by Merle Hoffman
I have been on the psychological defensive since Sarah Palin was chosen as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee — not wanting to get involved with the vortex of “feminist critiques” that ranged from discussions of whether her Down syndrome baby was really hers or her daughter’s to questions of how she could possibly be a good mother to five children and be vice president at the same time.
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
What I do care about is her smile and what it represents.
I know that smile–that particular brand of bright-eyed rectitude. Sister Dorothy flashes it at me when I come into Choices as she inquires about my daughter’s health and in the same breath says,”You are killing so many daughters in there; when you finally stop, then you will be a good mother.”
I wonder what Sarah Palin says to patients when she demonstrates outside of clinics.
Commenting in Salon, the Reverend Howard Bess, a Baptist minister from outside Sarah Palin’s Wasilla compound who regularly fought Palin and her right-wing church, says that Palin was involved in an effort to take over the local hospital board and block all abortions in the facility. The action would force any woman seeking an abortion (including women who were raped and had to pay for their own rape kit) or women who just wanted counseling on abortion to travel to Seattle.
Locals sued the hospital and won an injunction from the state Supreme Court that required the hospital to provide the option.
“At one point during the hospital battle, local antiabortion activists organized a boisterous picket line outside Dr. Lemagie’s office (the doctor involved in the suit) …. According to Bess and another community activist, among the protesters trying to disrupt the physician’s practice that day was Sarah Palin,” writes Salon author David Talbot.
Was Palin smiling when she disrupted that physician’s office?
How can you be a politician who claims to support women and the shattering of glass ceilings when your policies would put iron bars around their wombs and the concept of reproductive freedom in the garbage bin of history?
I remember another smile, strange and cold, in a long gaunt face, that I saw during the March 1994 Florida memorial service marking the one-year anniversary of the murder of Dr. David Gunn.
I was standing next to Feminist Majority Foundation President Ellie Smeal, who was wearing a bulletproof vest. We were all on high alert. Word had come down that the F.B.I. had intercepted a truckload full of weapons, including explosives, headed for our hotel. Surrounded by my colleagues and other pro-choice activists, I was scanning the nearby rooftops for snipers. Suddenly, a tall, lanky man carrying a well-worn sign that read “EXECUTE ABORTIONISTS MURDERERS ACCESSORIES” appeared in front of the mourners.
Five months later, our intruding shadow, Paul Hill, graduated from visual assaults to something far more sinister. On July 29, 1994, Hill sprang out of his hiding spot behind a Pensacola abortion clinic and opened fire on Dr. James Bayard Britton, his bodyguard, retired Lt. Col. James Barrett, and Barrett’s wife, June. James Barrett and Dr. Britton were killed; June Barrett was seriously wounded.
The smiling killer, “killing for life.”
After the killings, there was a raging debate in the pro-choice community about how to defend ourselves. I believed that clinic guards should be armed. Some of us had buttons that said, “I’m pro-choice and I shoot back.” But there was a lot of resistance to the idea of armed clinic defenders. Many feminists said, “They kill people, we don’t kill people. Feminists are pacifists.” Which translated into pro-choicer activists, patients, providers and doctors are sitting ducks! It was a very difficult time. At one point I was written up in the Daily News, under the headline “Make Her Day” because I got a shotgun and I was learning how to use it. But I never shot at anyone or any animal. Not even a moose. My gun-toting was pure self-defense.
How can you be “pro-life” and support the murder of abortion doctors?
What happens when “life” becomes a metaphor?
Well, it depends on what your definition of life is.
One theory put forth by Carol Mason in her 2002 book Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics, explains why this seemingly contradictive act, so unfathomable to an outsider, makes perfect sense within the millennialist and apocalyptic zeal of the born-again pro-lifer. Mason frames it as the logical result of fundamentalist thinking that positions the fetus as icon and metaphor for the survival of the white race, God’s law, the Apocalypse and second coming of Christ, as described in the Book of Revelations.
Killing for “Life”
Viewed within this context, the act of killing for ‘life’ is revealed not as an oxymoron but as an act of logical consistency and a political manifestation of religious retribution. This apocalyptic narrative is what gives ideological coherence to the vast variety of individuals and institutions that describe themselves as “pro-life.” Abortion represents, even more than slavery in the United States or genocide in Nazi Germany, the ultimate of human atrocities and signals the end of humane society.
