Fifty years after the end of slavery in the United States, director D.W. Griffin released the Birth of a Nation, a film that revived the Ku Klux Klan and inspired institutionalized violence against Black Americans across the country. It was the first film ever screened at the White House, and was the first major success in an entertainment industry that would later come to define the bulk of American culture. It revived the practice of minstrelsy and cast Black men as beasts, incapable of living as free men, who, above all, were intent on raping and impregnating white women. In one of the most famous scenes, a white woman throws herself from a cliff to avoid being raped by a black man. Audiences at the time cheered and saw her action as noble because preserving the supposed ‘purity’ of the white race was deemed far more important than a woman’s life.
It is difficult to imagine the plot of the film without constant reference to white women’s fertility because white nationalism requires the close control of all women’s reproduction. It is, then, no coincidence the resurgence of white nationalism in recent years has been accompanied by ever increasing legal challenges to women’s reproductive freedom. One need only remember disgraced Republican senator Steve King’s tweet in which he proclaimed, “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies” to understand the far more sinister motivations behind restricting our reproductive freedoms.
Abortion is often understood as a religious or moral issue, and many who oppose access to the procedure prefer if it is discussed in these terms. However, when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, the case that upheld the constitutionality of legal abortion in the US, it did so in the name of individual freedoms necessary for the preservation of democracy. Conservative Justice Stewart supported the decision stating “In a Constitution for a free people, there can be no doubt that the meaning of ‘liberty’ must be broad in-deed.’ The Constitution nowhere mentions a specific right of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life, but the ‘liberty’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the fourteenth amendment covers more than those freedoms explicitly named in the Bill of Rights.” In short, human autonomy is the basis of a free, democratic society and without autonomy over our own bodies, our society will cease to be free.
Abortion was not always a polarizing issue. In fact, prior to the 1970’s it was widely accepted as a sometimes-necessary medical procedure. In 1967, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed a bill allowing abortion if it posed a threat to the “physical and mental health” of the patient, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. And prior to becoming president, George H.W. Bush openly supported family planning initiatives as an ambassador to the United Nations, that included federal support for Planned Parenthood. It was only after Bush joined Reagan’s president ticket for president that both politicians retracted their previous positions and embraced hardline anti-abortion policies.
It is more accurate to understand abortion as a political issue, purposefully manufactured to drum support for increasingly unpopular conservative candidates. Politics in the US changed drastically as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement hardened younger and more diverse voters against the Republican Party. Their base began to shrink as waves of voters became more willing to reject the pro-war, segregationist party platforms, and rather than change their stance to reflect the will of these voters, strategists searched instead for new voters and embraced issues that would bring them into politics. Prior to these efforts, large numbers of Evangelical Christians declined most political participation. Abortion and its characterization as a moral issue that subverted the will of God mobilized them to come out in support of candidates who promised to end the practice. These new voters successfully countered the women’s liberation movement and called for strict anti-abortion policies around the country. Even today, the mobilization of evangelical Christians continues to bolster Republican candidates who seek the endorsement of televangelists like Jerry Falwell who oppose LGBTQ rights with the same fervor.
It is unlikely Donald Trump, like every Republican President since Reagan would have been elected without the support of Evangelical Christians. In 2016, he gained their support and stole the endorsement of Jerry Falwell’s son from Ted Cruz by supporting anti-abortion groups, promising to defund Planned Parenthood, and his willingness to appoint anti-abortion judges to lifetime appointments in federal courts, and of course the Supreme Court. Trump has since created a conservative majority in the Supreme Court by appointing 2 conservative, white men to the bench, as well as 1 out of every 4 judges (89 in total) to lifetime appointments. Legal scholars believe these appointments, made primarily to conservative white men from the Federalist Society, a nationwide network of conservative lawyers, are likely to make rulings against LGBTQ rights, limit abortion access, and alter the course of American life for decades.
