“Religion Poisons Everything”, wrote the late British journalist Christopher Hitchens in one of his savage quips. Organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”.
Hard to prove, this, although Hitchens is in a better position where he is now to gather facts than when he wrote his best-seller back in 2007.
However, in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, I do think that we are in a position to say that abortion poisons everything. The resulting hysteria has been confronting – and it is unlikely to end soon.
The “poison” Hitchens had in mind was probably violent, irrational, intolerant actions like firebombing buildings and issuing death threats against atheists. Which is what the mysterious pro-choice group Jane’s Revenge promised for all “anti-choice establishments”: “Everyone with the urge to paint, to burn, to cut, to jam: now is the time. Go forth and manifest the things you wish to see.”
A serious complication for all of us, but especially journalists, is that abortion has poisoned the very words we use to debate the issues.
The notorious communiqués from Jane’s Revenge, just to take the closest document to hand, describe abortion as: “basic medical care”, avoiding being “forced into childbirth without consent”, maintaining “freedom over our own bodies”, managing “our own health”, and “medical autonomy”. In the words of – surprisingly – Christopher Hitchens, these are evasive stupidities. He told an interviewer in 1988:
[Some feminists] “say that the unborn is nobody’s business but theirs. That is a very reactionary and selfish position, and it stems from this original evasion about the fetus being ‘merely’ an appendage.”
Political language has also been corrupted. Let me zero in on three catchwords which have been consistently misused in the media: reproductive rights, the right to privacy, and defending democracy.
“Reproductive rights”. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, the Biden Administration set up a website called Reproductive Rights to guide women to contraception, abortion services and chemical abortions. None of these have anything to do with “reproduction”, which the dictionary defines as “the process of having babies”. Mr Biden is obsessed with the process of not having babies.
After decades of use this phrase has become so shop-worn that no one seems to notice how self-contradictory it is. By definition, abortion is not reproductive; it is destructive. It’s time for a rebrand. Why not Destructive Rights? Or Unproductive Rights? Or the Right to Terminate Pregnancies? Or the Right to Death? Something blunt and straightforward, not Orwellian Newspeak.
“The right to privacy”. In responding to Dobbs, President Biden said that Roe had “reinforced the fundamental right of privacy — the right of each of us to choose how to live our lives”. When you think about it, this is mind-bending stuff. If you thought “privacy” meant keeping Google’s mitts off your emails, think again; this apparently harmless word has underwritten the killing of unborn children for the past 50 years.
The evolution of the “right to privacy” in the United States began with history’s most famous law journal article, by a young Louis Brandeis in 1890. (He later became a renowned Supreme Court justice.) He framed it as a “right to be let alone” by the media – a sensible and necessary idea which becomes more relevant by the day. But after Roe v. Wade in 1973, the right to privacy morphed into a right to eliminate, not just paparazzi, but bambini. By 2000, at least, in the minds of a number of legal scholars it was “commonplace to regard the concept of privacy as a mess, and to hold that significant work is needed to show its coherence as a concept, if it can be done at all”.
You don’t need to be a legal scholar to see that the public is confused about what privacy is. We happily gift intimate moments to Facebook and we hand over personal information on a dish to Google. We are constantly surrendering our privacy to ruthless corporations who exploit us for profit. And then … we defend privacy because it protects the right to abortion. How does this compute? And in any case, making babies is intimate, but, by definition, it is not solitary. How wide must the word privacy be stretched when two people are always involved?
“Our democratic rights”. No word is more equivocal than “democracy”. American federal democracy? Greek city-state democracy? Swiss democracy? Westminster democracy? French democracy? Bolivarian democracy? North Korean democracy? Are we talking about the democratic virtues of equality, fairness and respect for persons or about methods of voting?
A recent article in The Guardian by Jill Filipovic, an American lawyer and journalist, exemplifies the confusion of debates over “democracy” in the wake of Dobbs. “Can a country be properly understood as a democracy – an entity in which government derives its power from the people,” she asks, “if it subjugates half of its population, putting them into a category of sub-person with fewer rights, freedoms and liberties?”
Her unstated premise seems to be that 50% +1 of votes cast makes a law democratic. But that could also justify discrimination against minorities or the death penalty. And are we counting votes cast or eligible voters? In a country like the United States where only about two-thirds of the eligible voters casts a ballot (in a good year), this makes a big difference.
Opinion polls are an unsteady guide. True, the latest Gallup poll shows that 35% of American voters are in favour in all cases and only 13% against in all cases. But 50% are in favour of some restrictions on abortion. That’s 63% — far more than 50%+1.
State abortion laws are changing rapidly in the US. But, as of July 16, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think tank, “43 states prohibit abortions after a specified point in pregnancy, with some exceptions provided”. According to The Guardian, “In more than half the states, abortion is now banned or under serious threat.”
It’s safe to say, then, that in a majority of states a majority of voters are in favour of restricting abortion. Isn’t it democratic to let voters in those states to choose their own destiny?
Loose talk about democracy is dangerous. Filipovic is so besotted with her version of democracy that she wants the Supreme Court abolished. No joke. The judges are “unrepresentative”. It’s “a tool of minority rule over the majority, … part of a far-right ideological and authoritarian takeover that must be snuffed out if we want American democracy to survive”. Surely Ms Filipovic must remember something about the balance of powers which has sustained America for nearly 250 years. Perhaps she wants elected Supreme Court judges. Or perhaps she wants the Fourth Estate to replace the nine justices. Or perhaps she wants Twitter to become the ultimate arbiter.
It’s hard to know what she thinks. But it’s sure that she prefers to plunge the United States into political chaos rather than to surrender her right to abortion. As I said, abortion poisons everything.
Let’s think before we speak. Words are supposed to have meaning. Abortion is already an inflammatory issue. Let’s not make it worse with shoddy reasoning and loose talk.