If you had time to keep up with the news last week, you almost certainly heard the tale of Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. Rep. Murphy got himself caught up in a scandal, and unfortunately for him, it was just the sort of scandal that the media and the public love to talk about – not only was it a sex scandal, but it was a sex scandal that exposed Murphy as a big time hypocrite.
But this post isn’t about Rep. Murphy or his hypocrisy. What happened with Rep. Murphy is just a pit-stop on the way to what I really want to talk about.
So just to lay the groundwork for anyone who might have missed it, here’s the story on Republican Congressman Murphy: Last week, it was revealed that Murphy, outspokenly anti-choice and a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, had urged a woman with whom he’d been having an extra-marital affair to have an abortion when he thought she was pregnant (it later turned out she was not pregnant). Text messages between the two backed this up.
The same day this news broke, Rep. Murphy voted in favor of a House bill that would ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks (the bill passed the House by a vote of 237 – 189, mostly on party lines). The story received a fair amount of attention in the conventional media, and lots of attention on social media. So the next day he announced he would not seek reelection for another term, and then just a day later, he announced he would resign from Congress effective almost immediately.
Of course, there’s already been lots of ink spilled over Murphy’s behavior. But there’s one op-ed I want to focus on in particular, because a point the author made led me to thinking about the bigger picture – something that’s bothered me about the abortion discussion for years, and which I now have an opportunity to raise here. The article was the Sunday Review op-ed in the NY Times by Jennifer Weiner, The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Conservative Men.
Weiner starts by laying out the case of Rep. Murphy, and then she points to another similar story, from a few years back, of GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee. DesJarlais has also presented himself throughout his political career as being staunchly “pro-life.” But in 2012 it came out that DesJarlais – a doctor – had pressured a patient with whom he’d had an affair to have an abortion. He had also urged his ex-wife to have two abortions before they were married. Rep. DesJarlais is still in Congress, having been reelected in his ruby red district two times since then. (Perhaps it’s not only the politicians who are hypocritical).
Weiner makes the point that these men who argue that the fetus “is a child not a choice,” and that “all life should be cherished and protected” seem to believe those things only as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them. If the unborn baby might embarrass them or threaten their political future, suddenly an exception should be made. From this Weiner concludes:
It’s almost as if these men don’t really believe that every time sperm and egg combine, the result is a child worthy of being cherished and protected. It’s almost as if these men are fighting to make abortion a crime because they’re more invested in curtailing women’s options and controlling their bodies than they are with saving innocent lives.
Weiner makes her point effectively and with bursts of her familiar wit. But there’s a larger point that she doesn’t get at – the reason I wanted to write about this topic: we don’t need these hypocritical Congressmen to be exposed in order to understand what these anti-choice laws are truly about (for the vast majority of the anti-choice crowd).
It’s true as Weiner says, these laws are about controlling women’s bodies. But it goes even further than that – they’re about punishing women for having sex for any reason other than procreation. If a woman has sex just for fun, then she deserves to be forced to live with the consequences of those actions. And here’s how we know that’s what it’s about – it’s actually right there in the very first line of Weiner’s article: “There are a few, rare exceptions that abortion opponents tend to allow to their hard-line rules: rape, incest, life or health of the mother . . .”
Think about that for a minute: if you genuinely believe – whether it’s because your religion teaches it, or it’s just a moral feeling you’ve come to on your own – but if you truly believe that those unborn cells are a living being and that abortion is therefore murder, why would you make exceptions for rape and incest? If you believe “all life should be cherished and protected” why would killing an unborn baby be justified just because it was conceived in a traumatic way?? (For example, while running in the presidential primary in 2015, Lindsey Graham said, “I would never tell a woman who’s been raped she’s got to carry the child of the rapist.”).
That doesn’t make any sense. Unless – unless – your anti-abortion stance isn’t actually about saving unborn lives, but is actually about punishing the would-be-mom for her reckless and/or immoral actions. In that case, it would make perfect sense to have an exception for a woman who’d been the victim of rape or incest, because under those circumstances, the pregnancy is not her fault. She didn’t behave badly, so there’s no need to make her to live with the consequences.
And I know this is not a popular argument to make. Of course people who are pro-choice (which I am, avidly) prefer that when anti-abortion politicians push draconian anti-abortion laws that there are at least these sorts of exceptions included. Obviously any human being can understand why it would be traumatic to be forced to bear a baby that was conceived under horrific circumstances like being the victim of rape or incest. So I’m certainly not arguing in favor of forcing women into that situation. Please, be clear on that.
But there’s simply no intellectually honest way to argue for those exceptions if you believe that abortion is murder. (Compare this, on the other hand to the “life of the mother” exception, which you can rationally argue for, as it is about protecting life. Though, many of the people who oppose the rape/incest exceptions also oppose this exception).
So while I am staunchly pro-choice – in fact, it was one of the main reasons I first became a Democrat, because I just couldn’t fathom the idea of a bunch of men (mostly) telling women what they could & couldn’t do with their bodies – I have a lot more respect for the pro-life politicians who don’t allow for these exceptions than I do for the rest of the “pro-life” crowd.
But most anti-choice politicians do include these exceptions in their anti-abortion laws. And that’s why it’s always been abundantly clear – long before a Murphy or a DesJarlais let their dirty laundry become public – that the main strain of the anti-abortion movement in this country is really about punishing women for having sex.
1. Just in case we need further evidence that conservatives’ goal has little to do with preventing abortions, the Trump administration had impeccable timing with the announcement this week that it’s reversing the Obama administration’s birth control mandate. The Trump team couches this move in terms of religious freedom, but their rule goes far beyond anything that’s required by the First Amendment. The new rule even says that any employer (or university or insurance company) that has a moral objection may refuse to cover birth control. And there is no approval process or burden of proof that the organization must go through. They can simply decide they disapprove of covering birth control and then stop covering it.
And there is sound evidence that access to good birth control options – especially when they’re provided for free – significantly reduces the rates of unintended pregnancies and abortions. So if lowering the number of abortions in this country was the true goal of those on the conservative side, they’d be applauding and attempting to further Obama’s efforts on the birth control front. Instead they’re completely shutting it down.
2. One might argue, as this article from the conservative National Review does, that “pro-life” politicians allow for these exceptions to their abortion laws because they know that it would be politically untenable to do otherwise, i.e. abortion restrictions with no exceptions are just too unpopular. But this too makes no sense. Yes, it’s true that it would be unpopular. But again, if these lawmakers genuinely believe that abortion is murder, then how can they make such an argument? Imagine saying “We’re going to outlaw murder, but I know that a lot of people would really, really like to be allowed to murder an innocent bystander under certain special circumstances . . . so we’ll allow it.” Any politician who can make this political calculation can’t truly feel in their heart of hearts that abortion is murder – they clearly have a different motivation for their anti-choice views.
It would be more consistent to say what Marco Rubio said during the presidential primary debates, which is that he favors a ban on abortion with no exceptions but that he would be willing to sign a bill that has exceptions because he believes it would still saves lives:
If I’m president and there’s a bill that’s passed that saves lives but it has exceptions, I’ll sign it. But I do believe deeply that all human life is worthy of the protection of laws. I’ve already said, for me, the issue of life is not a political issue and I want to be frank. I would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life.