Mourdock’s Motivation

So in a development that delights many Democrats, we’re into the second full day of pondering the hammer-headed views of Indiana Treasurer and Senate nominee Richard Mourdock on exactly which tiny, tiny percentage of American women would be allowed to make their own reproductive choices in the good and godly society this man contemplates.

In trying to explain his no-exceptions (other than where a women’s life is in imminent danger), position as including compulsory child-bearing for rape victims, Mourdock came across as a mite insensitive to women and as an incompetent (or at least inarticulate) amateur theologian. And so the second-day debate revolves around whether he is the brave defender of an internally consistent if unpopular point of view, or just a piggy piggy sort of man who generally wants women to think of themselves as passive vessels for the gratification of their servant-leaders and the incubation of offspring.

This isn’t just a predictable left-right debate, by the way. For years, pro-choice folk have debated publicly and privately as to whether the religious convictions of anti-choicers (particularly men) are sincere, or simply represent a hostility to changing gender roles and/or a fear of female sexuality. At TNR today, Amy Sullivan defends Mourdock’s (and by extension, most anti-choicers’) sincerity:

Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about.

Sullivan’s right, of course, that once you adopt the premise that a zygote is metaphysically just like a fully grown adult human being, who just happens to live within the body of another human being, then it’s logical to hold that the zygote’s rights trump any other consideration beyond the life of the “host” incubator, which is why most serious “movement” RTLers (whose views have been accepted by the national Republican Party as reflected in party platforms going back to 1980) reject the rape-incest exceptions other than on the most purely tactical grounds. And as you can see from various conservative arguments since the Mourdock controversy blew up, many anti-choicers think it’s easy to distinguish that line of reasoning from Todd Akin’s disastrous comments on rape because the latter was making an empirically unsupported claim about the likelihood of pregnancy from rape that suggested rape victims were lying (so too, of course, were the vast number of congressional Republicans, including Paul Ryan, who favored a reformulation of the Hyde Amendment that narrowed its exception to cases of “forcible rape,” implying that a lot of “rapes” aren’t, to use Akin’s infelicitous term, “legitimate”).

All these rationalizations, of course, miss the broader point that significant majorities of Americans, regardless of their general sentiments on abortion, are instinctively horrified by the idea of rape victims become state-sanctioned compulsory incubators for the children of rapists.

And that gets us back to the more fundamental question about the sincerity of antichoicers citing religious justifications for views on the law and policy of abortion that aren’t just “controversial” or “unpopular,” but are in fact antithetical to the kind of charitable and respectful attitudes towards half the human race that most religious and irreligious folk alike find essential. But is Amy Sullivan right? Are religious antichoicers in the grips of a Here I Stand, No Other Can I Do conviction that compels them to say “insensitive” things and take noxious public policy convictions?

It’s on this point that I personally draw a preliminary line between Catholics and Protestants (I don’t know enough about the theological justifications of non-Christian antichoicers to say anything about their motives). Catholic anti-choicers base their views on the explicit teachings of an authoritative (and some would say, authoritarian) magisterium that has been reinforced very regularly in recent years, based in turn on a natural-law tradition that goes back to the Greeks. You can certainly argue, as do many Catholic liberals, that the hard line on abortion reflects a distortion of traditional teaching and that its enforcement reflects a perverted notion of papal supremacy, but it’s not as though grassroots Catholic antichoicers have no leg to stand on other than generalized hostility to women.

Evangelical Protestants, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, are another matter. You can read your Bible all day long and find vague, indirect references to fetal life, but nothing like a flat prohibition of abortion, much less of abortion in cases of rape and incest. And evangelical Protestants, of course, have no pope, no magisterium, no natural-law tradition, and for that matter, no single authority for scriptural interpretation. Until recently, even very conservative evangelical denominations (notably the Southern Baptist Convention) were either agnostic on the subject of abortion or were actively pro-choice. The whole idea that being a faithful evangelical Christian meant that all political activity had to begin with a hard-line anti-abortion position is a very recent invention, accompanied almost invariably by the promotion of a patriarchal notion of family and gender roles that’s little more than a divinization of, to use President Obama’s term from the last debate, “the social policies of the 1950s.”

So pace Sullivan, no, I’m not so inclined to concede the religious sincerity of Richard Mourdock, other than to concede that he is part of a movement within American Christianity that has so confused religious and secular causes and motivations that the distinction has lost all meaning. No, Richard Mourdock (and Todd Akin) may not subjectively “hate women or want to control women,” but it’s almost worse to assume they think, with no compelling evidence, that God Almighty is calling them to control women and “hate” them in the sense of dismissing their bodies, their health, and their autonomy as systematically without value in law or policy. And they are hardly alone or without power, as we may learn to our regret after November 6.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.