Exploding the Apparent Conservative Hypocrisy on Abortion and Other Private Matters—It’s Deeper than Paradox

The latest from La La Land: rationalizing exceptions to anti-abortion laws as “not an abortion” after a ten-year-old Ohioan, raped by 27-year-old illegal immigrant Gerson Fuentes, crosses state lines to obtain an abortion in Indiana.

In a House hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Catherine Foster, head of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, told Congressman Eric Swalwell she didn’t think terminating a pregnancy constitutes an abortion when it involves a ten-year-old rape victim.

“If a ten-year-old with her parents made the decision not to have a baby that was a result of a rape, if a ten-year-old became pregnant as a result of rape, and it was threatening her life then that’s not an abortion,” Foster told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Catherine Glenn Foster, President and CEO of Americans United for Life speaks during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, July 14, 2022.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines abortion as a “medical intervention provided to individuals who need to end the medical condition of pregnancy.” An abortion is a medical procedure. The definition doesn’t change when a child needs one.

The specifics of the case at hand are horrifying. The young girl was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The mother is reportedly carrying Fuentes’ baby. She appears to deny Fuentes is the rapist; however, the child identifies him as the perpetrator, Fuentes has confessed to the police, and the state of Ohio has charged Fuentes with felony rape. The mother, who maintains that the accusation against Fuentes is a lie, appears to have lied herself in telling medical staff in Indiana that the father was 17-years-old.

Ohio has banned abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat, which occurs at about six weeks into pregnancy, a point long before quickening, which is the traditional mark of fetal life. Ohio does not provide exceptions in cases of rape or incest. The girl therefore had to travel to Indianapolis to obtain an abortion. Not satisfied with his state having provided the appropriate medical care to the little girl, Indiana’s attorney general indicated that he plans to investigate Caitlin Bernard, the doctor who helped the girl get the abortion.

Not all anti-abortion activists agree with Catherine Foster’s take. James Bopp, lead attorney for the National Right to Life Committee, told Politico that the girl should have been forced to carry the pregnancy to term, citing model legislation he authored as NRLC’s general counsel. Several states are adopting the NRLC’s model “She would have had the baby,” said Bopp, “and as many women who have had babies as a result of rape, we would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.”

In Protecting the Lives of Women: Addressing Counterarguments Concerning Reproductive Freedom, I note the plight of an Argentinian child forced by the state to give birth. In a case otherwise highly similar to the Ohio case, authorities denied an abortion to an eleven-year-old rape victim. The victim attempted suicide twice upon learning of her pregnancy and was placed in state care as a consequence where she underwent a Caesarean section in the twenty-third week of her pregnancy. The baby died a few days later. Clearly, this young girl did not understand the reason and benefit of having the child.

In Segregating Liberty by Sex and the Matter of Religious Freedom, I observe that several hundred women die each year in the United States as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications. I go on to argue that, while folks portray pregnancy as if it presents no risks to girls and women, the condition does present serious risks to the mother, including death. Moreover, pregnancy affects almost every aspect of a woman’s life. To force any woman to bear a child is unjust; to deny a ten-year-old child an abortion is horrifying.

The understanding among those whose conscience is not distorted by the pathologies of authoritarianism that this case challenges the anti-abortion argument explains Foster’s rationalization. She cannot reconcile her anti-abortion position with the real-world consequences of her activism. Her’s denial is a textbook instantiation of cognitive dissonance. Bopp’s take is a textbook manifestation of the authoritarian personality.

A popular cartoon by Nick Anderson

Let’s drill down a bit further on the hardcore anti-abortion standpoint to understand all this. I’m sure you’re familiar with this complaint from progressives: “Why do conservatives care so much about fetuses in the womb but not about babies after they’re born?” The complaint is well illustrated in Nick Anderson’s famous political cartoon shared above. However, the contradiction is only apparent. The problem with America’s brand of rightwing conservatism is not hypocrisy; it’s a deep loathing of girls and women.

The apparent contradiction evaporates as soon as one recognizes that conservatives use both cases to run down women they shame for having sex and being poor, sentiments that come with assumptions about who is seeking abortions. The conservative attitude towards either those who have pregnancies they didn’t want or those saddled with children they didn’t want is that both are just deserts for having had sex (whether they wanted it or not). A ten-year-old rape victim doesn’t fit the underlying narrative, and so many conservatives are struggling to explain themselves. Not all conservatives speak with the callousness of a James Bopp (but many do).

