Last week, I wrote about the election shell game and Barack Obama's part in deflecting attention from the fact that there are few discernible differences between him and Mitt Romney.
Whenever I raise such points with Liberal/Democrat/Progressive/Left supporters of Obama, I am sharply rebuked. In both off and online conversations with them, they raise the kind of hysterical scenarios normally associated with rightwingers, but with a liberal twist. And, inevitably, as soon as I am identified as a woman, they raise the Roe v. Wade bogeyman: Under Romney, Roe v. Wade would be overturned! You will lose all your rights to abortion!
This is, of course, meant to strike fear in my heart. Matters are complicated by recent comments by Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock who, when asked about exceptions to abortion in cases of rape and incest, said, "I believe that life begins at conception and the only exception I have ... in that case of the life of the mother [sic] I struggled with it myself for a long time but I just came to realise life is a gift from God. I think ... that life begins in that horrible situation of rape. And it is something that God intended to happen."
The similarities between Romney and Obama became even more obvious in the third and final October 22 debate between the two men, with Romney merely echoing what Obama had to say. At one point, Obama succinctly expressed the state of affairs while discussing the "crippling sanctions" both men would impose on Iran:
You know, there have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you'd do the same things we did, but you'd say them louder and somehow that -- that would make a difference.
And it turns out that the work involved in setting up these crippling sanctions is painstaking. ...It's because we got everybody to agree that Iran is seeing so much pressure. And we've got to maintain that pressure.
After the debate, Democrats and progressives were, once again, crowing about their candidate's supposed victory. Yet, few pointed out that "crippling sanctions" are in fact exactly that: they increase hunger and anger amongst the poorest in countries that already see tremendous inequality, while elites learn how to survive. As Murtaza Hussain
points out, in an Al-Jazeera
op-ed, "The people of Iran will suffer potentially catastrophic harm as Iraqis did a decade earlier, while their state grows increasingly repressive and empowered relative to a poor and destitute population - a natural outcome within a command economy such as Iran's."
Glen Greenwald writes that, "the extreme human suffering caused by US-led sanctions is barely acknowledged in mainstream American political discourse." This explains, in part, why so many Americans are constantly baffled by the anger felt by so many against this country: the inability to understand that seeming abstractions like "crippling sanctions" have real effects upon the bodies of the most vulnerable abroad.
Video of Mourdock's statement has since gone viral, and his comment has caused anger among Democrats and deep embarrassment among Republicans. Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul promptly issued a statement that, "Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views."
In all this, there is a presumption of a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans: the former are seen as supporters of abortion rights while the latter supposedly oppose them. The crux of the coverage of Mourdock's comments relies upon the idea that his words are too much - even for Republicans. This controversy echos the furor over Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who infamously declared that women's bodies can prevent pregnancy in what he called "legitimate rape."
There remains, however one aspect of this controversy that no one has paid attention to: the views on abortion held by Mourdock's Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly. When asked for his opinion on the matter, Donnelly, who is Catholic, responded that he was shocked and that "[his] God would never do that."
As it turns out, Donnelly's position on abortion is in fact equally draconian: abortion only in the case of rape and incest. "I'm shocked that he would be so disrespectful to women, to rape victims and to their families," Donnelly continued.
No one seems to question the very fallacy of "only in the case of rape and incest," an intensely anti-abortion and anti-woman rule. And no one seems interested in the fact that both men's views on abortion are nearly identical. The only difference appears to be in the relative benevolence of their gods.
According to a 2004 Guttmacher Institute study, only 1% of abortions come about because the woman is a victim of rape and less than 0.5% become pregnant as a result of incest.
I want to be clear: 1% and 0.5% are still dreadful statistics - no one should have to suffer either rape or incest. My point is that liberals like Donnelly, many conservatives like those who have criticised Mourdock, and a wide swath of the abortion rights movement hold on to the rape and incest exception as if it can explain away their anti-abortion stance. But when you only support 1% or 0.5% percent of abortions, you are supporting none at all.
In effect, the proud proclamation of the exception by candidates from both parties makes it seem like the only reason women might even want abortions. But 74% of women have abortions because children would alter their lives to an unacceptable degree, 38% because they feel they are done with childbearing, and 73% because they simply can't afford to have children.
This is, in fact, the truth that women understand but few will acknowledge publicly: childbearing is not for everyone, and the decision not to go through with a pregnancy is not necessarily marked by physical or even mental trauma.
