This week an AS follower came to me with a request. She had been engaged in a lot of recent discussions with right-wing women, specifically, about the questions around abortion rights. She was very frustrated with these discussions and wanted my take on them as well as my encouragement and advice. In today’s blog post I plan to talk about some breakthroughs in understanding I had in the process of analyzing these situations with her, specifically understanding better why and how some *women*, specifically, become persuaded to see abortion as a devil term.
So yeah, TL;dr: I used to think that “baby killers” was the primary devil term (to be fought at all costs) in the abortion debate. Hang in there and I’ll hopefully help you understand how I’ve come to see that “abortion” itself has been transformed by the right from a medical term into an unethically legal term dripping with moral disgust. And how women specifically come to be persuaded to demonize both themselves and other women who have them using this term.
As always, I’m writing this as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical church who grew up to become a communication scholar. I’ve previously written about questions about abortion here and here, and I have a whole series about god terms and devil terms that starts here.
God Terms/Devil Terms Overviewed
As a reminder, when I talk about god terms and devil terms, I don’t talk about them from a religious perspective, but as rhetorical scholars do. That means I talk about them as terms that have become disconnected from their dictionary meaning and turned into terms to be defended and/or fought at all costs.
The devil terms, specifically—those things to be fought at all costs—are often imbued with a sort of moral and/or political disgust. I’ve previously talked about moral disgusts in a series starting here. Basically, when I say that I talk about how the parts of our brains that process morality also literally process feelings of disgust and distaste, and so if we feel disgust about something, that means we’ve internalized a feeling that it’s somehow immoral.
The Case In Point
So this week, as I noted above, an AS follower came to me after having a series of frustrating discussions on social media with some right-leaning women who supported abortion bans. This follower shared screenshots of the conversations with me.
What really struck me from the screenshots were how these women supporting abortion bans were consistently blaming the women who have abortions (and never the men who helped them get pregnant) for THEIR CHOICE TO HAVE SEX.
And no matter how much this follower pushed back, this moral disgust about women’s seemingly clear and unambiguous choice to have sex with men was the point of seeming moral failure.
Hmmmm…”Loose Women” as Scapegoats
In short, although the term was never used, I suddenly, thinking about this, realized that this supposedly “pro-life” rhetoric—a rhetoric I too once used to share in my teenage years—boils down to a sort of slut shaming of anyone who has a need of particular women’s health procedures, even in extreme circumstances.
And yeahhhh, that’s a huge issue.
And it’s an issue that illuminates how strongly the perception of not just the term baby killers, but also the word “abortion” itself, has become disconnected from the actual on the ground picture of what is really going on.
Abortion as a Medical Term!
See, abortion is a medical term, not a moral one. And if you look at the statistics (this article over at Motherly has some great ones) women who have abortions are often those who are often already have kids, and are often even already married.
This is fascinating, as the abortion discussion from the narrowly “pro-life” crowd ALWAYS centers on the supposed promiscuity of women who are having sex outside of marriage. As though that were the greatest sin. (Ultimately, the extremely fallacious slippery slope argument is that a woman of adolescence or older who has sex outside of marriage somehow ends up becoming a baby killer–shudder.)
Stories That Don’t Fit the Narrative are Key
The story of the AS follower that brought this case to me illustrates the fallaciousness of this narrative super well, though.
See, this AS follower was married and an Evangelical Christian when she had to have her medically-classified abortion. She wanted the child. She had decorated the baby’s room.
But the child died in her womb. Her body wouldn’t expel the fetus on its own. Her life was at risk if she didn’t have what was medically classified as an abortion.
Definitely Outside of the Devil Term Definitions
She wasn’t even remotely a “slut” much less a “baby killer” when she had her medically classified as an abortion. Nor, for that matter, had she had sex outside of marriage (eye roll emoji).
But Her Life Would Have Likely Been Lost Post-Roe In a Lot of States
But in many of the areas where abortion in all forms is illegal since the Roe v. Wade overturn, her life would likely have been forfeit.
Why, you ask?
Why Devil Terms Are a Terrible Basis for Real Laws
Because of the ways the term “abortion” itself has been turned from a medical term that means any removal of pregnancy tissue from a uterus into a legal term steeped in these incorrect ideas relating to moral disgusts related to slut shaming, she—again, a married white Evangelical Christian—likely would have died.
The Costs Of Internalized Moral Disgusts by White Evangelical Women
The tragedy, even before Roe was overturned is that she herself had at the time internalized the moral disgusts around the very term abortion to the point where she refused anesthesia for the procedure. She says that now she doesn’t feel any shame around the procedure, but looking back can see how much she felt the need to completely unnecessarily punish herself for not being able to keep her child alive.
Let me say that again.
She, the only living person on that operation table, felt so much shame around the very medical term abortion that she refused anesthesia from a necessary surgery needed to keep her alive when her much-desired fetus had already died.
NOT HEALTHY RHETORIC, FOLKS!
In case it’s not clear, any rhetoric that does THAT to any person is NOT REMOTELY HEALTHY.