Don’t be fooled by rhetoric. Conservatives have written and spoken about Margaret Sanger and the classist and racist program of reducing black fertility through contraception and abortion. There are concerns to be found there. But when conservatives make the case that Planned Parenthood aborts a disproportionate number of fetuses carried by poor and black women, they don’t care that such women are disproportionately affected by family planning clinics; they mean to saddle vulnerable populations, disproportionately black, with unwanted children, keeping them mired in poverty, and then shame them for resort to public assistance. Their’s is a countermovement against the freedom of women to live autonomous, dignified, and self-directed lives.

To understand right-wing conservatism one has to understand the source of moral desire that lies at the heart of their atavistic worldview. It is one of controlling others at the most personal level based on moral understandings derived from the perversions of religious devotion—perversions independent of what scripture actually says (see Abortion is Not Murder. At Least According to the Bible. It’s Not Even Criminal).

The authoritarian and punitive sentiments undermining rightwing conservatism are not unlike those underpinning fundamentalist Islam. Indeed, cosmetics and fashion aside, today’s Christian conservatism represent something of an American version of Islamism. Like fundamentalist Islam, rightwing conservatives loathe sex-for-pleasure (at least publicly) and women generally, whom they view as inferior and subordinate to men. Women are the possession of men in both worldviews.

This loathing lies behind opposition to abortion as much as it does the cloaking of women’s bodies in public in many majority-Muslim countries. That there are conservative women in the West who embrace these controls alongside the men in their communities does not obviate the fact of them. Oppression may be deeply internalized. False consciousness is a powerful force governing the lives of those who rely on faith-belief for spiritual guidance and emotional needs.

It is not just women who suffer under fundamentalist religious traditions. The loathing of homosexuality common to religious conservatives everywhere is obvious, even if the mechanisms to achieve control over homosexual bodies differs. But for America’s strong secular culture, there would probably be very little difference between how conservative Christians in the West and Islamic activists, such as ISIS, deal with gay men. It seems like every other day, some preacher in some church somewhere in America rants about the biblical punishment for homosexuality (it’s death, for the record).

Denied his theocracy, the conservative’s call for putting same-sex marriage to a popular vote is a wish to use majorities to deny a man his right to marry the man he loves. The same is true for his call for putting abortion to a popular vote. These are both expressions of the tyranny of the majority, in this case a majority guided by primitive religious belief.

Both Christian conservatism and fundamentalist Islam are profoundly illiberal in these and a myriad of others ways. As such, both are incompatible with the national culture that has guided the American Republic for centuries—however warped here and there by the factions that so worried James Madison (see The Supreme Court Affirms the Tyranny of Majorities).

The concrete reality of policing abortion reveals its totalitarian character. In the first place, whether a woman is pregnant is nobody’s business. It’s a matter between her and her doctor just as her cancer is—whether she talks about her cancer (or any other illness) openly. To prevent women from having abortions and punish doctors for performing them, the state must surveil both and dictate to them their actions concerning what ought to be a matter of choice and appropriate medical care for their situation. Not content with God’s all-seeing eye and punishment in the afterlife, the Christian conservative wishes to do the work of surveilling the intimate lives of women and punishing them for their choices himself.

As with all superficial moralists, conservatives are quintessential busybodies. Possessing a self-righteous and scolding persona, they fancy themselves moral entrepreneurs. They tell us that they want government out of our lives, but they have no problem putting the government in charge of those they loathe.

This desire to know and control women in every aspect of their lives is rooted not merely in the loathing of women as inferior, but in a loathing of sex for pleasure by others. Not far from any argument conservatives make about controlling the body of a pregnant woman is an argument that blames her circumstances on her sexual behavior, which they regard (often hypocritically) as sinful. This loathing of human sexuality also lies at the root of the loathing of homosexuality.

Conservatives want to tell women not just when they may terminate a pregnancy but whether they may prevent pregnancy at all. They want to tell poor women what foods they can buy, where they can live, with whom they may cohabitate. They want to determine who has sex with whom and who can marry whom. They want theocratic instruction in our public schools to raise up a generation who possesses the same loathings and desire to control others.

