In the ongoing debate around Mifepristone, the medication used in more than half of all U.S. abortions and the availability of which was recently put at risk, one fascinating (if depressing) historical perspective has been overlooked.
Background: U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump-appointee and anti-abortion ideologue based in Amarillo, sided with an anti-abortion group when he ruled in April to reverse the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Mifepristone, even though more than 5 million American women since 2000 have used the drug, which ends pregnancy in the first 10 weeks.
In siding with the Alliance Defending Freedom, Kacsmaryk gave credence to one of the group’s main arguments — that the FDA cut scientific corners and that Mifepristone presents a danger to women, despite more than 100 studies showing the pill is safe, even safer than drugs like Tylenol and Viagra.
Kacsmaryk’s decision — the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled the drug should remain widely available while an appeal works through the judicial system — is absurd on its face, as is a separate ruling that would keep the drug on the shelves but needlessly constrain its use.
But what’s interesting is how ADF’s “safety” argument fits so neatly into a time-worn tradition, one in which those promoting policies that oppress women do so by claiming that very oppression is needed to protect them and better serve their interests.
That’s the historical part.
It’s a vile and disingenuous impulse that can be seen down through the ages of human history. Let’s take a trip down this ignominious hall of shame, framing our journey with the all-important question: Who benefits?
Probably the most heinous example — although all these epochs and episodes in human cultural evolution are heinous — is female genital mutilation. It involves the cutting or excision, usually by an untrained folk healer in unclean settings, of a girl or young woman’s genitals, sometimes just the clitoris, sometimes her entire external genitalia.
The practice dates as far back as 2,200 B.C., before the advent of Christianity and Islam, according to the Orchid Project, an international nonprofit that aims to end female genital cutting. While practitioners of female genital mutilation often claim religious roots, there are none. Instead the practice is a deep-rooted tradition that takes place primarily in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and among diaspora communities from those countries.
More than 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital cutting, most of whom have experienced tragic physical and psychological harm, if not death, and while the practice has subsided in some communities it has proved remarkably stubborn to completely eradicate.
Why would a mother allow her daughter’s genitals to be mutilated?
The reason stems from entrenched ideas that girls aren’t suitable for marriage unless they’ve been cut, and that uncut girls and women are unclean, bad luck or lacking in morals. And in traditional cultures where female genital mutilation is practiced, not to be married is a kind of social death for women, so cutting is viewed as vital to their well-being.
But, really, who benefits when a woman’s ability to enjoy sex is severely limited, if not totally destroyed? Could it be men, who no longer have to worry about a bride’s virginity or a wife’s infidelity and the social embarrassment it might cause? Or the illegitimate children he might unknowingly raise?
Flash over to 10th century China.
For several hundred years, starting with elite families and then spreading to the broader community and countryside, millions of Chinese girls had their feet gradually broken and painfully misshaped in the practice of footbinding, a horrid social ritual that ultimately rendered them unable to walk.
The practice was tied up with social conventions that said girls with unbound feet had — surprise! — lesser chances of getting married, which meant they forwent all the benefits that marriage conferred in a society where women had no power. Like the corsets of Victorian England, footbinding constrained women’s movements and kept them at home — for their own good, of course.
But who benefited?
It turns out the reasoning was broader than just the preferences of men who found tiny, deformed feet somehow erotic. Studies show that footbinding had an economic role as well, in that it kept girls at home, where they could earn money for the household through handicrafts, like spinning cotton. (A general rule when it comes to the oppression of women: When it’s not sex, it’s money.)
Flash forward again, to 19th century America, to the era of the so-called “Cult of Domesticity.”
This next gambit designed to rob women of their autonomy (at least white, middle- and upper-class ones) posited that they were biologically inferior to men and by their natures suited only to the roles of wife and mother. They were the “angels of the house” — too pure, pious and submissive to have any role beyond the home.
Only men, labeled biologically superior, were allowed to be citizens of the outside world, and women, who lacked even basic rights, were lucky to have their security and protection!
Who benefitted? Do we really need to ask?
The 19th century cult of the angel (based on ancient ideas of “separate spheres” for men and women) grew out of the Industrial Revolution and was a kind of cultural aberration.
Before industrialization prompted husbands to leave home for factories, men and women largely toiled side-by-side on the family farm or workplace — if not pure equals, then at least common helpmates.
You can see the modern-day cult of the angel once again in post-war 1950s America, a blip that was a similar kind of social aberration.
Women were told that their primary role was wife and mother, and the most they could hope for in life was a gaggle of children and shiny kitchen appliances, an idea zealously promoted by women’s magazines that effectively entombed their readers.
In her groundbreaking 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan sought to identify the ennui and dissatisfaction women experienced by being trapped at home — again, for their own good! — dubbing it the “problem with no name,” a malady for which many wives found temporary relief in “Mother’s Little Helper” (Valium).
Our trip down the hall of shame isn’t complete without a visit to the anti-suffragists, who argued that women shouldn’t be granted the right to vote because they were incapable of serious thought and the heady responsibility might drive them insane. It also might render them infertile.
Unbelievably, women didn’t universally earn the vote in the U.S. until 1920.
Who benefitted by keeping women out of the voting booth? The growing gender gap in voting patterns shows that conservatives were astute indeed to worry about the nature and direction of the female vote. (For more than two decades, women have leaned toward Democrats.)
Flash-forward to the present day.
The same vile impulses can be witnessed in the multiple attempts to “protect women” by misleading them over the risks of abortion, claiming it causes breast cancer, psychological damage, infertility and other problems, myths that studies have categorially debunked.
Now comes the fight over Mifepristone, with men — and it is mostly men, although plenty of women are implicated — asserting that apparently unwitting females need to be shielded from a “dangerous” drug.
Who benefits in the ongoing abortion war?
I don’t doubt that many foot soldiers in the anti-abortion movement genuinely believe that terminating embryos or fetuses is tantamount to murdering babies, and that ending abortion means saving human lives — that’s who benefits, they would argue.
Of course, many of these soldiers also argue against access to contraception, which raises the specter that the age-old impulse to corral and constrain female sexuality is what truly underlies their beliefs, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.
But what about the leaders of the war?
Those same foot soldiers might be shocked to learn that in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Republican politicians (and voters) and even some evangelical leaders supported abortion rights in many instances.
The pivot to condemning abortion grew out of political expediency, not just for cynical politicians aiming to score votes (and dollars), but for evangelical leaders, who needed a new purpose to rally the faithful when the government’s refusal to grant tax-exempt status to their all-white religious universities turned that “biblical” and racist cause into a nonstarter.
For anti-abortion politicians, it’s easy to see why the procedure is a favorite hobby horse.
As long as they can keep the base focused on abortion — or trans rights, or “wokeness,” or book-banning — they can keep them riled up and voting in their favor. Meanwhile, amongst the noise, other pressing issues like income inequality and climate change fade into the quiet background.
And it’s surely not a coincidence that access to abortion — so critical to women’s ability to determine their own lives — has come increasingly under attack during a time when female students have begun to outnumber the male ones in colleges and universities, law and medical schools.
And it’s happening in an era when women have finally begun to make inroads into the political power structures in this country.
Who benefits from the onslaught on abortion rights? It’s certainly not women.
Again: Do we really need to ask?