No wonder Paul Hill was smiling as he faced his execution in September 2003. The way he saw it, he was not a murderer who struck down two innocent people in cold blood, but a soldier in the Army of God wreaking vengeance on the infidels, setting the world right and gaining glory at the right hand of God.
In a very deep sense, the radical anti-abortion movement lives more in the “Fierce Urgency of NOW” than any other group. Always vigilant, always there — they are constantly girded for battle.
By “personalizing” the fetus, the protectors become knight errants — romantic warriors slaying dragons who threaten and murder the innocent. This identification gives him (or her) a new social identity. Fetuses are not only objects to protect and defend; the very process of defense creates a new identity as defender — as a member of the Army of God.
Hill and his abortion-warrior colleagues may not know one another, may never have met, but their ideology creates a transcendent class identity, one in which “killing for life” is an incremental process. By killing doctors and clinic workers, the energy of the devil is diminished and the good grows. According to a poll cited by Mason’s book, 52 percent of Americans believe in the devil, making him an important player in this grand Manichean theological drama. “The key to understanding Sarah Palin is understanding her radical theology,” Bess told Salon. “‘She scares me,’ said Bess. ‘She’s Jerry Falwell with a pretty face.'”
Now, I have debated Jerry Falwell, and although he did not have a pretty face, he smiled that certain smile at me when he asked me how many babies my facility had killed last year and questioned me on how I would feel when, in his words, “you meet your maker with the blood of thousands of babies on your hands.”
My response was, “When I meet HER, Reverend, I will be proud that I fought for women’s rights!”
Falwell wasn’t smiling; he was shocked that I dared to speak of God in the female gender.
“‘It’s truly frightening that someone like Sarah has risen to the national level,’ Bess said. ‘Like all religious fundamentalists — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — she is a dualist. They view life as an ongoing struggle to the finish between good and evil. Their mind-set is that you do not do business with evil — you destroy it. Talking with the enemy is not part of their plan. That puts someone like Obama on the side of evil,'” quotes Salon.
By describing the abortion industry as run by Jews and lesbian nurses, while simultaneously using the historical pull of racism to gather souls to their cause, pro-lifers creatively combine racism and civil rights when it suits their strategic purposes. Time and again I have heard “sidewalk counselors” outside my clinic scream at women of color as they enter, “You are desecrating the memory of Martin Luther King.”
These pro-lifers believe, as former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater put it, “We are equal in the eyes of God, but we are equal in no other respect.” For conservatives, this socialized inequality results in a movement rife with anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia.
And that is the view shared by millions of her spiritual fellow travelers.
An important point for the strategic understanding of the messianic fervor of the pro-life movement is that the more pro-choice forces clash at the clinic doors, or attempt to discourage people from preaching sexism and homophobia in the name of God, the more it strengthens the resolve of Christians who believe the world is a Manichean struggle between good and evil.
This is in no way an invitation to passivity or non-engagement. While theorizing between consistent frontal attacks is difficult, it is a call for progressives to understand that, in order to learn the art of this war, we must revisit the enemy, the battlefield and ourselves.
Battlefield of Bodies
The womb has become a battlefield and we are all soldiers (willing or not) in this generational cosmic power struggle against a movement that has been extraordinarily successful in waging a guerrilla campaign against legal abortion on multiple fronts. Pro-life forces march on: harassing patients in front of clinics, marginalizing and killing abortion doctors, insuring that 87 percent of counties in this country have no abortion provider; utilizing bombs, economic pressures, guerrilla malpractice legislation, evictions, (Choices faced eviction once during its 37-year history and I am fighting another one as I write); winning of hearts and minds and passing a bill against “partial-birth abortion,” signed by President Bush and criminalizing a medical procedure for the first time in history.
How does one fight against this multi-headed pro-life hydra? Where and what is the root that must be destroyed in order for women to gain the right to safe, legal abortion as a fundamental human and civil right?
Under the theoretical and legal umbrella of “choice,” many feminists refuse to look at the consequences or true nature of that choice. This reduces our capacity to give full meaning to the depth of this issue and ultimately reduces the ability to commit to the political passion necessary to battle our opponents.
