The Handmaid's Time is Here: America’s Apotheosis of Woman-Hatred

Salon.com relays yet another horror story in the ongoing effort to criminalize American women for being …. women. From Salon:

Tamara Loertscher had a feeling she was pregnant, so she went to see a doctor last summer. She didn’t have health insurance, but sought care anyway. It turns out that her suspicions were right, a pregnancy test revealed she was 14 weeks along.

After a urine test, Loertscher said she disclosed to her doctor that, because of a thyroid condition and depression, she had been self-medicating with marijuana and methamphetamine, but had stopped when she suspected she was pregnant. It didn’t matter. Loertscher lives in Wisconsin, and a law there allows the state to arrest, detain and incarcerate pregnant women found to be using drugs, or, in Loertscher’s case, pregnant women who have used drugs in the past.

Hospital workers reported her, and a process was set in motion. The state accused her of child abuse and appointed her fetus a lawyer. (This is a familiar pattern.) She was ordered into an in-patient treatment facility, despite the fact that she was no longer using drugs and had voluntarily sought medical care. She refused, and was soon incarcerated.

Of course, this “law” is neither designed nor intended to “protect the fetus.” The most cursory thought makes this clear. How many more fetuses will suffer from this law, from lack of proper prenatal care because women will be too afraid to tell doctors of their full medical history? Many, many more. This the true aim of this law is clear: it is to punish women.

A woman who has taken drugs is automatically a "fallen woman" in the eyes of shallow moralists who hold such sway in our society. She is more likely to be poor (though by no means in every case). She is more likely to be unmarried (though by no means in every case). She is more likely to have expressed her sexuality in some way that makes the angry, wounded, fearful, sexually insecure white men who dominate our legislatures feel uncomfortable. These pathetic wretches, who fear and hate any woman they can't control, would be pitiable in their brokenness -- if they didn't have the power of the state at their command, to use as a weapon to hurt those who threaten the weak, frayed stitching of their fragile psyches.

On an individual basis, one might deal with such a person with some understanding, take mitigating factors into account -- upbringing, personal experiences, cultural milieu, etc. -- and seek some way to reach them and repair them (as we all need to be reached and repaired in different ways). But when this disease of the soul clothes itself in the robes of state, turning personal prejudice into a monolithic hammer brought down on the heads of the innocent, then there can be no pity, no accommodation with such people. An anti-Semitic wretch on the streets of Munich who projects his personal pain onto the caricatured Other of "The Jew" is simply pathetic; but one who joins this inner putrescence with a mass movement, a public ideology, encouraging it in others and finally taking hold of the power to punish the Other for being the mirror of his own self-hatred -- this is an entirely different proposition.

And this dynamic is exactly what we are dealing with in movement to criminalize pregnant women. The idea that in 21st century America we would put a woman in jail for being concerned enough about her baby that she informs her doctor about the full range of physical factors that might affect its development -- that we would throw someone in jail for this -- is simply astounding. (And yes, I know that technically she was jailed for refusing to submit to the state's order that she enter the somewhat less stringent incarceration of a treatment facility. The fact remains that the state has the power to incarcerate a pregnant woman for speaking the truth about her medical history in order to help her unborn child.)

These laws are just part of a wide-ranging campaign to punish women -- for their fertility, for their sexuality, for asserting their freedom and equality. These efforts provoke genuine, virulent hatred in many people, and not just those of extreme religious or rightwing view (or, sadly, not just men). And some these haters stand on the commanding heights of American society, in politics and media.

I wrote of one such diseased soul -- and the consequences of his kind of public hate speech -- a few years ago. Here is an excerpt:

What drove the man who killed Dr. George Tiller? Perhaps someone who had seen Tiller lambasted by one of the nation's leading media figures as someone "who will execute babies for $5,000" and protects "rapists impregnating 10-year-olds." Tiller's activities were compared by the leading national media figure to "the kind of stuff that happened in Mao's China and Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union." The multimillionaire media figure then promised that "we're going to try to stop Tiller," declaring that Tiller's Nazi-like atrocities were stripping the entire nation of its moral authority.

