Huh?! The Rhetoric of “Responsibility” Among Anti-Abortion Agitators

When it comes to arguments against abortion, “pro-life” zealots are so… creative. There are the “scientific” arguments: The US House of Representatives, for example, recently passed the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” which would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks. (In fact, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, fetuses lack neurological capacity to feel pain until at least 24 weeks, at which point most abortions are prohibited.) There’s the claim that abortion is dangerous (actually, it’s 10 times safer than childbirth). That it causes breast cancer (false), infertility (false), and something called “post-abortion syndrome” (false again).

Like climate-change deniers, anti-abortion extremists are happy to ignore science when it’s inconvenient, and invent their own, alternative facts when it suits, with government officials leading the way. Never mind that contraception and comprehensive sex education have been unambiguously proven to reduce unintended pregnancy (and thus the need for abortion); the Trump administration has moved to deny women contraceptive coverage, and to funnel almost $300 million into abstinence-only sex “education.” Proof, shmoof! It’s this kind of creative thinking that’s bringing us back to the Dark Ages.

But to continue. Some anti-abortion advocates like to employ what I call the “damsel in distress” arguments, e.g. the claim that most women are pressured into having abortions by their partners (false). Or the claim that women, poor benighted creatures, simply don’t know better, and would never have an abortion if they knew the joy of having children (false; according to the Guttmacher Institute, 59 percent of women seeking abortions are mothers already).

And of course, there are the “moral” arguments: Only irresponsible, young things seek abortions (in fact, more than one-third of US women, from all walks of life, will have an abortion before age 45.) Women who seek abortions deserve “some form of punishment” for doing so (thank you, President Trump). Abortion is a sin (except when you’re a congressman and your mistress needs one; hello, House Pro-Life Caucus member Tim Murphy). The fact remains that humans will continue to pursue their individual reproductive goals, as they have from time immemorial, using a variety of means, from contraception to abortion.

Of course, reproduction involves men, too. So where are their voices around this issue? Aside from in politics, I mean, where women only constitute around 20 percent of elected officials. We’ve seen the photo of Congressional lawmakers, all men, discussing a healthcare plan that would eliminate maternity care from health coverage. On a more local level, between 2011–2015, state legislators enacted 288 abortion restrictions.

These, sadly, are our elected officials. But where is everybody else — the bulk of men, the majority, who are decent and sane? Who will speak up as half of the biological equation? Who will use language, not of censure or degradation, but of co-responsibility and support?

I’m always on the lookout. So when I saw a Facebook post from a man named Justin Reeder exhorting “men in our culture to MAN UP and STAND UP for women,” I was cautiously optimistic. Yes! Men as feminist allies! Would “manning up” entail… supporting pay equity? Speaking out against violence against women? Advocating for parent-supportive workplaces? Working to ensure contraceptive access? Shutting down sexist jokes? So many possibilities! A girl can dream, can’t she?

Unfortunately, I’d missed the last part of the sentence: “MAN UP and STAND UP for women and the unborn.”

Ah.

In fact, Reeder is the founder of “Love Life Charlotte,” a group that works with churches and individuals, “uniting and mobilizing the Church to create a culture of love and life that will bring an end to abortion in Charlotte in 2017.” (He’s almost there: as of 2014, according to Guttmacher Institute, 90 percent of NC counties had no abortion provider at all.)

LLC’s aim is “not to shame or condemn, but to show the culture that it’s time for men to stand up and start taking responsibility for their actions.”

So what, according to the group, constitutes a “responsible man” vis-à-vis “the unborn?” Reeder’s website is short on details, but the crux of his strategy seems centered around weekly Prayer Walks to the local clinic, A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte, which provides pregnancy tests, counseling, and abortion services to women in need.

At least overtly, the group rejects violence against women and providers. As per its website, “We ask you not to engage with anyone at the abortion clinic. If you prefer more interaction and believe that is what you’re called to, you can receive proper training through one of the pro-life organizations.”

Now there’s a chilling thought. Because while LLC may advocate non-violence, “pro-life organizations” in general are not known for their pacifism. In their quest to save the fetus, anti-abortion groups have had no problem sacrificing the lives of women and medical staff, and have shown themselves willing to engage in murder, arson, bombing, acid attacks, and shootings (see the National Abortion Federation’s website for statistics). According to a Feminist Majority Foundation poll, almost every clinic — 91 percent — experienced some type of anti-abortion “activity” (violence, threats, and/or harassment) in the first half of 2016, with more than half enduring overt acts of hostility at least once a week.