This rhetoric—and the policies that are built on it—are pure poison to any sort of rational view of keeping as many women and any of their children alive as possible.
Let’s Talk about Self-Serving Bias and Scapegoating
And here’s the other thing I realized, when thinking about this: when you create this myth that women who get abortions are deeply immoral, and when you turn that myth into very real policies that turn women who get abortions into actual criminals, you are ultimately legalizing a form of self-serving bias in a really unhealthy way.
I realized this because I just taught self-serving bias in my interpersonal class earlier this week, and discussed how it’s a way of trying to shift blame.
Defining Self-Serving Bias
To quickly define self-serving bias, it’s this idea that a person or group of people try to take credit for good things happening as though it came from their actions and character, but when bad things happen to them, they act as though it’s a form of humiliation.
In short, only outside forces are responsible for bad things happening to them.
At the same time, if someone else has bad things happen to them, this same person acts as though it was a result of a character flaw. Whereas if good things happen to someone else, they consider it as a result of luck, etc.
Horrible Scapegoating Logic, All Around
So yeah, looking at this case next to my own previous “pro-life” ideas, I can absolutely see how women become convinced that abortion is the deepest sign of moral depravity, and how this issue is actually a way for conservatives to negatively project immorality to the “other side.”
See, in this way of thinking, getting an abortion is the absolutely worst thing you can do (because it’s killing and by extension makes you some kind of unholy slut who made the choice to have sex when she shouldn’t have).
Impossible Expectations for Women to Be Responsible for All Fetuses to Live? (Weird, Eh?)
This logic convinces women, in fact, both morally and legally, that essentially it’s their responsibility rather than either, ironically men or even God’s, to keep any fetuses that happen to live inside of them alive.
The problem of course, as many have been pointing out, is that a lot of these laws that make abortion illegal also make cases like this AS follower’s situation illegal. Even though, again, the fetus was already dead and she would have been unless the doctor had acted right then. (If you’re a conservative pro-life person not fighting for more nuanced laws around these issues, please start now!)
The Case of the Miscarriage…
Importantly, this kind of devil term turned into legislation ALSO leads doctors to look suspiciously on any woman that miscarries in the areas where abortion is illegal. This IS, of course, a huge problem, because according to the NHS, it’s estimated that among 1 in 8 pregnancies will end in spontaneous miscarriage. And that’s just among those who know they are pregnant—everyone agrees that number is likely much, much higher.
And as everyone reasonable ought to know, miscarriages often occur among women who are actively trying to get pregnant. The women who have miscarriages are often in stable, even married, relationships.
Not “Loose Women” Either
Miscarriages are so common that couples who are trying to have kids and are pregnant routinely wait to tell people they’re pregnant until the third month.
These aren’t “slutty people.” These aren’t “baby killers.” But what their body spontaneously does is medically considered an abortion. And can be legally suspect under abortion bans.
Hmmm, That Doesn’t *Sound* Moral
But the legislation based on this demonization of the purely medical term abortion doesn’t give a flying f*ck about who is harmed by the legislation, is really the problem, when it comes down to it.
And THAT’s the reason we can see that there’s negative projection going on here. Because—let’s be clear—this “pro-life” rhetoric was started by overtly religious people who were using morality as the basis for their argument.
That’s Because IT ISN’T
But wait, you might legitimately ask. What’s exactly so moral about convincing a mother who wants a baby so badly that it’s actively her fault, and that in fact she’s a criminal, if she can’t keep her baby alive?
It clearly is not remotely moral, is the thing.
Not at all moral.
The Opposite of Moral, In Fact
And then when you add to it the fact that this single immoral policy, which demonizes women for not being able to control outside forces—in short, expects women to play God or else—is being used as a single-issue voting policy on the basis of morality is especially evil.
Because especially when you get to this point in the progression of things, the platform of the party pushing these same legal codes is overtly pushing so many other deeply deeply immoral things.
Just a Very Brief Discussion of How Conservative Policies Undermine Women and Children’s Health
I could go soooo many directions here, but let’s just stay in the area of women’s health. As the Motherly article I’ve cited above states, the reason a lot of mothers who have abortions after having other children choose to have them is because they are making decisions for the good of their existing children.
In a country where the party pushing making abortion illegal is also pushing against EVERYTHING it would take to make having and raising a child safe and affordable, how in the world can we blame women who make these incredibly difficult decisions for being the “anti-life” ones?
Once you start to look at the rhetoric through these lenses, it’s easier to see how very evil this is, and how incredibly unfair.
A Layer of Spiritual Trauma Too! (Yay? Or Something?)
It’s also easy to see how women could be convinced that they too need to toe the line and reinforce this rhetoric. As can be seen from the AS follower’s case, this rhetoric causes deep spiritual trauma simply because it is premised in the language of morality and scapegoating.
NO WONDER those women who have abortions in the white Evangelical community (and there are many who do, as statistics show) keep it so quiet.
