Thursday, March 02, 2006

Setting The Family In Stone

The bill that would ban abortion in South Dakota has passed both houses of the legislature and awaits only the signature of Governor Rounds, who has said he's "inclined" to sign it. He has also indicated that he will need less than the allotted 14-day window in which a governor of South Dakota is required to sign or veto a bill. I fully expect it to be law by the end of the week.

Unfortunately, the madness isn't going to end with South Dakota (via The Reaction):

Just in case you weren't quite sure just how serious conservatives are about restricting a woman's right to an abortion to the point of an all-out ban, consider what's going on down in Mississippi, that Barbourous bastion of darkness:

"Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said Wednesday that he likely would sign a bill to ban most abortions in Mississippi if it's approved by lawmakers.

The state already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. The bill that passed the House Public Health Committee on Tuesday would allow abortion only to save the pregnant woman's life. It would make no exception in cases of rape or incest."

Abortion is practically non-existent in Mississippi already, as the law books of the state are chock full of abortion restrictions. Plus, the availability of family planning services is very limited and, in fact, only one clinic remains in Mississippi that will perform abortions. Not a pretty picture, considering that abortion bans have a far more deleterious effect on the poor than on the affluent, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the Union.

Wisconsin Public Radio has been discussing the South Dakota bill all week and today they featured one of the architects of this bill (I forget his name). Part of his biography featured past involvement with abstinence-only programs, which I think helps neatly tie this whole issue together.

Abortion bans are not really about saving any lives, though the whole "defense of the unborn" angle makes a great tug at the heartstrings. Banning abortions is just one part of an overall conservative Christian strategy to reform the family unit. It's all the programs and social mores labeled under "family values", including abstinence-only education, banning contraception, banning gay marriage, banning gay adoption and so on. The actual goal of these programs is to force a restructuring of the family unit in America to One Father, One Mother and (X) number of children. Conservative Christians refer to this as returning to the "traditional" family unit, which is both wishful thinking and historically preposterous.

The fact is that the nature of families has always been in a state of change throughout history. Attempt to define a desirable family unit is fine; each person is entitled to their belief about what "family" should mean and look like. Today's conservatives have not only convinced themselves that their version of family is the best but that the rest of America really doesn't deserve any say in the matter any longer. It's an intrinsic belief conservative Christians hold that their latter day calling is to save American culture from itself by completely removing all freedom of choice from any family related matter under the guise of "doing what's best for the children" even if they accomplish its opposite. They feel that the best option for America is to force other Americans to follow the conservative Christian ideal of what family should look like and use the law to punish those who refuse to follow their agenda.

That agenda defines the roles in the "traditional family" as follows:

The Strong Father

It's the notion of the "manly man"; the head of household role often alluded to in ancient writings. The role of the man as chief breadwinner, protector and leader. Notice that it is not "The Strong Husband"; the entire model of a proper conservative family is built around children. Proof is in the so-called "Marriage Protection" laws and Amendments being enacted around the country. They don't just strip away the rights of gays; they include non-married heterosexuals as well.

This paradigm also makes men the owners of human sexuality in that sex becomes a man's pursuit. For all the blustering from conservatives about limiting the sexual rights of women, men are barely mentioned. In fact, sexual promiscuity by men is viewed largely as either a minor peccadillo (the "boys will be boys" justification) or as a weakness provoked by women (the "Eve and her magic apple" excuse). The result in political terms is a complete dearth of legislation designed to restrict the sexual behavior of men. It never seems to get addressed. No state has yet considered a ban on vasectomies; yet they prevent procreation more effectively than any birth control. This just serves to demonstrate the truly sexist nature of the conservative Christian family agenda.

Finally, the Strong Father archetype finds its antithesis in the openly gay man, since the conservative perception of gay men is that they're just not "manly" enough. The authoritarian nature of the Strong Father stereotype cannot accommodate any sort of egalitarian family structure either, hence more discomfort at both man-man relationships as well as intense hostility towards feminism. The Strong Father is the lord of the family, the hunter, the authority and anything that challenges such macho conventions, such as homosexuality and feminism, is attacked relentlessly. These are the men in favor of banning gay marriage and abortions, not because of any lofty moral beliefs, but because gay marriage and women's rights are a challenge to their "manliness". Which is why the Strong Father needs...

