The Greatest Threat to Choice
Jeniece Learned stood amid a crowd of earnest-looking men and women, many with small gold crosses in their lapels or around their necks, in a hotel lobby in Valley Forge, Pa. She had an easy smile and a thick mane of black, shoulder-length hair. She was carrying a booklet called “Ringing In a Culture of Life,” which was the schedule of the two-day event she was attending, organized by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. The event was “dedicated to the 46 million children who have died from legal abortions since 1973 and the mothers and fathers who mourn their loss.”
Learned, who had driven five hours from a town outside Youngstown, Ohio, was raised Jewish. She wore a gold Star of David around her neck with a Christian cross inset in the middle of the design. She stood up in one of the morning sessions, attended by about 300 people, most of them women. The speaker, Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had asked if there were any “post-abortive” women present. The most fervent activists in the pro-life movement have usually had abortions, with large numbers admitting to multiple abortions.
Learned runs a small pregnancy counseling clinic called Pregnancy Services of Western Pennsylvania, in Sharon, where she tries to talk young girls and women, most of them poor, out of having abortions. She speaks in local public schools, promoting sexual abstinence as the only acceptable form of contraception. And she has found in the fight against abortion, and in her conversion, a structure, purpose and meaning that previously eluded her.
The relentless drive against abortion by the Christian right — the first salvo having been fired with the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision last month to uphold the federal ban on the procedure known as “partial birth abortion” — has nothing to do with the protection of life. It is, rather, a cover for a wider and more pernicious assault against the ability of women to control their own bodies, the use of contraception and sexual pleasure. The movement openly conflates contraceptives with devices or substances that cause abortion. It holds up as heroes of “conscience” those pharmacists who refuse to sell contraceptives. It works to block over-the-counter sales of Plan B emergency contraceptive pills. It peddles, with hundreds of millions in tax dollars handed to the movement by the Bush administration, abstinence-only sex-ed curricula and opposes a vaccine against the HPV virus, the major cause of cervical cancer, claiming it would promote promiscuity.
The denial of contraception, as is well documented, increases the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. And abortion is never going to go away. If it again becomes illegal, the rich, as in the past, will find ways to provide abortions for their wives, mistresses and girlfriends, and the poor will die in unhygienic back rooms. But since this is a war with a wider agenda, abortion statistics and facts do not count. The Christian right fears pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, which it sees as degrading, corrupting and tainted. For many, their own experiences with sex — coupled with their descent into addictions and often sexual and domestic abuse before they found Christ — have led them to build a movement that creates an external rigidity to cope with the chaos of human existence, a chaos that overwhelmed them. They do not trust their own urges, their capacity for self-restraint or judgment. The Christian right permits its followers to project evil outward, a convenient escape for people unable to face the darkness and the psychological torments within them.
The leaders of this movement understand that the only emotion that cannot be subsumed into communal life, which they seek to dominate and control, is love. They fear the power of love, especially when magnified and expressed through tender, sexual relationships, which remove couples from their control. Sex, when not a utilitarian form of procreation, is dangerous.
They seek to fashion a world where good and evil are clearly defined and upheld by the nation’s judicial system. The battle against abortion is a battle to build a society where pleasure and freedom, where the capacity of the individual and especially women to make choices, and indeed even love itself, are banished. And this is why pro-life groups oppose contraception — even for those who are married. The fight against abortion is the facade for a wider fight against the right of an individual in a democracy.
Army of God, a pro-life organization that holds up as Christian “heroes” those who murder abortion providers, defines birth control as another form of abortion, as do many other pro-life groups. In the “Birth Control Is Evil” section of their website it reads: “Birth control is evil and a sin. Birth control is anti-baby and anti-child. …Why would you stop your own child from being conceived or born? What kind of human being are you?”
Learned’s life, before she was saved, was typically chaotic and painful. Her childhood was stolen from her. She was sexually abused by a close family member. Her mother periodically woke Learned and her younger sister and two younger brothers in the middle of the night to flee landlords who wanted back rent. The children were bundled into the car and driven in darkness to a strange apartment in another town. Her mother worked nights and weekends as a bartender. Learned, the oldest, often had to run the home. She got pregnant in high school and had an abortion.