Social Consequences for Those Conservative Women Who Don’t Toe the Line
These are the women and girls, after all, who face the most social consequences if they admit to having an abortion, whatever the reason that may be. Or even if they acknowledge being pro-choice.
Which brings me back around to this case that was brought to me this week.
Ahhhh, the Cognitive Dissonance!
See, when this AS follower shares her story with narrowly “pro-life” folks, uniformly they dismiss it as “not really an abortion situation.”
Never mind that these same people are often out on the front lines demonizing “late term abortions,” which are only done in situations exactly like this, usually when the mother’s life is in deep risk.
Soooo Much Gaslighting!
See how much crazymaking there is in this kind of intensely gaslighting rhetoric? Under narrowly pro-life logic, though, you see, because anyone who has an abortion must be fully responsible and a baby killer, this kind of medical procedure that specifically is seen under the standard medical definition can’t possibly be an abortion.
At the same time, legally, because ANYTHING is an abortion if it fits the medical definition, in a post-Roe world in a state where abortion is illegal, the doctor who seeks to save the mother’s life could very much be held responsible. (So could the mother—if she lived.)
More Shame for Women. Yay? Or Something?
And OF COURSE, with the spiritual abuse involved in the devil terming of the term “abortion,” the woman socialized into this devil term understanding of abortion would automatically feel deep shame for not being able to essentially be God and save the baby.
Because, let’s be clear: that’s what these kinds of evil laws technically make her responsible to be.
And as Brene Brown and others remind us, this kind of unhealthy shame is literally unhealthy for people. (As though there weren’t already enough trauma around having babies!)
Really Really Unhealthy in All the Ways
So yeahhhhh. Once again, if it wasn’t unclear by this point, all of this shows how deeply immoral these kinds of laws are, as well as the extreme literal lack of health in the rhetoric that drives them.
And that’s not even getting into men’s lack of responsibility for their contributions to these pregnancies. Or the ways in which the language of women’s choice about sex in this rhetoric papers over ALL the situations in which women and girls actively have no consent in participation in sex. Etc etc etc.
Why We Need to Keep Trying
But yes, I should wrap up here, so let’s turn to why it’s so important to keep speaking and acting up against this rhetoric and the legal situation it births.
Applying Christianity’s Own Basic Moral Codes to This Stuff
See, the whole thing I was taught in white Evangelicalism was meant to be the foundation of the law and the prophets was the idea that we ought to love God and neighbor as ourselves.
Even if you don’t believe any of that, surely you can see based on the above how this rhetoric miserably fails at all of these points.
Nope, Doesn’t Stand Up to Any of the Basic Christian Tenets…Oops.
See, creating laws that expect women to keep the fetuses inside of them alive is hardly loving God or neighbor. And for those who internalize these beliefs so fully that they carry the weight of shame inside them if they have to have a life-saving operation, that’s not encouraging people to love themselves either.
Fighting These Unhealthy Versions of Laws Is the Most Reasonable AND Moral Thing
So continuing to fight these laws is not only a reasonable thing to do—though as a side note here, it’s really awful to expect everyone to follow a controversial form of a Christian ethic. (Especially controversial because even the fundy Baptists believed life began with the first breath not that long ago!) It’s also the most moral thing to do by the white Evangelical’s own biblical standards.
No Need to Beat Our Heads Against the Wall, But We Can Keep Trying
Now, this doesn’t mean we need to endlessly beat our heads against a wall by thinking we’ll be able to convince people who believe this that it’s actually immoral, mind you.
But if others are watching—others who need to know that this isn’t the only way to think about things—well, it’s worth continuing to speak up.
What We Can Do
And, if you’re wearying with overtly fighting against right-wing folks, or unable to, there are plenty of ways to engage in the efforts to fight these policies without actively confronting them. Here are a few:
- Donating to women’s health organizations.
- Voting for, donating to, and getting out the vote for candidates with reasonable governmental policies in these areas.
- Talking to the “reasonable middle” (there is still one)—people who are actually open to reasonable discussion in these areas.
- Working to get out the vote from reasonable folks.
There are more, of course, and rest where you need to. (Maybe work on any internalized shame when you do!) Just don’t quit. Because this much is true: in a post-Roe world, we need to keep fighting to work against this kind of policy.
Not everyone will be persuadable, but it’s important to remember that not everyone needs to be.
Let’s Just Do What We Can
To save lives, we ultimately need to start by working to change the laws, largely by getting out the vote and doing activism toward electing more responsible leaders. In the end, we can only do what we can do. Individually that may not feel like much. Maybe it’s a matter of helping a female friend, conservative or not, with shame resilience.
Will the outcome be perfect, whatever we try? We’re not responsible for that. It’s only healthy for us to keep doing what we can. It’s not our jobs to control the outcomes, whatever the rhetoric might have convinced us to believe.
This is the important thing to remember. Both individually and collectively, if we all do what we can, on whatever front we can do it, we can do a lot to help a lot of women and children both to have better lives.
And THAT’s profoundly worth fighting for.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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