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"Why are Americans so..." my seatmate on the flight from Auckland to Queenstown said, trailing off as though she realized it might be a bit of a rude question.
We'd been talking about what I do for a living, and the subject of the war for reproductive rights in the US had come up. One of the most interesting things for me about traveling is getting a chance to hang out with locals, and part of that provides an opportunity to see how other people view the US from the outside.
Contrary to what some people believe, people in other countries don't all have a rabid hate-on for Americans, but a lot of them do find us deeply confusing and perplexing. As we talked about the escalating series of laws making it harder and harder to access abortions in the US, paired with other legislation that unfairly targets women, I thought about the yawning cultural gap between the US and New Zealand.
That gap was illustrated for me when I read about the Virginia Senator who referred to pregnant women as "hosts."
The thing is, I think I'm supposed to be outraged by this, but I'm honestly not. For me, outrage implies some level of surprise. Pissed, maybe, although honestly at this point it's hard to muster that much fury over individual people being arseclowns. Surprised, no. This kind of behavior is par for the course from the GOP (of course is was a Republican Senator) and it's in line with similar comments that have been made in the past -- in addition, of course, to some of the laws the GOP is attempting to pass with respect to abortion.
The GOP has been quite explicit in recent years about how it views not just pregnant women (and others capable of getting pregnant, though most Republicans who take extremist views on abortion aren't the sort to be aware of, let alone accept, genderqueer and other identities), but also all people with uteruses. Remember the furore several years ago over CDC guidelines declaring women "pre-pregnant" if they had the potential capacity to get pregnant?
It was a surprisingly cold and logical extension of the idea that women should remain barefoot and pregnant, with no rest between pregnancies (something espoused by fringe communities like the Quiverfull movement). Basically, women should be forever pregnant -- or on the verge of it -- for as long as they have functional reproductive tracts.
And as such, women are reduced to little more than incubators. The right hasn't really pulled any punches when it comes to making it clear that fetuses are more important than the women who carry them, though it curiously doesn't care a whit for children once they're born.
Senator Steve Martin (don't confuse him with the other, better Steve Martin, please) went a whole step above with his comments, though. It was like the man was actively trying to be as offensive as possible, which makes me wonder if the GOP has some sort of secret one-upmanship competition where they show off their letters of protest and number of enraged feminist editorials to see who wins.
It all started on Valentine's Day (naturally), when a women's rights group sent him a card basically suggesting that maybe he should respect women and support their right to choose and access the health services they needed. That sent the Senator speeding to Facebook, which is something we all know is bound to end in disaster. He wrote a somewhat incoherent message, but this line was perfectly clear:
However, once a child does exist in your womb, I'm not going to assume a right to kill it just because the child's host (some refer to them as mothers) doesn't want it to remain alive.
Let's pick this apart a bit, shall we?
First, we have the classic GOP tactic of referring to a fetus as a "child." Generally speaking, a fetus is, well, a fetus. Since the vast majority of abortions take place in the first trimester, there's no "child" there -- unless we're talking about the result of a wanted pregnancy, in which case an abortion is usually associated with a miscarriage, a severe health problem, or some sort of other tragedy. At the stage when most abortions take place, we're talking about clusters of differentiating cells.
They're pretty amazing from a biological standpoint, but they aren't children. A child is a living breathing person, a human being capable of living outside her mother's body.
There's also the old-fashioned use of "kill," stressing the idea that an abortion is murder, that people who have them are bad and should feel bad. Killing a child is a terrible thing -- but that's not what an abortion is.
Next, he refers to pregnant women as "hosts." It's a classic distancing tactic and it's also deeply misogynist, turning women into objects used to incubate babies rather than actual human beings. It's in line with general extremist GOP thinking on pregnancy, abortion, and women. It's also chillingly like a dystopian science fiction piece, except that unlike "Brave New World," the incubators are living breathing human beings, instead of inanimate objects.
It makes me wonder what would happen if we successfully developed incubation technology capable of raising mammals.
The final blow, though, is the snide "some refer to them as mothers" comment. Seriously, dude? We're really going to go there? Not only are we trashing women, we're also savaging mothers? As Callie Beusman at Jezebel pointed out, he later edited the piece to replace "host" with "the bearer of the child" but he left the parenthetical aside in place.
This is how Martin and people like him think of pregnant women. Incubators. Hosts. Child-bearers. They have no identities beyond their role, and obligation, as vessels for growing fetuses. They are not human beings, and they certainly aren't mothers. The GOP's scorn for mothers, of course, is apparent in the kind of legislation they push -- legislation that actively harms women, makes it difficult for mothers to access care and needed services, demonizes women who choose to keep children (taking the very path that the GOP says they should be taking!).
Martin claimed he was making a joke, and trying to turn the language of the left back on itself. Women in the legislature were not impressed, and took to the floor to tell him so. Women's rights advocates joined in. Martin's "joke" was too politically loaded to be anything more than a savage attack on reproductive rights, women, and mothers -- no matter how much he tries to claim otherwise.
Some commentators are parading this as yet another example of the "backward" South and Virginia lawmakers, but that's a mistake. This is about a lot more than that. People like Martin exist all across the US, and their attitudes are certainly not limited to the South. There's a large component of American society that hates women, and we can't pretend it's only a problem in certain regions.
25B, I don't know why Americans are so..., but I hope we can change it before it's too late.