“There was a lot of fighting,” she said. “I remember my dad hitting my mom one time and him going to jail. I don’t have a lot of memories, mind you, before eighth grade because of the sexual abuse. When he divorced my mom, he divorced us, too.”
“My grandfather committed suicide, my mom and my dad both tried suicide, my brothers tried suicide,” she said. “In my family, there was no hope. The only way to solve problems when they got bad was to end your life.”
She eventually married, had a born-again experience and began taking classes at Pacific Christian College in Orange County in California. During a chapel service an anti-abortion group, Living Alternative, showed a film called “The Silent Scream.”
“You see in this movie this baby backing up trying to get away from this suction tube,” she said. “And, its mouth is open and it is like this baby is screaming. I flipped out. It was at that moment that God just took this veil that I had over my eyes for the last eight years. I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating. I ran outside. One of the girls followed me from Living Alternative. And she said, ‘Did you commit your life to Christ?’ And I said, ‘I did.’ And she said, ‘Did you ask for your forgiveness of sins?’ And I said, ‘I did.’ And she goes, ‘Does that mean all your sins, or does that mean some of them?’ And I said, ‘I guess it means all of them.’ So she said, ‘Basically, you are thinking God hasn’t forgiven you for your abortion because that is a worse sin than any of your other sins that you have done.’ ”
The film ushered her into the fight to make abortion illegal. Her activism, like that of many women in the movement, became atonement for her own abortion.
She struggled with severe depression after she gave birth to her daughter Rachel. When she came home from the hospital she was unable to care for her infant. She thought she saw an 8-year-old boy standing next to her bed. It was, she is sure, the image of the son she had “murdered.”
“I started crying and asking God over and over again to forgive me,” she remembered. “I had murdered his child. I asked him to forgive me over and over again. It was just incredible. I was possessed. On the fourth day I remember hearing God’s voice. ‘I have your baby, now get up!’ It was the most incredibly freeing and peaceful moment. I got up and I showered and I ate. I just knew it was God’s voice.”
The fight against abortion is a battle against a culture she and those in the movement despise. It is a culture they believe betrayed them. The rigidity of the new belief system, the sanctification of hatred toward those who would “murder” the unborn or contaminate America with the godless creed of “secular humanism,” fosters feelings of righteousness and virtue. But it also means destroying all competing communities. The sense of entitlement and inclusiveness, brought on by the certitude of belief, is matched by the power of destructive fury.
Learned lives in the nation’s Rust Belt. The flight of manufacturing jobs has turned most of the old steel mill towns around her into wastelands of poverty and urban decay. The days when steel workers could make middle-class salaries are a distant and cherished memory. She lives amid America’s vast and growing class of dispossessed, those tens of millions of working poor, 30 million of whom make less than $8.70 an hour, the official poverty level for a family of four. Most economists contend that it takes at least twice this amount to provide basic necessities to a family of four. These low-wage jobs, which come without benefits or job security, have meant billions in profits for corporations that no longer feel the pressure or the need to take care of their workers. But this new American landscape has also bred a profound despair and hopelessness, as well as physical destruction of community that fuels the Christian right.
The war to “protect life,” to crush “the culture of death,” is a war against the open society. It is a war to push back the gains in women’s rights, in personal choice, in the power of the individual to form his or her own life. It is a war that seeks to refashion America into a place where external forms of repression, imposed by the government, are used in a bid to contain the brokenness, desperation and emotional turmoil of those Americans whom we, as a society, betrayed. It is, in short, a war of revenge. And until we re-enfranchise these Americans into society, until we give them hope and alleviate the economic and social blights that have plunged them into the arms of demagogues and charlatans who promise a mythical, unachievable Christian paradise and utopia, we will have to face a growing assault on our personal liberties and freedoms.
Chris Hedges, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.”Wait, before you go…
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