What Do We Do With the Fear of Disenfranchisement?


A friend brought to my attention this week one of The Onion’s faux-news articles that many of my friends and colleagues in the reproductive justice movement found chilling: New ‘Anti-Abortion Pill’ Kills Mother, Leaves Fetus Alive.

“This is a step forward for equality,” men’s rights activist Charles Hackett said. “For too long, women have had an unfair advantage in the outcome of a pregnancy. UR-86 levels the playing field for husbands and boyfriends across America.

Again, none of this article actually happened, no one in the article actually exists. However, the article and its fictional characters said exactly what many of us in the reproductive justice movement hear and understand the anti-abortion movement to be saying. It also expresses the deep fear that many feel about the changes that the social movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about, particularly the fear that (White) men may feel. Frank Rich addressed this in his recent op-ed “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,”  where he said that the “tsunami of anger” over the health care bill has much more to do demographic shifts and the enfranchisement of non-white men than any particular policy decision.

The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement…no matter what policies were in play.

How should the reproductive justice community address this fear of disenfranchisement, this fear that has fueled a very successful anti-abortion movement that continues to effectively limit and prevent access to abortion and other reproductive health services? A LOT of my training to be a clergy-person involves learning about managing and facilitating a community’s movement through major change. Even the most hoped-for and desired changes often bring about a sense of loss and grief for people. Unless addressed and managed well, such grief can turn toxic for a community — fear of change can turn into aggression and mean politics.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “Of the Dawn of Freedom” haunts me regarding these matters. In it, Du Bois explores the post-Civil War South and the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was charged with orchestrating the transitions of millions of formerly enslaved people into citizenship and, more pointedly, the paid labor force. As Du Bois put it, even “in a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, the social uplifting of four million slaves…would have been a herculean task” (17). In midst of post-Civil war America, in “the spite and hate of conflict, the hell of war” the task may well have been impossible.

Du Bois has this passage that totally blew my mind and has radically changed my understanding of how we, those dedicated to abortion access, approach the anti-abortion movement:

Amid it all, two figures ever stand to typify that day to coming ages,–the one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes;–and the other , a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white masters’ command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death of the sunken eyes of his wife,–aye, too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and born a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after “damned Niggers.” These were the saddest sights of that woful day; and no man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their long home, and hating, their children’s children live today.” (p.17-18).

No man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their long home, and hating, their children’s children live today.

Is Du Bois suggesting that we, as a society, did not appropriately grieve slavery, did not attend to the very real grief that “these two passing figures” experienced?  Is he saying that we as a society should have attended to the grief not only of the enslaved but also of the plantation-owners?  I think he is.  There were real relationships and communities that existed under that horrendous system, relationships and communities that were lost in liberation. Even the most just change, the most longed for change, can bring about its sadnesses and losses.  To deny this risks planting the seeds of hate that will fuel bitter conflict for generations to come.

The chattel-bondage system was/is deeply entrenched in our culture, perhaps only rivaled by one other oppressive system: gender.  Roe v. Wade represented a vast change in the course of Western human history—far greater, perhaps, than the dismantling of slavery.  The major religious, political, and medical institutions of “the West” have been fundamentally concerned with “the problem” that the most valuable “means of production” (women producing and maintaining (certain) human populations) is not easily controllable by those who rule and govern (i.e. men).   Accessible abortion does irrevocably what other contraceptive techniques do imperfectly: make pregnancy avoidable and therefore completely manageable/controllable by women.

Accessible abortion (and birth control) means loss and grief for those who derived a sense of security under the old societal arrangements, loss and grief that easily converts into fear and rage.  What might the reproductive justice community gain by attending to this grief? What would attending to that grief even look like?

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Follow Darcy Baxter on twitter: @revfaithdoula