The Right Without Which No Other Right Exists

Arthur Silber has a must-read post on the religious politics of abortion. He has two major premises, which in and of themselves are not new, but how he expresses them and connects them to each other is very original and, in my opinion, brings us to the heart of this issue.

The first is that abortion law should not be returned to the states, because the right to choose abortion (or not choose it) is rooted in fundamental principles of individual liberty which the federal government is bound to protect:


There are a great many aspects of today's world that are variously horrifying, ghastly, destructive and appalling -- and among the very worst is an idea that appears to be rapidly gaining support: the noxious notion that all questions relating to abortion rights should be returned to the states. For many reasons, only a few of which are discussed below, this idea is completely incoherent as a matter of political theory, and it undercuts any defense of individual rights on the most fundamental level. If you give a damn at all about the liberty of a single human being, you should oppose all such attempts to your last breath.

The human being to which I refer is not the developing fetus, but the woman who carries the child. I well understand that many people believe that the fetus is a human being long before birth, with all the rights that attend to that designation. In the political context, I consider all such beliefs irrelevant, no matter how sincerely and deeply held. Only one ultimate point matters here: whether you think the developing fetus is a human being or not, the fetus is contained in and supported by the woman's body. If the woman's body did not exist, neither would the fetus. Only the woman's existence makes that of the fetus possible.

The fetus only exists because of the woman's body -- not yours, not that of some possibly corrupt and stupid politician in Washington, and not the body of some possibly ignorant and venal politician in a state legislature. As I have watched this debate develop, and as I have considered with astonishment the increasingly byzantine efforts to " draw lines" about the point of viability, the time at which a full set of rights attaches to the fetus, and all the rest, I have become increasingly convinced that the right of the woman to control her own body when she is pregnant must be absolute up to the point of birth. All the attempts to craft legislation circumscribing that right prior to birth quickly become enmeshed in what are finally subjective claims that can be disputed into eternity, and impossible of proof in one direction or another.
[...]
In terms of the political theory involved, the basic question is a stark and simple one: if you cannot control your own body, what other rights can you possibly have? If your body is not yours, what does it matter if you can freely express your political and religious convictions? The principle involved is similarly simple: as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights, your right to control your own body is absolute. Period. For the reason indicated above, the fetus is not a person in the same sense the mother is: the fetus would not exist but for the woman who carries it. The woman's right to her own body must, in fact and in logic, take precedence over whatever rights you believe the fetus possesses, up to the time of birth.
[...]
As long as we have our current form of government, there is one task that must unquestionably belong to the federal government: the protection of those rights without which no other rights are possible. The most fundamental right is the right to one's own body. If you don't have that right, it is ridiculous to speak of other, derivative rights. Highway speed limits are optional; the right to your own body is not.

Arthur's second premise ties the body ownership issue to a particular view of women and sexuality that is deeply rooted in Western culture, but -- and here's the twist -- largely because of St. Augustine's radical reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve myth in Genesis:
In an essay from November 2005, "Let's Talk About Sex!," I examined pornography and prostitution in the context of the West's cultural tradition that views women, sex and the human body in general in extraordinarily negative terms. At the conclusion of my discussion of one of key myths underlying these views, that of Adam of Eve, I wrote:
There are other versions of the Adam and Eve story, and some of them are more "positive" in tone, both with regard to sex in general and women in particular. But the unfathomably negative one suffuses our culture, even today. It is almost impossible to capture just how negative and damning this myth is with regard to women, especially when you add in all the attitudes that flow out of it And this is just one myth.

It is critical to understand that the particular version of this myth that suffuses our cultural attitudes toward women didn't just fall from the sky, as much as the adherents of certain religions might wish to believe it did. It was invented -- and it was invented by one man in particular.

In "The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children," I offered an excerpt from Jamake Highwater's, Myth and Sexuality. I offer this passage again here, because if you want to understand the ultimate roots of the contemporary debate about abortion and the vilification of women, it is this tradition, one deeply embedded in the way we view the world, that you need to grasp:
Make no mistake: almost every single one of you reading this has internalized, at least to some extent, the indefensible notion that sex is sinful and corrupt. And your problem is not James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, or even much less extreme religious leaders of today. Your problem is Augustine, and his reinterpretation of Genesis. ...

Here is a portion of Arthur's excerpt from Highwater's book (an excerpt of the excerpt!). Bolds are mine:
In the late fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was living in an entirely different political world from his Church predecessors. Christianity was no longer a dissident sect but the state religion of Rome. Christians were now free to follow their faith and were officially encouraged to do so. Such a drastic transformation of the social circumstance of Christians required yet another revision of the reading of Genesis. It was Augustine who undertook this new interpretatioin of Adam and Eve, resulting in a viewpoint vastly different from the majority of his Jewish and Christian predecessors. As [Elaine] Pagels notes, what had been read as a tale of the right to quest for human freedom now became an Augustinian story of human bondage. Hitherto, most Jews and Christians had understood from Genesis that God gave humankind the right of moral freedom, and that Adam had misused it and thereby brought death and pain into the world. Augustine, however, was not content with the travails of such an interpretation, and he went a good deal further. He contended that Adam's sin not only caused our mortality but also corrupted our sexuality. If these notions contradicted the notorious sexual conduct of Rome, they indirectly sanctioned the limitations placed on the political freedom of Romanized Christians, a forfeiture that the followers of Jesus paid to Rome for its sanction of religious freedom. It was Augustine who reread Genesis to fit the limitations of Christian freedom within the Roman world. He observed that Adam's sin had not only made sex irreversibly corrupt, but it also cost us our free will, rendering us incapable of genuine political freedom. "Augustine's theory of original sin offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better or worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and the major influence on their psychological and political thinking." (Pagels)

So that old meme, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament" is true, Arthur tells us. But the reason goes deeper than just a hypocritical male willingness to deny women a choice they would never deny themselves. It goes back to this Augustinian notion that women are The Source of All Evil:
Our culture today views the body as inherently sinful; this belief is treated as an axiom beyond challenge. Sex is especially sinful -- and the final responsibility for the evil of sex and of the body is located in woman. Adam would not have sinned but for Eve's initial transgression.

Evil is located in woman, and in her body and its potentialities. Such evil must be channeled and controlled: it must be brought under the whip of righteousness. The campaign to limit or even eliminate abortion is not about pregnancy or the fetus at all: it is about controlling the body, and controlling pleasure, especially sexual pleasure.

For the most part, men run the world. They are not interested in controlling themselves, and they will still pursue their own pleasure as they choose -- but evil must be resisted. So they turn to their eternal scapegoat, and what they view as the final source of evil in this world, the barrier between themselves and redemption: woman. If our world and men are to be saved, they must be saved from woman.

This is, finally, what the battle about abortion concerns. To the extent people choose to limit a woman's right to her own body, they accept and reinforce this endlessly destructive cultural tradition -- and they believe in Original Sin, even if they are atheists. Religion holds no exclusive claim to irrationality of this kind. They seek to control abortion because they seek salvation, whether they recognize that fact or not. To bring salvation nearer, women must be eternally subordinate, and they cannot be allowed to do anything other than what men allow.

Thanks to Liberty Street and Shakesville reader, Chief, for the link.

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