In a recent discussion with a woman of my acquaintance who lives in rural, Bible Belt Texas, the subject of how hard it is to get a good doctor came up. My acquaintance said that she had yet to find a decent gynecologist, because the last one she visited insisted on praying over her before performing the pelvic exam. And I mean right before. He didn’t, say, pray over her and then leave the room so she could disrobe. He waited until she was in the stirrups and then chose that moment to pray over her, like he was a solider about to go into battle or an athlete heading into the big game. Obviously, she’s in the market for a new doctor, but in the land of tumbleweeds and Bible thumpers, pickings are slim.
I bring this story up, because I think it goes a long way towards explaining how the state of Texas has gotten so bad in terms of sexual health measurements, as detailed by Martha Kempner here at RH Reality Check. Turns out that, contrary to the claims of abstinence-only promoters, that Jesus-inflected fear and loathing of sexuality (especially female sexuality) isn’t so great for sexual health. Even within Texas, you can see the correlation between fundamentalism and poor public health outcomes. Take Lubbock, TX, which is well known for the control exerted by the religious right. Lubbock’s chlamydia rate is 33 percent higher than the national average. Part of that has to do with the fact that there’s a large university in town, but the fact remains that the high-minded promises that Jesus will lure kids from the backseats of cars to the pews have proven false, but have left those who prefer the backseats without the knowledge and access to contraception to keep themselves safe.
Trying to get decent sex education and sexual health policy past the religious right is impossible because, as I know all too well growing up in Texas, they aren’t, at the end of the day, remotely interested in outcomes. By “outcomes,” I mean any real-world result of public health policies, such as STD tranmission rates or unintended pregnancy rates. All that is just background noise in their evidence-and-reality-free discussions about their religious ideals. That their religious ideal of everyone waiting for marriage to have sex has no relationship to real life choices—not even for the people sitting in the pews—is literally of no consequence to them. It’s hard to pay attention to the real world when you’re constantly enveloped in pontifications about what you imagine the supernatural to be.
You can really see how this is playing out in the fight in Mississippi over a constitutional amendment that would grant fertilized eggs legal personhood status. Irin Carmon of Salon traveled to Mississippi to interview supporters of this amendment and found that they were incredibly short on the details of how such a thing would work, but quite long on the religiosity. As she notes:
The Personhood movement in Mississippi is openly theocratic. Riley has written that “for years, the pro-life movement and the religious right has allowed the charge [of being “religiously motivated”] to make them run for cover. I think we should embrace it.” Riley, in fact, had already enthusiastically embraced Christian secessionist and neo-Confederate groups as part of his coalition.
Understanding this goes a long way towards understanding why the anti-choice movement shows so little interest in the effects of their policies, and why many of them will go so far as to fight to withhold the HPV vaccine from young women, knowing full well that some of them will die because of it. They simply aren’t interested in the real world consequences of their political preferences.
For the religious right, political activism is about winning for winning’s sake. Writing their religious dogma about the meaning of conception would represent a triumph over secular humanism. While I have no doubt that they don’t care much if they hurt women—and many are looking forward to seeing women punished for falling short of being the Virgin Mary in their eyes—the most important priority is circumventing the constitutional prohibition on theocratic rule. Making fertilized eggs “persons” gives their religious dogma precedence over science and basic human decency towards women. It falls short of creating an official state church, but it inches closer to that ultimate goal.
There’s a strong chance that pro-choicers will win the battle over the personhood amendment in Mississippi. It’s simply too extreme, even for the what may be the most right wing state in the country, especially since there’s a strong chance the amendment will be used to prosecute women for miscarrying and to restrict access to the birth control pill. Highlighting the real world effects of passing religious dogma into law is helpful when the dogma is extreme, as was shown when the personhood amendment went down in defeat in Colorado. If we win in Mississippi, this will be why.
That said, we have to do more than simply talk about the real world effects of theocratic policy. After all, the theocrats have warmed up the general public to the idea that it wouldn’t be so bad if they got some of their religious agenda passed into law, which is how abortion restrictions and abstinence-only education slip pass the voters, even though both are direct violations of the separation of church and state. We need to talk about religious freedom as a value, and explain why the Founders considered it so important that they made it the first amendment to the Constitution. We need to explain why it’s so offensive to turn religious beliefs about female sexuality that are only shared by some in our society into laws the govern us all. Since we can’t reason with the religious right on this issue, we need to highlight how unreasonable they are to the people who keep voting for them without fully understanding what that means.