The election of Donald Trump gave the signal for states to begin passing abortion bans to once again test the constitutionality in the Supreme Court. The month, the Court agreed to hear arguments over one of these cases in Louisiana that aims to chip away at more recent rulings that prevented states from created undue barriers to access. In total, 27 different abortion bans have been enacted across the United States, the Trump administration has diverted federal funds from Planned Parenthood to anti-abortion, faith based family planning groups, and enacted a global gag rule that prohibits international NGOs who receive funding from the US from discussing or advocating abortion for patients around the world.
One of the most pervasive questions about the anti-abortion movement in the United States has been about the blatant hypocrisy between message and action. Decades of pro-choice activists have noted the message of being “pro-life” and “saving babies” from abortion is entirely antithetical to almost every other major platform championed by the Republican Party. From efforts to restrict benefits programs, increase militarization of both international forces and domestic police, restricting protections for refugees, the sustained effort to deny citizens access to affordable health care, and the outright refusal to consider any form of gun control, almost every major conservative mandate has been proven time and again to directly result in the loss of many lives. This is not to mention the lives of women that will be lost if abortion once again becomes illegal.
These policies directly threaten innocent lives every single day, and yet, abortion remains the single issue where the protection of human life is contained in the messaging. And while citizens’ and states interests are regularly understood to be the same thing, there is a critical distinction to be made between the two. Benefits programs, health care, and education budgets are cut in the name of supporting the American economy. War and increased militarization are waged in the name of defending American interests abroad. Immigration policies are in defense of the border. In fact, the major commonality between almost all major conservative party platforms and the rhetoric used to describe these policies is an inherent defense of the state and its power, not a defense of the citizens themselves. Conservative abortion policy and its emphasis on saving lives rather than strengthening the state is seemingly the outlier in the platform, but is it really?
As it turns out, the State has an incredible amount to gain if abortion becomes illegal. Abortion is not the outlier in the policy platform, it is the backbone supporting its success. It is no secret the various policies aimed at preventing non-white immigration into the US will result in disastrous labor shortages. It is also no secret that wealthier women will have the means to subvert these bans, while lower income women lack the resources to not only afford health care to prevent pregnancy in the first place, but also lack the ability to take off work and travel for an abortion. Babies who are born into lower income families are also far less likely to escape poverty in their lives and are more likely to be preyed on by a variety of industries as they try.
Payday lenders disproportionately target low-income communities of color and charge exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 400%, ensuring these borrowers never get out of debt, and never escape poverty. The rise of for-profit prisons, that overwhelmingly relies on the unnecessary detention of black Americans, force prisoners into unpaid labor for companies like Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, and Microsoft. At the same time, a baby boom among low-income communities who lack access to quality education and opportunity, will eventually provide enough minimum wage labor to replace low wage positions previously held by immigrants. We often discuss the blatant hypocrisy of conservative politicians, and roll our eyes at how short-sided many of their policies seem. But it would be a grave mistake to assume they do not understand how their policies would, among other things, bring our economy to a grinding halt. And it would be an even graver mistake to assume outlawing abortion is not part of some greater scheme to subvert democracy for financial gain.
White men write history the same way they write fictions like Birth of a Nation. And they have fought to bend reality to match these fictions, ones in which they are the heroes, valiantly riding in on horses to save the day. We must remember that for far too long in our history, these knights in shining armor came with nothing but hate in their hearts, white hoods on their heads, and policy proposals that cast the rest of us as supporting characters to their vision. We unfortunately live in a time where it is commonplace to debate if and when our democratic societies might cross the threshold into authoritarianism. Whatever day the Court overturn Roe v. Wade will be that day.
This is an updated version of an article that was originally published in Europe & Me (E&M), with which ATOW collaborates.
Allison is originally from Colorado in the United States. She earned her MA studying English literature in 2015 and moved to London in 2017 to earn her MSc studying European culture and politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She wants to study forever and is currently back in the United States applying for PhD programs and writing articles like these.