With abortion bans, state legislators show that they’re desperate for control
On Thursday, February 18, South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a near-total abortion ban that will prohibit patients from receiving abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy. The legislation includes a provision for survivors of sexual assault, but only if the abortion provider reports the assault to police, an institution one could hardly say is sympathetic to rape victims. Like many state legislators who seem to believe they’re working a political angle that is both holy and of moral imperative, South Carolina’s so-called “heartbeat bill” (based on the erroneous belief that a fetal heartbeat can be detected at six weeks gestation) was the first piece of legislation introduced in the state senate in 2021.
Amidst a pandemic, a deadly climate catastrophe in Texas, and unrelenting waves of hunger and homelessness, South Carolina legislators made it known where their political priorities lay: controlling their constituents’ bodies. It could be said that all politics is about money or control, and sometimes both, together. Some legislation attends to the levying of tax dollars while others concern the spending of those public funds; and abortion care is no different. Each year, a new legislative session reveals the lengths to which state houses will go to control the bodies of their constituents and determine the outcomes of their lives for them. More urgently, these efforts underscore the lie these legislators have caught themselves in: that limiting abortion access is not about a pious valuation of “life” but about politics, and more acutely, control.
We know that anti-abortion legislation is a tool rather than a moralistic end goal because the origins of the movements that gave rise to the original anti-abortion coalitions. As professor Randall Balmer wrote for Politico Magazine in 2014, “In fact, it wasn’t until 1979 — a full six years after Roe — that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.” Balmer explains that a 1971 Supreme Court supported a previous Internal Revenue Service rule to rescind a tax-exempt status from racist and discriminatory private schools. Republicans would need a new way to maintain social control.
But conservative activists couldn’t coalesce Republican voters — many of whom were fueled by a vehement religious and evangelical loyalty — around a policy platform of maintaining segregation. Instead, party leaders formed this new era of Republicanism around the issue of abortion, which would obscure their segregationist racism under the guise of white bodily morality. In other words: Republicans got to build a stronger, more vigilant, and more energized coalition of voters by rallying behind an issue no one had really cared about previously.
If all politics is about money and control, and sometimes both, the parallels between the era of Roe and this current period of violent anti-abortionism should concern us. Roe arrived on the heels of a civil rights movement. The backlash — as there often is — made Jimmy Carter into a one-term president and oxygenated the growing power on the political right. We’re seeing a similar story play out now: the U.S. is experiencing one of the broadest, most sustained Black and brown-led protest movements ever, and state houses are only growing increasingly desperate for control of Black and brown women’s bodies in their capitol buildings. Uprisings and protests demand that power be redistributed back to the people, and instead of conceding power, conservative state legislators are doubling down on efforts to control.
The leaders of these liberation movements, whether it’s the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, or youth-led efforts like the Bay Area’s Youth vs. Apocalypse, are often the first to be subject to governmental control; those who can’t vote, those whose voting rights have been taken from them, those who are poor and those who bear the legacy of racism and systemic disinvestment face additional hurdles to accessing abortion care. But this is not just a political moment of anti-abortion backlash — again, anti-abortion sentiment is a barometer for a legislature’s desire to maintain control over its people. This too is a moment of anti-public health (Texas), anti-public assistance (where are the stimulus checks?), and anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Latinx, and anti-Asian sentiment.
As with the first Roe backlash, this next one will surely have material consequences. Already, abortion access is severely restricted for most people, starting with the fact that the federal Hyde Amendment prevents patients from using Medicaid to pay for abortion care. Then there are the consequences that aren’t as easy to measure, like the impact of forcing someone to carry a pregnancy to term that they don’t want (and the likelihood that this constitutes a form of abuse). Or, there’s the impact of parental consent laws, partner consent laws, and judicial bypass laws, all of which function as further forms of both social and institutional control of birthing people.