In other words, one the nation's most prominent and highly paid media figures told his national television audience that Dr. George Tiller was child-murdering protector of child-rapists, a figure of filth and evil on a par with Adolf Hitler. And on Sunday, someone filled with precisely that idea walked into Tiller's church -- his church -- and shot the doctor dead.

As Salon.com reports, Bill O'Reilly (aka "The Falafel of Love") has been "trying to stop" Tiller for years, since denouncing him as a Hitlerian child-murderer and child-rape accomplice on national television in 2006. We have no doubt that O'Reilly, who routinely trumpets his ability to move millions with his golden words (Is he not the man who, year after year, saves Christmas from the evil encroachments of Jews like George Soros?), will manfully step up to claim a large share of responsibility for the stormcloud of murderous demonization that has engulfed Tiller for years, and has now taken his life.

Come on, Bill, be a man: step up to the microphone, put your rubbery jowls right up there in the camera and tell us you are glad that your acolyte pumped some hot lead into George Tiller. After all, he was as bad as Hitler, right? If someone had gunned down Hitler, you wouldn't hide behind any milksoppery about "the process of law" or namby-pamby handwringing about "vigilantism," would you? Go ahead; dip your finger into one of the holes in Tiller's corpse, smear the blood on your cheek, and say it loud and proud: "We got him!"

As noted in that post, I'd written on the subject a few years before, in a 2003 post excerpted here:

The defining issue of modernity is control of women's fertility. It is this question – more than religion, politics, economics or the "clash of civilizations" – that forms the deepest dividing line in the world today. It is a line than cuts through every nation, every people, from the highest level of organized society down to, in many cases, the divided minds and emotions of individual men and women.

Control of fertility – and its active principle, sexuality – has always been an organizing principle of human society, of course, but modernity has presented the world with a revolutionary concept that overthrows millennia of received wisdom and tradition: namely, that an individual woman should control her own fertility. This notion destabilizes state structures and religious dogmas, and uproots cultural mores whose origins reach back to prehistoric times. It is a profoundly disturbing development in the life of humankind.

Little wonder, then, that anxieties over fertility and sexuality are the chief engines driving the frenzied and increasingly violent fundamentalist movements now sweeping through the world. It is here that extremists of every stripe make common cause against modernity. Almost every other aspect of "the modern" – science and technology, high finance, industrialization, etc. – has been absorbed, in one form or another, by the most "traditionalist" societies. But what today's fundamentalists – from Osama bin Laden to George W. Bush to Pope John Paul II, from the American-backed warlords of Afghanistan to the anti-American mullahs of Iran – cannot accept, at any cost, is the freedom of a woman's body.

This frenzy, this primitive fear – understandable perhaps in the face of such a wrenching upheaval – does not in itself make a fundamentalist an evil person. But it can – and does – lead them into evil: sometimes blindly, in ignorance and panic; but sometimes knowingly, with eyes wide open, a willing embrace of primitive emotions to serve selfish and cynical ends.

In a follow-up to the 2009 post, I noted that Arthur Silber had dealt powerfully with this theme, in an essay rich with historical detail and insight. I excerpted it here:

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.

Certainly, the woman's right to an abortion must be absolute in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. And even in the third trimester, up to the time of birth, that right must be absolute, and the decision must be that of the woman in consultation with those medical personnel she chooses. Yes, a decision to abort late in pregnancy may be agonizingly difficult, just as it may be at an earlier time -- but whatever agony is involved is that of the woman, not a politician or bureaucrat who is unjustly empowered to make decisions that affect someone else on the most profound level. The responsibility and the consequences are the woman's, and no one else's. The choice is also hers, and no one else's.

But little by little (and lots by lots), these choices , these rights are being stripped away from women, piece by piece, as this degraded, dystopian century grinds on and on.