanwhile, had absolute right to the bodies of black women, who were routinely raped and forbidden to prevent pregnancy. Any child born to a slave, after all, was a valued capital asset, the uncontested property of the mother’s “master.”

All of that changed after abolition, when white Americans suddenly began to panic about being outbred by nonwhite people. Theodore Roosevelt himself was one of the first public figures to use the term “outbreeding.”

Laws regulating abortion and contraception—especially for white women—were instituted along with programs of mass, enforced sterilization of black and immigrant women. Ideas of race, nation and territory have always been embedded in the anti-choice movement. “The U.S. subtracts from its population a million of our babies in the form of abortion,” Representative Steve King told a far-right Austrian magazine. “We add to our population approximately 1.8 million of ‘somebody else’s babies’ who are raised in another culture before they get to us. We are replacing our American culture two to one every year.”

There’s a very clear message here about whose lives matter. Texas legislators care so much about the sanctity of life that they have suggested the death penalty for women who get abortions. The state of Alabama cares so much about life that it executes more prisoners per capita than any other state; it had an execution scheduled for the day after Governor Kay Ivey signed the state’s abortion ban into law.

That’s not the only thing about the forced-birth movement that seems to stink of hypocrisy. People who believe that motherhood is precious do not rip toddlers away from their parents and keep them in sweltering cages at the borders. People who are concerned with the sanctity of life do not advocate for lethal firearms to be sold at every strip mall. People who care about the unborn do not torpedo legislation designed to ensure that the planet those kids inherit is not actively on fire.

For all these crushing moral contradictions, though, forced-birth extremists are not hypocrites. Underlying all of the pious and disingenuous cant of their crusade is a terrifying logical consistency. There is a common thread that cinches together border paranoia, military fetishism, and obsessive state control of women’s bodies. It is chauvinism on nightmare mode: a dark story told by frightened child-men about the right of strong fathers and stern paternal leaders to protect resources. And in that story, women’s bodies are a resource, one that men should be able to access freely. Women should not have the right to refuse men sex, or to abort the baby a man put inside her—sorry, I mean the baby God put inside her.

Is that too much? Am I getting too angry? We’re not supposed to get angry when we talk about abortion. An angry woman, more or less by definition, is a crazy woman and a crazy woman can’t be trusted with bodily autonomy, although apparently she can be trusted with a baby.

What we’re supposed to do is quietly and politely explain, even to the extremists grabbing major world governments by the privates, that banning abortion takes away autonomy, as if they didn’t know. Of course banning abortion takes away women’s autonomy. That is the point of banning abortion. That’s the whole point.

Making abortion illegal, after all, doesn’t stop it from happening. In nations where abortion access is restricted, they don’t have fewer dead babies—but they have a lot more dead women. Around the world, 5-13 percent of maternal mortality results from unsafe abortion. The point is to send a clear message that uppity hussies have been having their own way for far too long, and that there should be consequences. The point has never been that babies matter. The point is that women don’t.

We’re supposed to smile and be polite while our basic humanity is stripped away by old men who think little girls should be forced to bear children in rage. To survive in a time of patriarchy, you’re not allowed to speak plainly about how much it hurts to survive patriarchy. If you must speak of it, you speak softly. You don’t talk about anger. And you definitely aren’t supposed to talk about pain. Women’s pain is assumed to be invisible by design.

The strategy of patriarchal restorationists on the evangelical right has long been to strip women of human dignity, and to force them to bear unwanted children in rage and pain. We’re not supposed to talk about any of these ugly, grimy details: the pain, the blood, the tearing, the exhaustion, the insecurity, the poverty. We’re not supposed to talk about all the bitter, degrading things that go along with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood in an economy designed and run by men. No, we’re supposed to meekly wipe up the blood and the shit and spend exhausted weeks climbing stairs to nowhere in the gym to “get back” our “pre-pregnancy bodies.” If we commit the cardinal sin of having a pregnancy terminated, we are supposed to be ashamed, to whisper it, to make a show of shame—just as we are supposed to be ashamed of consensual sex, just as we are supposed to be ashamed of surviving rape.

It’s time to be completely clear. Forcing a woman to give birth against her will is morally equivalent to rape. It’s exactly the same logic of entitlement and abuse: Men get to control women’s bodies. Female sexual agency must be punished. Women’s consent does not matter.

This is not a moment to mince words. This is a moment for moral clarity. Women’s personhood is not conditional. Women’s sexuality is not shameful. The only shameful thing, the only thing that no citizen who believes even fractionally in freedom should tolerate, is a world in which women are treated like things.