Have you heard of Scott DesJarlais, the second-term Congressman from Tennessee’s 4th District? A medical doctor, he was recently re-elected to his second term in the House of Representatives. In 2010, he unseated a Democratic incumbent in a landslide election. He’s been in the news lately because of information that his wife had two abortions during their marriage–one because of a drug she was taking, the other because the pregnancy occurred while the two were having marital problems. (His wife claimed that DesJarlais was a participant in both decisions.) This joins accusations that he pressured a patient he was having an affair with to have one as well. Despite this, he ran on a solidly “pro-life” platform.
This scandal has been widely reported, but still remains largely absent from the public’s perception. Part of it is the timing–the beginnings of this came out before the election, but it’s really taken on steam during the (let’s face it) much juicier and intriguing Petraeus scandal, plus a Thanksgiving weekend when many Americans were more interested in holiday travel and turkey leftover recipes. Part of it is the shock value, or rather, lack of shock value. Does it surprise anyone except maybe the anti-choice faithful that a politician will feel comfortable advocating against abortion publicly and running straight to the clinic when it comes out? If you’ve ever read Joyce Arthur’s 2000 article “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion,” you’re probably familiar with this disconnect between political life and personal life for many in the anti-choice movement.
So that’s all it is, right? A Republican, Tea Party-backed Congressman who is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of working to make illegal something that he has personally benefited from? Maybe with the full knowledge that if abortion becomes illegal, it will still be available with some safety to those who can pay a premium for a discreet doctor–and therefore, it would only be the working and lower middle classes who would suffer? Maybe. Do GOP politicians truly believe their own rhetoric about abortion? Are they simply not intelligent enough to see the reality, or are they blinded by religious and political fervor? I’m sure some do. But maybe there’s something else at play. Maybe modern Republicans need abortion to maintain their political influence.
Modern American conservatism arose in the middle of the century. The Republicans were once the party of Progressivism–the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. They became the party of small government, free markets and state’s rights after the sweeping reforms of FDR’s New Deal. The political alignment of the country switched. During the 1970s, there was a migration towards conservatism. Many became disenchanted with LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms, aimed to stamp out poverty and racial injustice. In 1973, the Supreme Court issued a decision on Roe v. Wade, effectively making abortion legal on a Federal level. One year later, Robert Grant forms the American Christian Cause and the first March for Life attracts thousands. Later that decade, he is one of the founders of Christian Voice, one of the first Christian right organizing groups. It is originally headquartered at the Heritage Foundation, a hugely influential conservative think tank that was founded on the principles of a free market, limited government, individual freedom, national defense, and traditional values. There’s something hypocritical here, something many liberals claim that conservatives ignore–individual freedom and limited government should oppose the use of Christian morality to govern a country. If you believe in individual freedom and a government that does not tell you how to live, how can you then cite the Bible as a guide for making laws?
How did the Christian political movement become so linked with a movement that drew identity from individual freedom and small government? There are many reasons why, of course. The gay rights movement, for one, as well as the fight over the ERA and the demographics of the country. (The supporters of the Christian movement also tended to be opposed to the Civil Rights movement, which led to a natural alliance.) But Roe v. Wade is also a big reason. For small-government conservatives, it was a states’ rights issue, a question of federal power. (Contrary to what many believe, overturning Roe v. Wade would not immediately criminalize abortion, it would just allow each state to make the decision. It’s probable that many states would criminalize it, but many would not.) Many anti-Roe politicians claim their opposition is based on this alone. Anti-abortion activists targeted the decision as the main block to making it an illegal act–overturning the decision has been a huge centerpiece of the Christian Right since the inception. This coalition–the conservatives and the Christian Right–have been a dominating force in the country since the 1970s. They were a large part of Reagan’s rise to power.
In the past few years, the traditional conservative values–the emphasis on a strong, aggressive military, a free, unregulated market–have taken a beating. The war in Iraq and the market collapse–two hugely unpopular events–are both traced to these values. After the 2012 election, many commentators claimed that the GOP had an identity crisis, but the identity crisis began long before 2012–it was beginning in 2008. Many people have asked why Republicans spent so much time talking about contraception, abortion and rape this election cycle when they had the advantage of being the opposition party in a bad economic climate. (Bad economic climates, no matter what the cause, are never good for incumbents.) It’s a valid question, especially with the narrative of liberal economic failure and “self-reliance” that conservatives pushed. But they also know that much of their base–that midcentury-born coalition–are not theirs because of economic issues. (And they didn’t want close examination of their fiscal policies. Could Mitt Romney have gotten away with not sharing the details of his plan if we didn’t have the women’s rights issues to distract us?)
