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Complicity, Not Tyranny

The anger over Lori Szala’s abortion article

Last week, the New York Times op-ed section—still reeling from the backlash against the climate-change denying debut contribution from its new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, published another pronounced feint to the right, Lori Szala’s “The Problem With Linking Abortion and Economics.”

The problem, it turns out, is that such a link is nothing short of “dehumanizing,” by Szala’s lights, treating the semi-sacred mother-child bond as an elective contractual one. But the economic contractual of Szala’s working life also bears some edifying scrutiny. She has the innocuous title of “national director of  client services” at the equally innocuous sounding “Human Coalition.” But a  quick online search yields a call for donations that’s straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale: “We Will Not Waver!” It goes on to ask, “Unite with us in our mission to end the worst holocaust in human history, to protect image-bearers of God Himself, to bring help to abandoned and rejected women, and to rescue every preborn baby we can.”

It’s the “abandoned and rejected women” who occupy pride of place in Szala’s op-ed, which focuses on the need to save women from the supposedly long-lasting and traumatic effects of abortion. She writes about growing up in a single-parent, working-class family and becoming pregnant as a high school senior. According to her, she was “pressured” by her  “community” to abort. And after deciding against an abortion, life magically took an upward turn for Szala. She eventually made it in an investment firm, married, and had two more children.

Szala’s point is that if someone from her socioeconomic background can carry a baby to full term and have a prosperous and fulfilling life, then anyone can: economic need is no reason for a woman to seek an abortion. Here, she’s striking back against class-conscious feminists who insist  that a lack of access to abortion fosters income inequality and a lack of economic opportunities for women. She calls this, “a profoundly dehumanizing argument” that “reduces mothers and their children to mere economic objects, and amounts to saying we are justified in killing those who impede our economic progress. Parenting presents undeniable challenges, but no one argues that those challenges give parents the right to kill their children.”

By the end of the piece, Szala has stopped hinting at the sinister machinations of the abortion rights crowd and is outright calling them murderers. It’s this frenzied and apocalyptic tone, more like something out of the mouths of Westboro Church members than a nice white lady writing in the New York Times that sparked a torrent of outrage from defenders of women’s reproductive rights.

To some extent, they’re justified. After all, the Times, in all its liberal equanimity and with its warmongering and lying and then lying about the warmongering ways intact, has a legacy of High Liberalism, one that requires at least a tokenistic support for abortion rights. A luridly confrontational op-ed about abortion as “killing” seemed out of place. 

The Times owes us nothing, and we, it should be clear, owe it nothing.

But the Times is not your liberal uncle who suddenly went rogue when he turned sixty-five, funding the KKK and loudly discussing the sin of abortion as murder at the Thanksgiving table. It is a newspaper. It’s true that following the election of Trump, the Times, loudly castigated by Trump backers during the campaign as a prime purveyor of “fake news,” promptly cast itself as a bastion of last liberal hopes, the vanguard against the coming Trump apocalypse.  

But insurgency can only last so long. As the election shock wanes along with the realization that outraged liberal ire does not, after all, pay the bills, the Times has shifted course—and dramatically so with the hire of climate-denialist Stephens. Apparently, actual apocalypses are no big deal to them.

Which is to say: Szala’s column is not a sign of ideological incoherence or hypocrisy, it’s simply the Times doing what it needs to do to survive: whip up waves of emotion that wash up tens of thousands of eyeballs on its shores. It owes us nothing, and we, it should be clear, owe it nothing.

But that being said, it’s not that Szala’s views are utterly discordant with the readership of the Times, a largely privileged—or seeking-to-seem privileged—demographic of lifestyle liberals. It’s easy to assume that the Times has accidentally or wilfully let in the raggedy, ghastly messiness of some extreme right-winger on abortion, but if we look more closely at the politics of elite feminists on abortion, Szala’s hard-right denial of abortion rights  bears a distressing resemblance to the positions that liberal, and mostly white, feminists have taken on abortion over the past two decades.

In his remarkable book on his life as an abortion doctor, Dr. Willie Parker is sharply critical of the leaders of mainstream abortion rights movements. He charges that they’ve sold out  poor and usually black and brown women. Over the years, Parker points out, liberals have conceded too much ground in their ritual fetishization of motherhood—and those concessions have disproportionately harmed women unlike themselves: “Democrats began to concede that abortion was a ‘difficult,’ even ‘tragic’ choice” and “[turned] reasonable adult women who sought abortion into victims, awash in their own sad luck and bad judgment.”

In a better world, Szala’s views would simply be absurd. At a time when so many women see the new television series Handmaid’s Tale (based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel) as an allegory for the terrifying patriarchal agenda of the Trump movement, we might instead consider the reality facing most women in this country. So we might criticize Lori Szala for saying, “Have the babies,” but the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that her position is not so very different from the laws that make pregnant women—poor pregnant women—criminal for seeking the same procedure that their well-off counterparts can have in the safety of private hospitals.

Elite feminists mostly frame abortion rights in terms of choice, but “choice” only in terms of an affective, personal matter.

We might argue, vociferously, that there’s a significant distinction between outlawing abortion tout court, as Szala advocates, and deferring to its gradually ineluctable narrowed access, as elite and mostly white feminists have. But in fact, when it comes to the needs of economically marginalized women, who need to travel long distances and suffer waiting periods and other great inconveniences that make abortion impossible, there is no distinction. Szala writes contemptuously that a “few hundred dollars” has the effect of killing what she disingenuously calls a “child.” But Szala, despite her tale of early poverty, conveniently forgets that a “few hundred dollars” is an incredible burden for many women. Paying for an abortion can mean taking that money out of necessities like rent and food, and a further downslide into abject poverty. The fact that this option is still better than a lifetime of trying to care for another human whose additional needs can barely be met is a sign of how far we have failed poor women in their rights to abortion and reproductive choices. This failure to consider the economic needs of women who need abortion is endemic among elite feminists as well, who mostly frame abortion rights in terms of choice, but “choice” only in terms of an affective, personal matter.

In this way, the anger over Szala is like the anger over Trump: it allows us to forget that what’s rotten is not one woman’s noxious view on abortion but an entire system of forgetting. This pattern of elite complicity ends up simply ignoring the needs of women who are not white and not privileged—i.e., the women who actually rely on abortion to secure some measure of economic autonomy. Abortion rights are as good as nil in this country, and we didn’t get there simply because cabals of deluded women like Szala or maniacal groups of repressive men like Commander Fred forced them out of our hands.