Henneberger and the Pro-Choice Cassandra Syndrome: WashPo Columnist Continues Tradition of Ignoring Reality


Over the weekend, one of the most clear-cut examples of the Cassandra syndrome as applied to the pro-choice movement came to pass. For those who don’t know, “Cassandra” refers to a famous figure in Greek mythology, described by Wise Geek accurately as

Cassandra is often thought of as the doomsayer of the Trojan people, according to Greek mythology. She was a chosen prophet of Apollo, who failed to either obey his instructions or return his love, depending upon the version of the myth. Thus Apollo gifted her with prophecy, but at the same time, he made sure that no one would ever believe anything she said.

As such, the prophecies of Cassandra are always true, but people around her treat her like a madwoman. As the daughter of King Priam of Troy, she prophesies the destruction and fall of Troy to the Athenians. Cassandra is, of course, ignored.

In some versions of the tale, Cassandra warns the Trojans not to accept the gift of the wooden horse statue from the Greeks; this warning is ignored and pretty much laughed at, resulting in the final battle that destroys Troy.

Journalists and researchers who objectively watch and understand the anti-choice movement can certainly relate. It’s been quite clear to us for a long time now that the anti-choice movement not only wants to ban abortion, but wants to restrict access to contraception, and in many cases, ban it outright. But every time we point this out, we’re poo-poohed and treated like madwomen.  It seems that no amount of evidence marshaled to support our argument matters. We stand there around screaming, “Now come on! Don’t you see all the feet and arms sticking out of that wooden horse? Why do you think it sounds like there are people singing Greek battle songs inside it? It’s full of Greeks!”, only to be faced with our fellow Trojans, cheerfully rolling it in and saying, “Don’t be such a pissy pants. This horse is a very nice gift and we don’t like looking gift horses in the mouth.” Because they fear if they did, they wouldn’t be able to deny that there’s a bunch of Greeks sitting in the mouth, sharpening swords.

On Wednesday, Irin Carmon at Salon wrote a round-up of the evidence that Rick Santorum is coming for your birth control: he supports an overturn of the Supreme Court decision, he wants to defund family planning clinics, he has repeatedly said that he thinks contraception is immoral and that all sex should be procreative. Melinda Henneberger responded with a baffling “nuh-uh!” piece in the Washington Post, claiming that she asked Santorum if he was coming after our birth control, and he denied it, which satisfied her.

This, even though, in the very same interview, Santorum admitted that he’s coming for your birth control, reiterating his support for defunding family planning. Putting contraception out of the reach of a huge share of American women certainly sounds like coming after your birth control to me. Perhaps Henneberger doesn’t really see low-income women as part of the collective “you” that Carmon was addressing, and needs a reminder that legally, low-income women are—believe it or not—still considered citizens and human beings.

Irin responded by pointing out that the piecemeal approach has long been the favorite of anti-choicers, and so the fact that any opponent of birth control “just” wants to restrict access severely shouldn’t be taken as evidence of anything but that they’re trying to get away with as much as they can now, hoping to be able to get away with more in the future. But Henneberger wants a much higher bar from claiming that someone is coming for your birth control. The evidence she said she’d accept is “a bonfire of the barrier methods” or “metaphorically riffling through medicine chests and nightstands from coast to coast.” Presumably, if there’s a bonfire of female-controlled methods, or the riffling through medicine chests is restricted to the red states, that wouldn’t rise to the level of bona fide opposition to contraception in Henneberger’s book.

Which brings up a question. Imagine if social conservatives demanded the defunding of all libraries, insisted that states have a right to ban the sale and possession of books that aren’t the Bible, and advocated that schools stop teaching reading. Would Henneberger take umbrage if liberals said that they were “coming after your books,” snottily claiming that we can’t say they have a problem with books until they’re actually burning them in the streets? After all, blue states would still allow legal access to books and wealthy people would be able to afford tutors to teach their children to read. Only hysterics would think that this new movement was anti-literacy, by the impossibly high standards she’s set. They’re clearly just really dedicated to “states rights”.

Santorum has certainly been trying to imply that his open hostility to Griswold v. Connecticut is simply an unfortunate result of his principled belief that the Supreme Court is basically an illegitimate institution that should have apparently no power to rule against states that the Court feels violate the Constitution. Leaving aside whether or not he’s made an argument to support that contention, the question remains: why then use Griswold as your example? Jill at Feministe pointed out the problem with this argument:

Welcome to Disingenuous Central. “Contraception has nothing to do with it”? Sure. Santorum just picked that case of out thin air. I’m sure he was going through the list of cases where the court evaluated state law and was like, “Hmmm, Brown v. Board of Ed, Loving v. Virginia, Engle v. Vitale, Cohen v. California, Marsh v. Alabama, NAACP v. Button, Stanley v. Georgia, Gonzalez v. Raich… Oh I just like the sound of the name Griswold, let’s go with that.”

Exactly. If you want to illustrate that you have an absolutist view that the Court should never consider state law, you would reach for a decision that is more famous, such as Brown v. Board of Ed. Or, if he won’t say it, he should be asked about Brown as a follow-up, instead of simply taking him at his word that he’s simply opposed to federal courts have jurisdiction over states.  If he supports an overturn of Brown, okay, well, he’s being consistent. But I doubt he’d actually say that if asked. So then we have to ask, well, then why on earth would he single out Griswold if it wasn’t for his well-established anti-contraception views?

Henneberger refused to perform simple due diligence in her supposed “debunking” of pro-choice claims. On the contrary, she seems to have already determined that the silly little feminists are being hysterical, and didn’t feel any need to conduct basic journalism that gets to the heart of this question. If she had done her job, she probably would have come to the same conclusions as Carmon did in her Salon pieces.

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