* * *

As I explain in Segregating Liberty by Sex and the Matter of Religious Freedom, that men have the right to defend life, liberty, and happiness but women do not—and women have the more profound experience since the fetus is literally inside their bodies—indicates patriarchal assumptions in opposition to abortion. Indeed, it testifies to the deep misogyny we see in the desire to shame women for their choices with respect to their reproductive capacity.

What explains these attitudes? What lies at the heart of totalitarian desire? The rightwing conservative is a primate who presents with a classic authoritarian personality: conformity to rigid and extremist ideology and destructiveness towards things that differ and dissent from that ideology. This pathology disorders cognition and conscience.

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm identifies the characteristics to this disorder decades ago in his landmark Escape from Freedom. The key elements are conformity, narcissism, necrophilia, and sadistic destructiveness. In sum, the authoritarian is a primate who seeks to control others and punish and even destroy those he cannot control.

The narcissism Fromm operationalizes is not self-love or an over-secure sense of self, but self-loathing and intense insecurity masquerading as belligerent self-confidence. Considering that Christianity depicts man as having been betrayed by a woman and forced to live his life as a lesser being under God’s judgment—a belief terrifying in the absence of knowledge of one’s ultimate fate—, the narcissism Fromm describes is the predictable result of the ontological uncertainty generated by this faith. Uncertainty is often associated with ritual and magical thinking.

To be sure, a lot of people have insecurities, but the authoritarian is an individual who takes pride in his ignorance and has little genuine love to give others—he puts his faith in another world and gives that dimension his love. Deep down he hates himself, for he is a sinner. He is unclean. He has taken to heart that he will always fall short of the glory of God. He envies that glory and so he takes it upon himself to chastise and control others in God’s name—even if the rule he evokes is not found in scripture.

Rather than learning and accepting and striving to achieve the beloved community, the narcissist demands attention for himself, insisting on acclaim for his righteousness, since the accomplishments he boasts about are superficial and self-serving.

Rage coupled with rightwing ideology, which is based fundamentally on hatred of difference, generates aggression, a sadistic desire to punish and destroy, either literally or symbolically, those who enjoy life differently from the sadist’s narrow and rigid ideas of the normality in which he wraps his anxieties. Sadism is about more than jealousy; it’s an intense hatred of one’s own self and one’s own life, which his religion has told him is worthless. He is moreover very likely to experience a material life not too superior to those he loathes.

This situation is what the existentialists called ressentiment, a French word conveying something more than resentment or envy. The sadist seeks to dominate others, and the ability to destroy is the ultimate expression of control. These are the bullies we knew in high school who picked on those they perceived as weak or different from themselves, who delighted in practical jokes of a hurtful nature, who, often high in emotional intelligence (a characteristic of sociopathy), knew exactly how to get to push emotional buttons. The spiteful are overrepresented among the conservative persuasion. The desire to control through majorities is a projection of sadistic desire.

By necrophilia, Fromm did not mean to convey a sexual fetish for corpses. Necrophilia is not simply a love of death, but a desire to suppress and in the extreme crush sentiment that signifies passion for humanity. The necrophilic loves things that are cold and mechanical: weapons of war (guns, tanks, armor, planes), prisons (cold hard steel and concrete structures and isolation), and hierarchy. Necrophilia flows from and reinforces missing or sharply diminished empathy.

This fetish is associated with a tragic cycle in which children damaged by authoritarian family structures impose their damage on their children. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Believe as I believe. And so forth. This explains the pull of Old Testament-style “justice” or lex talionis—“An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.” The easy advocacy of the death penalty and the reflexive celebration of authority in uniform fit easily alongside the hatred and loathing of women.

It is great concern that this attitude is found not in a handful of pathological individuals, but embraced by tens of millions of people. At present, polls show that near twenty million of our fellow citizens openly profess a politics that projects this pathology. And for every one of them, there are many more who are sympathetic. And the number of fellow travelers appears to be growing.

There is indeed a great divide in our nation. It’s a struggle between those who hate and those who love. Between those who want war and those who seek peace. Between those who want to punish and those who are merciful. Between those who want to control others and those who wish to be left alone.

Conservatives need to stop rehearsing liberal rhetoric if in reality they believe in authoritarian control over the personal choices and private decisions of citizens. And, in reality, they do believe this. Libertarians on the right end of the spectrum should unhitch their political aspirations from rightwing conservatism and join freedom-lovers everywhere in a movement to reinvigorate the American republic.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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