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The Abortion Amendment

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | November 10, 2009

There are plenty of reasons that I find the inclusion of a restriction on payment for abortions in the proposed health care bill outrageous. But I think pro-choice Americans have some thinking to do. I don’t want to suggest that we have brought the sad state of abortion rights upon ourselves, but I do think that the rhetoric of the movement might have been handled better – and that, at the very least, we should rethink the way we frame our position.

But before I get to that, there is one thing about the amendment that I am having trouble understanding. I gather that the success of the amendment was due in no small part to heavy lobbying by the American Conference of Catholic Bishops. I guess the disestablishment clause of the first amendment was repealed when I wasn’t looking; but even so, I had been under the impression that lobbyists had to (a) register as such and (b) pay taxes. Why is this not the case for the Catholic Church?

My feeling right now is that reasonable people in Congress must vote against the bill unless the amendment is deleted – not “modified,” but deleted. I realize that that is a difficult position to argue – first, because passage of a health care plan is essential, and second because failure to pass such a measure is likely to weaken the Democrats in 2010 and 2012. I am aware of these arguments, which are very probably true. But they do not, for me, outweigh a deeper truth and a greater necessity: the acknowledgement that women are human beings.

I might feel more conflicted than I do if the bill under consideration even came close to anything I would have liked to see. Let’s not even utter the words “single payer” (heaven forfend!), but at least a meaningful public option, one not so supportive of still greater profits for insurance and Big Pharma. But since it is unlikely that any bill that passes Congress and is signed into law will resemble anything that will really reform health care in this country, I don’t feel as torn as otherwise I might. Something to consider on this score is this: the mediocre is the enemy of the good-enough, and if we pass this mediocre bill, we will lose the will to try for anything better. If liberals in Congress ever do try to pass a stronger bill in the future, the response will be, “But we already have one….why bother?” and that will be the end of it. So if you want a health care plan that will change the way America provides health care, there are reasons to hope for the failure of this bill, with or without the amendment.

What about the second argument – that passage of the present act is necessary if the Democrats are to retain control of Congress in 2010 and the Presidency in 2012? Let’s assume that this is true (although its passage might give Republicans in weak-Democratic districts an advantage). Yes, I would hate to see a President Palin. But we need to look toward the long-term future. Is the Democratic Party, as presently constituted, a party that represents the real interests of many of its most committed constituents?

The willingness of “liberals,”  including female liberals like Nancy Pelosi — to jettison women’s concerns and cozy up to the Church answers that question. The party permitted – I mean encouraged – a shockingly misogynistic discourse around the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2008: that should have been a wake-up call. Well, Obamania suppressed our instincts. But now it’s time to think seriously about whether this Democratic Party is your Democratic Party, and if not, act accordingly. Liberals have to rethink their traditional wimpiness: what have we gotten for it? Condescension and contempt, that’s what. It is time for liberals, and especially liberal women, to rethink our allegiances.

It is also time for us to rethink our rhetoric. For thirty years we have framed the pro-choice position as being about our right to control our bodies. Yes, of course that is part of what “choice” is about – but really understood, just a small part. By adopting this rhetorical position, we have allowed the opposition to argue on behalf of the “competing interests” of another putative human being, the fetus, as though the fetus had rights not only equal to, but morally superior to, those of the woman carrying it. To offer such an argument is to imply that women are not really human – that their rights are properly superseded by even a creature that is not quite alive and not quite human. And if we fully understand what both the pro-choice and pro-life positions are really about, we can see that that assumption goes much further than abortion, and is far more evil.

It is evil to demote one group of persons to a less-than-human status. Hence slavery is evil, and hence misogyny is evil. And make no mistake, “pro-life” is a position of misogyny. I hear its proponents whining. Well, when they stop referring to us as “butchers” and “baby-killers,” and cease to permit their speakers to encourage the murder of doctors, I will rethink my language.

Why misogyny? Because the anti-choice position is not about reproductive choice alone. That is merely its most obvious and arguable position (the latter because of the claim of the fetus’s human status and competing interests). Really the anti-choice position is precisely that: the intent to deny women the right and ability to make choices generally, since choice involving the use and function of one’s own body is the most salient choice we ever make. If that is denied, all other choices become meaningless: we become creatures who cannot choose. And to be human is, first of all, to be able to make choices.

So the battle over reproductive rights is just the camouflage for a much more consequential fight. If we let the bill pass with the amendment, it will signify that we accept our secondary status, that we are willing to let people speak for us who do not share or even understand our deepest concerns.

I think women’s humanity outweighs health care, important as that is. I think it outweighs Democratic victories in the next two election cycles, important as those are. I think it is time for reasonable people to change their frames, their rhetoric, and their allegiance.