Politely asking marchers to refrain from “engaging,” while at the same time encouraging them, if so moved, to receive further anti-abortion “training,” is not responsible. It’s reprehensible.

And disingenuous. Because, as anyone who has ever visited a women’s health clinic knows, there are plenty of ways to sow fear and chaos without overt violence. Consider the Men for Life Prayer March staged by LLC this past June. Approximately 600 (mostly) men arrived at the parking lot of A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte. The linked-arm mob spilled out into the street in front of the clinic, chanting, praying, and bellowing religious and anti-abortion rhetoric through a microphone. Loud Christian music reverberated. One man operated a drone. Another protester, who had issued a death-threat against the clinic director the month before, was there, brandishing a poster of a fetus. Incredibly, despite Charlotte’s legally required 30-day permit application process, LLC applied for and received a permit only a few days before.

These moral crusaders were there to spread their “message of Love and Life” to incoming patients… as if these women hadn’t considered, or agonized, or themselves prayed, over their decision to end their pregnancy. As if they just needed some good, old-fashioned religious mansplaining to distinguish Right from Wrong.

It’s too bad LLC can’t extend to clinic patients the, yes, compassion it extends to another group of women: those who “choose life.” For women who forego abortion, LLC runs a mentorship program, and offers a 50+-page compendium of local resources on such topics as adoption, childcare, counseling, domestic violence, education and literacy, housing, financial assistance, employment, legal help, and parenting classes. The group’s stated commitment, “to stand beside families as they navigate difficult circumstances,” seems sincere.

In this sense, LLC is filling a void. The US is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate paid leave for new mothers. Women still earn only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women comprise the bulk of domestic violence victims, yet shockingly weak federal gun laws enable many domestic abusers to hang onto their guns. The list goes on. In a culture that provides so little for struggling families, women in particular, LLC’s impulse is commendable, the best side of Christian charity.

But for women who decide, for whatever reason, that they cannot responsibly bring a child into the world, and that abortion is their most, or only, feasible option — I hesitate to say “choice,” because it’s too light and frivolous a word for a decision that is anything but — for these women, LLC has a very different message: We are the moral authorities here. We know better than you. And we will deny your autonomy as a human being in order to make our point.

“Taking responsibility” for one’s actions means owning all of one’s actions, not just a cherry-picked few. While LLC’s recognition of the multiple supports needed by new mothers, and its decision to aid these women, are laudable, its refusal to recognize the validity of other women’s experience, and its harassment and dehumanization of these women, are despicable. All the good deeds in the world don’t negate the reality of what’s going on in clinic parking lots across the country: the intimidation and harassment of other human beings, the fomenting of an atmosphere of hostility and aggression, and the creation of an opportunity for and invitation to violence against women; the endangerment of medical staff; and that tired old trope, the perversion of religion into a tool of aggression and shame. Who’s taking responsibility for these actions?

Such toxicity does not flare up in a vacuum. It needs the oxygen of the larger culture to fan its flames, and anti-women actors indulge in the ultimate deliberate willful ignorance when they ignore their own role in normalizing, contributing to, and exploiting the destructive heat simmering in the culture at large. This is a culture, after all, where lawmakers are able, in 2017 AD, to require that women obtain their impregnator’s consent for an abortion (Arkansas Act 603, currently facing a court challenge). Where a lawmaker can refer to women as “hosts” and not get drummed out of public office. A culture where… Trump.

What’s so disappointing about the language of “responsibility” is that there is a place for truly responsible men in the context of abortion. Of course there is! After all, “women’s issues” don’t just affect women; they affect women’s partners, children, and families. They affect public policy, violence in society, the economy, and other large areas of human co-existence. Women’s issues are human issues, and the more humans of all genders who realize that, the better.

Yet Reeder has reached his own, truly bizarre conclusion: “The truth is,” he says, abortion “is more of a man’s issue than it is a woman’s issue.”

It’s the perfect epigram for our current Orwellian universe of “alternative facts,” and a reminder that, while anyone can now say anything, just speaking the words doesn’t necessarily make them true.

Juliet Eastland is a writer with strong feelings about many issues.

Writer with many strong opinions.

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