Marginalized and disenfranchised, the abortion clinic is the material representation of choice, yet so many pro-choice activists remain uncomfortable with the reality of abortion, the blood, the irrevocable endings and the power of deciding whether or not to bring a new life into this world.
We cannot have a “no-fault” world. Women do have the right to make the “wrong” choices. Yet the crisis over abortion remains very much a struggle over definitions and value positing. We march under a banner of choice that is always grayer and more ambivalent than the banner of “innocence” and “life” carried by our opponents.
It is not just a question of “who decides,” but exactly what that decision is and what it means. It is not politics, but necessity, that drives women’s choices and forms the political and theoretical foundation of the right to choose.
And it is with women that the future of reproductive freedom lies.
Although Roe v. Wade was the first real expression of feminist values in the law, it is not the Holy Grail.
At a recent Veteran Feminists of America event honoring Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was able to ask Justice Ginsberg whether or not lawyers should be working toward recasting the argument of reproductive freedom, taking it away from the privacy arguments in Roe to the 13th amendment against slavery.
Ginsberg answered: “I think lawyers have argued that — in the Casey case, for example. It’s not privacy, in the sense that ‘this something I want to do and hide from everybody, and, seal myself in a cocoon.’ It’s autonomy (which) is the idea; it’s a woman’s right to choose.
“And I have criticized the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade — not, of course, for the result. But that decision is heavily oriented to doctors. It’s the doctor’s choice as much as the woman’s that the government shouldn’t regulate what doctors decide is best for the patient.
“But I think the notion of a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, that has come more and more into the … more recent cases.
Of course, the most recent case is a flip-flop from — the court had (said) that Nebraska’s so-called “partial birth” law — it held that that was unconstitutional because it didn’t preserve, have a reservation for, a woman’s health. Then Congress passed a law to the same effect, and the Court, 5-4, upheld that federal law. What was the difference? One person. Justice O’Connor was no longer on the Court.
“But I think the notion (is) that it isn’t just some private act; it is a woman’s right to control her own life.”
One person on the Supreme Court — one person in the White House .
One woman named Sarah.
Behind that cover girl smile, Sarah Palin sees herself as God’s chosen warrior; some version of the Biblical Deborah or Esther saving her people from war and oppression.
But in this case, Palin’s “people” are fetuses who need to be saved from feminists who preach abortion as a “bloody sacrament.” In Sarah Palin’s Christian nation when Jesus comes again, radical anti-abortion theology will become the guiding principles of both national and international policy.
.Just where does that leave anyone who has not been born again or accepted Jesus as their “personal savior”.
Where does that leave women?
It leaves them in a country where the values of Sister Dorothy and all the others who stand outside picketing abortion clinics will be put to work inside the West Wing with the power of the military and billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of employees to call upon.
A “Palin McCain” administration will see the rise and power of a “theopolity” — a fusion of church and state so profound that the “axis of evil” will be expanded to be far more inclusive. All issues relating to international relations will also be cast in this definitional paradigm. Potential conflicts with “infidel nations” will become more of reality, while the national landscape will be defined by a Supreme Court with an extreme right wing interpretation of the consitution.
Words like “infidel,” “heretic,” “witch,” “blasphemer,” “sin,” “redemption” and “hell” will translate into everyday realities, while the definition of evil will grow exponentially. Strangely enough, Sarah Palin’s vision of the world is closer to Ahmadinejad’s then any of us can imagine.
But here is where our politics have to get far more personal. The truth is that any woman having an abortion is political in the deepest sense of the word. How do we translate that biological imperative into a political one? Will all the women who have had abortions say so publicly and stand for that choice with their lovers, husbands and friends?
The first step in this cosmic drama is to finally realize that the struggle for our rights is our responsibility.
One by One.
One person, one vote, one voice made into millions
We must create a transcendent class where we would identify with all women struggling to make choices, and defend them rather than resisting that power through guilt and denial..
How do we resist a potential “reign of terror” that would make Robespierre’s look like a preface? Rather then losing our heads, we must use them — along with our hearts and all our courage.in these multiple theaters of war.
One by one we must become the happy warriors–smiling into the battles thrust upon us — and drawing our own lines in the sand.
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
For more Merle Hoffman Editorials
Also See: Anti Abortion Terror Tactics Take A Toll by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
Also See: When “Pro-Life” Means Death by Mary Lou Greenberg in Summer 1998 On The Issues Magazine.