Years ago, at a conservative Christian college, I lived under a set of rules. The rules were related to one another, and breaking them could ruin a life. If I got an abortion, I could be expelled from college. Not breaking them could ruin a life too. If I abetted anyone else in getting an abortion, I could also be expelled. I have always counted myself exceedingly fortunate that I did not need an abortion in college, that the abusive relationship I endured at the time resulted merely in post-traumatic stress and not an unplanned pregnancy. In that scenario, I would have broken the rules, or tried. I would have broken them for someone else. I would have risked everything. My college education, the goodwill of my family, all of it. Instead, I broke plenty of other rules. I hid my birth-control pills under my dorm-room mattress and thanked something that wasn’t quite God that no RA ever found them.
In time, I left that college with a degree. Or at least I thought I had left. All the years since, that campus has followed me. It followed me down the road to the tiny hippie village in Ohio where I took refuge after graduation. In 2011, legislators in the state were debating the Heartbeat Bill, which would have prohibited abortion the moment a doctor found a fetal thump-thump-thump. It didn’t pass, but if it had, the bill would have effectively banned abortion at around six weeks. My new friends and I worried that we would have to learn how to perform our own abortions in secret.
I left Ohio, and the campus followed me farther still. In London, I saw protesters in front of an abortion clinic praying in the rain. In Bristol, Virginia, where my family lives, activists tried to take photos of an abortion provider’s car. In Washington, D.C., I joined the staff of an organization that monitored the Christian right. I went to rallies and press briefings and conferences. Sometimes I was there officially, and sometimes I wasn’t, because I still knew how to dress the part and smile at the appropriate times. I hid a recorder underneath my skirt, and I listened. This is what I heard: The men and women of the right wanted to write my old student handbook into law. The penalties would increase as the rules became laws, but one consequence would remain the same. A wayward woman would still have to risk it all for freedom.
This is now the law in Texas. Abortion is illegal after six weeks, well before most women even know they are pregnant. To enforce the law, Texas Republicans mobilized the mob. A snitch can now sue an abortion provider for performing an abortion after the six-week deadline and can get $10,000 for doing so — a bounty. Texas Right to Life has already set up a website for this purpose, and abortion providers say they are already under surveillance by would-be vigilantes. My campus is the size of Texas, and it seeks to grow bigger still. There will be other Heartbeat Bills. The mob will grow arms and reach from state to state.
For years now, I’ve heard about other campuses. We all live on campus now, Andrew Sullivan claimed in this very magazine, and he was halfway right, though he didn’t grasp how this had happened or why or where he might truly be living. Free expression is under attack but not from “cultural Marxists,” an old right-wing trope given new life by Sullivan and his cohort. Yes, a mob threatens liberalism, but the mob did not originate at Harvard or Oberlin or any of the other elite institutions that feed pundit anxieties. In The Atlantic, the writer Anne Applebaum decried the “new Puritans,” instigators of a moral panic that unfolds over Twitter and ruins lives and careers. “Anonymous reports and Twitter mobs, not the reasoned judgments of peers, will shape the fate of individuals,” she warned. “Writers and journalists will fear publication. Universities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to the promotion of student comfort and the avoidance of social-media attacks.”
While Applebaum wrings her hands over Yale Law School, the old Puritans bide their time. There is a moral panic, and it has nothing to do with Twitter; the insigators are shining lights on Texas abortion providers and waiting for a moment to strike. We are all living on my old campus. The mob came from the right, not the left. The threat was old and well funded, and some of us saw it and others did not listen. They paid attention to other campuses, their own alma maters and those of their children. The legacy press is not diverse; it is both white and socioeconomically elite. State schools — and I don’t mean UVA or Michigan — are underrepresented. So are schools like mine, which exist for the purpose of training new conservative warriors. Even the handful of anti-abortion columnists who work for the New York Times or The Atlantic tend to hail from the same elite institutions as their liberal co-workers, and so, from this angle, the conversation about abortion looks like a debate among peers.
I’m telling you now, it’s something else. It’s life or death. The anti-abortion movement actually believes this and behaves accordingly — liberals are the ones who dither. How often have we heard the refrain “Safe, legal, and rare”? Who coined it? Not a Republican. How diligently did the Democratic Party defend the incumbency of anti-abortion representative Henry Cuellar from a young pro-choice woman? If Ruth Bader Ginsburg of a thousand Etsy tchotchkes understood what was at stake, if she cared about abortion as much as she cared about her own career and reputation, she would have retired when Barack Obama could have replaced her. The Democratic big tent looks a lot like my campus.
Maybe Texas will change things. Maybe liberals will wake up and realize which campus is coming for them. Forget Oberlin. Let Yale Law School recede from your memory. Instead, fear the girls I hid my birth control from, the boys who sent hate mail when they found out I was pro-choice. The right has trained them well, and they are ready to fight. This is the real mob, and unlike liberal student activists, it has real power. Republicans are eager to train it on their enemies. Representative Madison Cawthorn, a homeschooled Christian-college dropout, recently warned of future “bloodshed” over “rigged” elections. A spokesperson said Cawthorn “is CLEARLY advocating for violence not to occur over election-integrity questions.” But the threat hangs in the air. The same mob that came for abortion rights is coming for democracy itself; the causes are linked. Texas moved to restrict voting rights based on the same lie at the same time it restricted abortion. There we see what mob justice looks like, and we must understand its expansive ambitions.
I thought I could leave my campus behind. A decade later, I know that isn’t true. No impermeable barrier separates the secular world from the fundamentalist world I tried to abandon. They leach into each other, perhaps even perpetuate each other. Now, I imagine a different kind of world because I must. What might it look like when a person’s bodily autonomy is no longer subject to debate? When my campus recedes to a few square miles in the Ohio countryside? I left fundamentalism to seek freedom, but I am not free as long as abortion is illegal anywhere. Neither are you.