In the worldview of Donnelly, these are unacceptable reasons. His concern about the disrespect supposedly shown by his Republican opponent only extends to those he can cast as helpless victims.
In 2008, I reviewed two books in a joint review because, together, they exemplified the issues of access and privilege that over-determine abortion and what the left likes to call "reproductive choice." Elizabeth Gregory's Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood is about a phenomenon she calls "later motherhood," of women having children, either biologically or by adoption, in their forties and beyond.
Susan Wicklund's This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor is about her twenty years of experience as an abortion provider and the changing landscape of abortion rights. Wicklund's clients are rural pregnant women in need of abortions in a world where clinics sometimes remain only for only a few days a month. Gregory is the Director of Women's Studies and Professor of English at the University of Houston. Her book draws from a small sample of 132 women, all of who share her privileged background. (1)
Wicklund writes about her own alienating experience with abortion, with cold instruments and colder nurses, and her subsequent resolve to ensure that she could provide women in similar situations with a far more supportive atmosphere. But, as we know now, abortion rights have, by law, become increasingly restrictive and onerous for poorer women in particular. For many, the fight for "abortion rights" is entirely meaningless.
In sharp contrast, Elizabeth Gregory's Ready is optimistic to the extreme. She sees a brave new world where birthing technologies and adoption opportunities make for a perfect world where anyone (in her social class) can become a parent. It never occurs to her that women might not want that chance; it's clear she feels that having children is the ultimate mark of adulthood. She quotes one of the women exulting over her choice to have children later in life, "I could never have shown up [for them] in my twenties because I was too busy trying to show up for myself."
Gregory's book cloaks reproduction in terms of choice and technology. Wicklund provides a stark look at the realities of reproduction from the other side. Her book gives us the perspectives and experiences of women for whom giving birth might be an unwanted experience but whose rights to terminate their own pregnancies are increasingly being eroded by the very economic system that Gregory celebrates so joyously.
Elizabeth Gregory shouldn't be held directly responsible for the world that Wicklund inhabits, but it's symptomatic of our effacing of the realities facing most women that a book about reproduction is so blissfully unware of the socio-economic circumstances surrounding the issue of choice: Who gets to choose to have children? Who gets to choose to terminate a pregnancy?
Placed next to each other, these two books provide unsettling insights into a climate where the ability to reproduce and the ability to cease reproduction are mired in a complex entanglement of access and privilege. Motherhood emerges less as a privileged and natural process of adulthood and more as an experience mediated by women's gendered relationships to inequality.
In other words: Abortion as a "right" is pretty well over for women in this country and the conversation around abortion is clouded by a discourse that celebrates increased access to reproduction (including adoption) for the privileged few.
As someone who practically grew up in Indiana, I understand too well what Republican policies on abortion look like. We glory in conversations about giving female faculty or high-ranking lawyers the right to parental leave, and about covering in vitrio fertilisation in insurance plans. In the meantime, most women lack any access to abortion clinics. In Chicago, where I live, Planned Parenthood only provides abortions at one location, and access to anywhere else is difficult or expensive for the average woman.
If you're not someone with really exceptional insurance or private resources, your chances at a quick and safe abortion are greatly reduced. "Except in cases of rape and incest" is a coward's way out, a blanket refusal to grant women autonomy over their bodies but it is a result of Democrat pandering to the rising Right as much as a result of the rise in conservatism more generally.
In the case of the Mourdock controversy, the searing indictment of one man while ignoring the politics of the other is the best example of how warped this entire election is. Yet, Mourdock is at least more honest about his view; he simply made the mistake of invoking a different kind of god on his side.
"Except in cases of rape and incest" sounds innocuous, but when it comes time to demand and get an abortion just because you want to have one and move on with your career and life, or because you don't care to have kids in your life, you won't give a damn about whether the guy who denies you your right thinks pregnancy from rape is okay or not.
The spirited discussion and agreement between Obama and Romney about "crippling sanctions" helped us forget that both men were effectively calling out for increasing the suffering of millions in unjust wars. "Exceptions in the case of rape and incest" does the same thing to Mourdouck and Donnelly's war on women's rights.
To put it bluntly: both men would rather see women die than have abortions because they wanted to.
(1) Some of my previous review of the books is echoed here.