Abortion and the Cultural War in
WARREN M. HERN
Some things are true even if Pat Buchanan
says them. When I came out of the
Peruvian Amazon after doing field research in the summer of 1992, the first
thing I saw and heard on television in Lima was Buchanan’s speech at the
Republican convention about the “culture war.”
I broke into a cold sweat and wanted to go back to the safety of the
jungle with my Shipibo friends. Give me
the snakes in the forest and sancudos
The cultural revolutions that we saw erupting in the sixties and seventies had their origins in many previous events, but the sexual revolution – who many saw as a breath of air in a suffocating cultural environment – was also part of a new freedom of expression. It was also, especially for women, a way of escaping from prescribed social roles defined by biological function and reinforced by patriarchal social values. It meant that women could make choices never before fully and safely available to them. It meant they could choose to be as distinguished from merely surviving according to prescribed rules.
When asked how she would manage being both a woman and a member of Congress, Pat Schroeder asked, “Do I have to choose?” She also said, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.”
Pat went on to challenge the male-dominated seniority system in Congress, including the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on whose committee she so capably served. Her sharp wit, ribald humor and devastatingly prepared arguments changed the way the Congress handled military matters. It also changed the way many of the male members saw women. She was charming, funny and effective.
Pat Schroeder’s success symbolized the problem that cultural conservatives and defenders of patriarchal values were beginning to face. She was an uppity woman. She scared them.
Fetuses, by contrast with adult women, are not uppity. They can be defended at election time along with Motherhood, Apple Pie and the American Flag, thereby sending political adversaries into disarray. Fighting For The Fetus wins Hearts, Minds and Votes. The Fetus becomes a Fetish Object to be defended. It works. Defenders of the Fetus win elections. Look at Bob Dole, who was losing his bid for re-election in 1974 until, a week before the election, he started calling his obstetrician-gynecologist opponent An Abortionist. It worked. Dole won. It didn’t matter that Dr. Roy had delivered thousands of babies and had done only a few abortions for serious medical reasons.
The Republican Party, taken over by the radical political right, took Dole’s example to heart. Its leaders decided to exploit the radical religious right and cultural conservatives to get power.
Who are the people who have led the fight against abortion and women’s rights? Who are the picketers? Who are the anti-abortion assassins? White, unemployed, uneducated men who have lost their status in society because they are now competing against uppity women for jobs, money and power.
In his book, The Politics of the Rich and Poor, Kevin Phillips, no flaming, pinko, wild-eyed liberal, wrote that the Republican Party had decided to use several hot-button cultural issues, including abortion, to get power, and it worked. The real goal, however, according to Phillips, was not to outlaw abortion, but to use the power to transfer money from the pockets of the poor and the middle class to the pockets of the rich.
It would be reductionist to assert that the abortion issue has been the cause of the direction in which American society appears to be heading, and there are obviously many causes. But I have a special interest in the role of the abortion issue since I am a physician who performs abortions as well as an anthropologist and epidemiologist who studies fertility and other reproductive health issues in human societies. In fact, one of the reasons why I chose to provide abortion services was that I was concerned about the public health and social justice issues affecting women and their families under the circumstances of illegal abortion. Many women were dying (and still are) from illegal abortion everywhere I looked – in Latin America, where I worked as a medical student, intern, and Peace Corps physician, and in the US, where I saw tragedy as a medical student and as a public health physician. But I had learned in medical school that pregnancy is “normal,” and that a woman is most “normal” when she is pregnant. Well, if that’s true, what is she when she’s not pregnant?
Once you start analyzing this, it is apparent that Western culture defines women as reproductive machines – that is their purpose in life – so pregnancy is “normal” even though women can die from it whether they want to be pregnant or not. The cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s (built on the work of many pioneers) challenged this cultural norm by asserting that women may choose not to be victims of the tyranny of their own biology, not to mention the tyranny of men who expected them to stay home in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, making cookies and having babies. They could choose their own identity. And they could choose to be uppity.
And now these uppity women – who decided to become doctors, lawyers, bank presidents and political leaders – decided, after all, to have babies, anyway. But at age 38 or 40 or 45, things too often go wrong, and a desperately desired pregnancy becomes a tragic nightmare or a threat to life. And these women have to confront the profound sadness of ending a pregnancy, but in a climate of anti-abortion terrorism and by a doctor who works behind bullet-proof windows.
Abortion became a target for the cultural conservatives because having an abortion became a public act. Roe v Wade was the red flag in front of the bull. It was one thing, though, for people to have sincere philosophical and religious convictions, for people to be afraid of social change, but it was another thing, and far more dangerous, for someone to start exploiting those convictions for political purposes – to gain power. That gave powerful psychological permission for the perpetrators of anti-abortion violence including the political assassination of abortion doctors and others helping women get abortions.
Warren M. Hern is Director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and assistant clinical professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
Reprinted by permission of the American Anthropological Association. Anthropology News, 46:2, February, 2005, pp 16-18. Copyright © 2005 American Anthropological Association Invited contribution to the series, Technologies of Reproduction Dec 2004 –March 2005
Related articles by Warren M. Hern may be found at www.drhern.com , including:
The politics of abortion. The Progressive, November, 1972
The illness parameters of
pregnancy. Social Science and Medicine 9:365‑372, 1975 (
Abortion issue: The state vs.
the individual. The
Administrative incongruence and authority conflict in four abortion clinics. WM Hern, M Gold, and A Oakes. Human Organization 36:376‑383, 1977
What about us? Staff reactions to D & E. WM Hern and B Corrigan. Advances in Planned Parenthood 15:3‑8, 1980
The human life
statute: will it protect life or power? The
The epidemiologic foundations of
abortion practice. In Hern, W.M. Abortion
J.B. Lippincott Co, 1984;
The antiabortion vigilantes. The New York Times,
Op‑Ed Page, Friday,
Must Mr. Reagan tolerate abortion clinic violence? The New York Times, Op-Ed page,
Protect Abortion Rights. New York Times, Op-Ed page,
clinics under siege. The
The politics of choice: Abortion as insurrection. In Births and Power: Social Change and the Politics of
W.Penn Handwerker, Ed.
Hunted by the
right, forgotten by the left. The New York
Times, Op-Ed page,
The Pope and my right to life.
The New York Times, Op-Ed Page,
Life on the Front Lines. Women's Health Issues 4(1):48-54,1994.
Anti-abortion movement put
weapon in slayer's hand. Daily Camera,
zealots' grasp for power. The Rocky
Mountain News, Guest Opinion ("Speakout") Column.
An electronic demon stalks clinic workers. The Daily Camera, Commentary.
How it feels to be on anti-abortion hit list. Letter to the editor, The
New York Times,
'Killing for Life' is senseless. Guest editorial, The
Abortion bill skips the fine print. Op-Ed Page, The
New York Times,
Free speech that threatens my life. Op-Ed Page, The
New York Times,