Attempting to Criminalize Abortion Is the GOP’s Greatest Show on Earth

Republican carnival barkers say stillbirth is just like a day down on the farm.

Ah, how the rings in the GOP circus of woman-hating cruelty do expand. As if the Amazing Sanctimonious Santorum weren’t enough of a headliner, with his mind-melding feats of lame-brained moralizing (not to mention his Supreme and Startling Selective Memory); as if the All-Male-Birth-Control-Panel-Kickline-Revue didn’t just knock your socks off; as if the personhood amendments and aspirin-between-the-knees lunacy and the freakshow that is and ever will be Rush Limbaugh hadn’t already caused you to puke your guts up like you just rode the Scrambler. No, it ain’t over yet folks, because now here’s the Georgia legislature with a delicious little bill, HB 954, which outlaws abortion after 20 weeks (Roe v. Wade protects legality up to 24 weeks) unless the fetus is diagnosed with an abnormality “incompatible with sustaining life after birth.”

In such cases, the bill allows for abortion only if the fetus first emerges “alive.” That’s right: If (and many fear when) this bill goes into law, a mother in Georgia with an abnormal pregnancy will be forced to undergo a major Caesarean section surgery, or even experience the agony of natural birth, just so that her non-viable fetus can enter—and promptly leave—the world, free of pain it is scientifically incapable of feeling.

But don’t fret, ladies of Georgia. Representative Terry England knows exactly what you’ll be going through when your government forces you to give birth to a stillborn child: “Life gives us many experiences … I’ve had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive. Delivering pigs, dead or alive. It breaks our hearts to see those animals not make it.”

P.T. Barnum himself couldn’t have dreamed this one up.

Then again, maybe he could have. Anti-abortion legislation in America didn’t officially go into effect until 1880; and in 1881, Barnum and Bailey unveiled the world’s first-ever three-ring circus. That year was a big one, it seems, for white men interested in capturing the public’s attention, and in creating well-produced, provocative and entirely diversionary exercises in capitalistic gain.

That year, 1880, the year of abortion’s criminalization, may come as a surprise—pro-family/pro-lifers seem determined to convince us all that the wholesome family values upon which our country was founded gave no quarter to feminist baby-killing. But abortion in the first four months of pregnancy was legal—and common—in the United States of our forefathers, and common (if not legal) right on through the turn of the century; some estimates put abortion rates in Victorian America at two million per year. In fact, as Leslie J. Reagan demonstrates in her book When Abortion Was a Crime, the first regulations against abortion, passed in the 1820s and ’30s, were really poison-control laws; drugs for “bringing on the menses” were so common in colonial-era America that recipes for herbal remedies could be found in most home-medicine guides.

Strangely it was the American Medical Association that first campaigned to criminalize abortion—a move calculated in large part, Reagan argues, to assert the supremacy of medical professionals (surprise surprise, a bunch of mostly white men) and discredit the midwives and homeopaths (who, it can hardly be overstated, were almost uniformly female) who traditionally provided women with abortion remedies and procedures.

The other major factor in America’s first anti-abortion crusade was, Reagan posits, immigration. And here’s where the historical parallels between the War on Women 1880 and the War on Women 2012 get eerie. At the turn of the 20th century, as Katha Pollitt puts it in her review of Reagan’s book for the Atlantic:

Immigration, especially by … nonwhites, was increasing, while birth-rates among white native-born Protestants were declining. (Unlike the typical abortion patient of today, that of the nineteenth century was a middle- or upper-class white married woman.) Would the West “be filled by our own children or by those of aliens?” the physician and anti-abortion leader Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868. “This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”

According to the CDC, birth rates among Hispanic women in the U.S. were 93.3 per 1,000 in 2009. Birth rates among White/Non-Hispanic women that same year: 58.5 per 1,000. Suddenly it’s a little clearer which kind of family it probably is that Rick Santorum is so desperate to defend.

And this is the thing about this whole pro-life vs. pro-choice, conservative vs. liberal, blue vs. red abortion debate: It isn’t really about abortion. Or anyway it’s never really, fundamentally been about life or choice or the pain a bundle of cells is or is not capable of feeling. (Though while we’re briefly skirting the subject, what about all those fetuses lying around in petri dishes waiting for in vitro fertilization, huh Georgia? Aren’t they also the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Go liberate them from their pain!)

But I digress: The conflict over abortion has, from its earliest moments, been about control. In moments like this Great Recession, like the 1880s, a “Progressive Era” Christine Speer Lejeune harkened to so eloquently—in moments of national insecurity and upheaval, the dominant power structure begins scrabbling for a stronger foothold. The issue becomes, like all great struggles in our great capitalist nation, one of power—which means, quite literally, who controls the means of production. We women have a monopoly on baby-making; our bodies are, in a sense, our means of production. With immigration a national issue in every walk of political and social life, and the racial makeup of our nation projected to shift drastically (the Pew Research Center estimates that the percentage of Hispanics in the American population will have risen from 14 percent in 2005 to 29 percent in 2050), is it any wonder that women are still warring with the dominant white male patriarchy for the right to govern our own bodies?

No, it isn’t. The real wonder is the showmanship of it all, the mind games employed with such effect to distract women from the realities of our own inequality. Mark Greif, editor-in-chief of n+1, puts it this way in his fascinating essay for that publication, called “On Repressive Sentimentalism”: “Domination depends on the beauty of ‘sex with consequences,’ the pleasure of sex with consequences, to guarantee commitment to the family-centered fold … a beautiful inequality mentally structured by childbearing and the determination of your life course by the consequences of desire … If desire fails to pull people back into patriarchy, patriarchy’s arsenal is diminished.”

It’s a radical notion, I admit: that, as Greif intimates, the pro-family/pro-life doctrine co-opts “Women’s straight desire and wish for love and pleasure” and feeds it right back into a self-contained patriarchal family system—a system of inequality that circumscribes women’s roles as child-rearers while leaving men and men alone subject to Rick Santorum’s precious “freedom.”

But is it really any more radical a notion than the idea put forth by our old friend Terry England? You remember: that women are socially equivalent to livestock? That the pain and suffering of a breathing, thinking human being should be subordinate to the theoretical comfort and well-being of a collection of X and Y chromosomal material bundled with some cells and swirling around inside of her?

Mr. Barnum had a name for this kind of absurd, sensationalist and terrifyingly inhuman display, meant solely to distract you from the lie—the Merwoman or Bearded Lady—you were being sold at five cents a ticket. He called it a sideshow.