While anti-abortion activists celebrated a victory in Texas last week, the state marked a grim milestone. As of September 3, at least 59 Texas children had died from COVID-19, and the state is “running low” on pediatric intensive-care beds, Houston Public Media reports. If that fact worries Republican lawmakers or the state’s Republican governor, it’s not evident. Governor Greg Abbott has tried to ban mask mandates in public schools; a number of school districts have defied him and doctors are displeased. Abbott restricts abortion, ostensibly to save lives; at the same time, he doesn’t want to let schools mandate masks, even though it would help protect children from COVID. The contrast is too much to ignore.
Liberals, provoked to wrath, are searching for a response. Personal responsibility is a poor defense against death, they correctly observe. But do they grasp the meaning of what they behold? A hypocrisy-seeking tendency persists. By this I mean that well-intentioned Democrats can look at the crisis in Texas, point quivering fingers at Abbott, and insist that he doesn’t mean what he says. Abbott doesn’t care about kids, they say. The dead children are proof.
This reaction isn’t unique to Texas. Among liberals, conservative hypocrisy has become something of a truism. They begin with a valid conclusion. To conservatives, the body of the fetus is sacrosanct, but the body of the child is not. A particular ideology leaves children vulnerable to gun violence, to hunger and homelessness, to the consequences of climate change. Victims of a power that holds life loosely in its grip, children have no true defenders on the right. But here, liberals inevitably run aground. People don’t think of themselves as hypocrites. They don’t experience cognitive dissonance in the ways you might expect. I certainly didn’t, when I opposed abortion rights. Abbott likely believes everything he says, both about personal responsibility and about the immorality of abortion. So, too, do his allies in the state legislature.
What, then, should we make of this conservative consistency? What looks like hypocrisy should be understood as a deeper ideology. In Texas, the right to life is conditional. It has always been conditional, at least to conservatives. Only the fetus has an absolute right to life because it cannot err. Women are more complicated. They sin, these Eves, and deserve punishment. The right to life is fragile. The right to a good life is more fragile still. A person must be poor because of some moral failing; they’re lazy, unmotivated, or simply ignorant. The free market is never to blame, and neither are capitalists. Gun violence exists because of innate criminality, which must be answered with incarceration and more guns, borne by the right kind of people. As climate change becomes impossible to deny, the same arguments will appear: Personal responsibility must guard against burned or flooded homes; if the wealthy appear less susceptible to disaster, it’s because they’ve earned a better way of life.
This isn’t hypocrisy, but authoritarianism. While Texas hasn’t overturned Roe v. Wade with its law, SB 8 is “a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny,” in the words of dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor. What is happening in Texas is authoritarian, the product of a far-right movement that has been building power for decades. The people who form its ranks also back anti-democratic efforts, like the implementation of new voting restrictions, because they want to establish a particular person as the sovereign above all. This person is usually white, often male, and always a conservative Christian. Like the Republic of Gilead? a liberal might interject. No, like America. Dystopian metaphors are unnecessary. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood built her fictional theocracy out of real bones. No one is banning female literacy, but the reproductive obsessions of the right are old news.
There are anti-abortion activists who try to adhere to a more consistent ethic of life. They oppose capital punishment and support an expansion of the welfare state and, sometimes, stronger labor rights. They are not as authoritarian as their Texas brethren, but do not mistake them for allies. They are authoritarian still, if to a lesser extent. The anti-abortion movement would, even in its kindliest guise, deprive a woman of authority over her innermost self. It would force a living person to give her organs over to the use of a potential person, to permanently change her body, to perhaps even die, all against her will. The act is so extreme that most Americans do not in fact support repealing Roe v. Wade. So the anti-abortion movement must win by other means, like SB 8 with its direct assault on Roe, or the voting restrictions that Abbott signed into law on Tuesday. The mainstream Republican Party backs voting restrictions because its future depends on its ability to cheat.
Yet Democrats can’t count on demographic destiny, on national opinion, to fend off the anti-abortion movement. This is where the hypocrisy framework truly fails them. You can’t defeat authoritarianism with a fact-check, with finger-pointing, with a simple “Checkmate, conservatives.” This house believes in science, but that’s not enough. The anti-abortion movement hasn’t yet conquered the hearts and minds of a nation, but it is powerful, and it is powerful because it makes strong moral claims. Liberalism has not responded in kind. In fact, it has at times proved complicit with the very anti-life ideology that threatens its grip on power. Though the power of the anti-abortion Democrats has declined over time, the party has been unreliable on abortion, prone to timid rhetoric and timid tactics. On other issues, the party can be outright hostile to the dignity of human life. Historically, Democrats have worked alongside conservatives to restrict welfare, no matter the consequences for the poor. On climate change, they are often ineffectual; most regard the Green New Deal as so much socialist utopianism, even while Louisiana and New York City flood and the vulnerable die.
I think, often, of an old canard: socialism or barbarism. We see barbarism in Texas. It will spread. What can liberals offer in its place? Only the unapologetic defense of abortion will suffice, and that language is to be found on the left. We cannot afford to concede any territory to the right. Insist on the truth, that abortion is a common medical procedure that upholds the right of women to mother if, when, or how they choose. Abortion frees women. And by freeing women, it in turn guarantees a more equal society, the opposite of authoritarian dreams. In the interest of liberation, abortion should be safe, legal, and free to whoever wants one. Call it a social positive, even a moral good. The alternative looks like Texas.