Economies change–and while some of that comes from government policy, much of it comes from external forces. People’s views on civil rights change. In a world and political climate that changes often and rapidly, abortion is one of the more consistent issues. Why have views on abortion not evolved the same way that views on same-sex marriage have evolved? Part of it is a reluctance on the part of the pro-choice movement to turn to the more efficient rhetoric. You will never convince someone who believes that life begins at conception and a cluster of cells is equivalent to a living breathing person otherwise. This may offend a liberal because of the bad science of it, but the good news is that it’s not at all important when it comes to making the case for abortion legality. (This is also why you see some people who do believe that abortion kills a person enthusiastically embrace the pro-choice political movement.)
The reality is that being pro-legal abortion is the truer pro-life position. If the pro-choice movement could change the discussion so it focused on this, the right would have a big problem. Don’t like abortion? Support contraception access, which has a much higher success rate in reducing abortion than criminalizing it. Those who feel they are truly pro-life may be swayed by this argument, and that’s why the right is so insistent on keeping on the message and ignoring these facts. Once the abortion issue becomes less cut and dry for millions of people, their base will be fractured significantly. Another part of it is the Christian right’s skillful manipulation of the issue to focus on small facets like partial-birth abortion and parental consent that have maximum emotional impact. In doing so (and with the help of hysterical propaganda machines like Fox News) they’ve strengthened their base into a group of fervent believers who will ignore their own economic well-being to vote for a group who mainly protects the economic interests of the rich. So, when the talk becomes too focused on the economy, why shouldn’t the GOP retreat back to the abortion issue, a winner for them? In fact, in 2011 there were eight different bills regarding abortion in the House. (Zero on jobs.) By the middle of 2012, there were 39 new restrictions on the state level. The only year with more was 2011 (and the major difference between 2011 and 2012 was that a lesser percentage of the introduced bills became laws.)
It’s precisely this group of fervent believers who threaten this dynamic, though. Either the GOP–and especially the Tea Party–has gone to the point where they elect true believers or the GOP leadership has gone so far to the right in the attempts to be the darling of this group that they’ve gone off the rails. To believe that Republicans will correct themselves to a more moderate stance is to ignore the inner workings of the coalition of groups we call the Christian right. The Tea Party so quickly became such an important part of American politics because of the institutional structures of the Christian right–the grassroots organizers, the money, the media, etc. etc. etc. Strict anti-choice is so integral to this support that before we can talk about politicians going back to the middle, we must talk about the power of these structures being eradicated. Right now, abortion is still the most potent tool that the GOP has to get the majority of non-wealthy people to vote against their own interests. They tried to turn it to immigration, which failed miserably. They are still trying to use health-care reform as a vehicle. The issue is very closely tied with economic policy and taxation, but the Christian right has been valiantly trying to paint it as a reform that infringes on the rights of Christians to practice Christianity. (A right that has never been infringed upon in American history, even if your bank teller now wishes you happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas.)
For many on the right, especially many of the voter base, abortion is something they believe wholeheartedly is morally wrong. For many others, they see it as a tool, a political weapon to wield. The problem is that there are lives in the balance here, as exemplified by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland. Ireland had a law on the books permitting life-saving abortion, but a combination of possible jail time and unclear guidelines on when an abortion is permitted led to an avoidable death. It was a tool for Scott DesJarlais to catapult himself into Congress on an anti-choice platform while repeatedly choosing abortion in his personal life. Politicians can dress it up as pure religious conviction and a moral compulsion. It’s not. It’s a calculated strategy. To stop this, we need to sever the connection between the anti-choice politicians and people who truly believe themselves to be pro-life. We need to continuously make them understand that their positions do nothing to stop abortion, and just lead to more suffering. That’s more compelling than the scientific definition of a zygote and unfortunately, there are real cases of this suffering all around us.
It’s not impossible to envision a world where evangelical Christians support abortion. That was the reality up to the 1970s. Before then, famous conservative evangelicals such as Bruce Waltke of the Dallas Theological Seminary actually preached that life began at birth and the fetus does not have a soul. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution that said abortion should be legal for the emotional health of the mother. It wasn’t until religious leaders like Jerry Falwell came into the picture and aligned with the Catholic Church that people began to believe that the Bible was unequivocally against abortion–and formed a political alliance. It only took a generation to get to this point. It needs to end. It’s time to break up the GOP, the Christian right, and abortion–for our lives, our health, and our economic prosperity.
Written by Jess Mary Aloe
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