The Meek Mother

This is the role that all of these conservative Christian social engineering bills and initiatives revolve around: the role of the woman. The keys to this role are a desire for children, a love of keeping a nice house and submission to the Strong Father. Just ask Dr. James Dobson:

If you feel that your wife is not submissive, pray for her to have a submissive heart, first toward God and then toward you. Then ask God to help you love her the way He does. I guarantee that you will see her submission level rise in direct proportion to the unselfish love you exhibit for her.

One of many problems with this view is that it's based upon 2,000 - 3,000 year old primitive social conventions that have been mistakenly interpreted into moral laws. There is no logically defensible reason for women to be submissive to men in any way. Quite the contrary when one considers that women alone hold the future of the human race in their hands. Yet, every social issue that conservative Christians rally around involve returning women to their Biblical role as the possessions of men.

The role of sex for the Meek Mother is simple: procreation only and only for one man. That's really the crux of abortion bans and birth control bans: to control the sexual practices of women. The fragile ego of the Strong Father is just not equipped to deal with a sexually liberated woman. Examples of this abound. Abortion bans are not about protecting the unborn, or else conservative Christians would support birth control and sex education, which they do not. It's about punishing women for sexual practices that were not considered proper 3,000 years ago. Women were the property of men and men wanted that property protected. Men expected to have sole ownership of the woman he essentially purchased from her father, much like a goat or other piece of livestock. A man wanted the livestock he purchased to be unadulterated, be it his donkey, his sheep or his wife. A woman that had been with another man was considered "damaged goods". Essentially that's what marriage always was: not a sacred union between man and woman but rather a contract to protect the property rights of men.

All of this fine Biblical "tradition" somehow morphed over the centuries into a moral imperative that "good" women should actually prefer to be treated this way. A woman who objects to being treated as property and asserts her rights as an individual is viewed by conservatives as acting against the proper role of a woman. Which, of course, was as property. That's what the "traditional" role of marriage about which conservatives love to wax poetic really is: the glorification of ancient property rights.

This core belief that sex for women is wrong underscores every other part of the conservative social agenda. Birth control for high school and college students is wrong, even though it prevents abortions, because it means that unmarried women could choose to have sex for pleasure and not for procreation. Abortion should be banned, not because it would save lives, but because an unwanted pregnancy is considered by conservatives to be the just punishment for women having sex for pleasure. These same conservatives are pro-war and pro-death penalty so their cries of "all life is sacred!" ring very hollow, indeed. Making sex morally contingent upon marriage is pointless and naive.

Let me stress again: the surest way to prevent abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The surest way to prevent unwanted pregnancies is to make birth control readily available and to educate young women (and men) about sex. Yet, not one conservative Christian "traditional family" organization supports either of these initiatives. Not Focus on the Family, not the Family Research Council, not Pro-Life America, not Right to Life, none. They all support abstinence-only programs (if they even bother to address the actual cause of abortions at all), which are completely divorced from reality and have been widely shown as complete failures. They are not trying to stop anyone from being killed. They are trying to re-institute the ownership of women by men under the guise of supporting the "traditional family".

As for the abortion bans themselves, they continue to be based on the same willful ignorance as abstinence-only sex education. The idea that making abortions illegal will suddenly make the over 1 million women who have them each year decide instead to carry the baby to term and raise it for 18+ years is about as ludicrous as pretending that by keeping teenagers ignorant about sex means they won't do it. It's empty-headed ideology in place of good, reality-based reason. My wife and I believe together that having an abortion would be a wrong choice for us. We also believe that we are better able to make that choice than the any government, church or voting majority. The same holds true for every woman in America. The state cannot limit abortion without violating women's rights under the Constitution.

The question is often raised by the conservatives: "Liberals want the interests of women protected but who is protecting the interests of the fetus?" Answer: The mother of that fetus, in whose body the fetus lives. Not an electoral majority. Not the state legislature of South Dakota or Mississippi. Not the United States Congress. Not the church. It doesn't matter whether one believes that an embryo is a unique human and should be protected. It doesn't matter if one believes that a woman's body is hers alone to govern. What matters is that each woman makes that decision for herself. That's the essence of what family really means and the key to its success.

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