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Body Politic

It’s fitting that Andrew Cockburn’s excellent overview of abortion politics [“The Fight to Choose,” Letter from Washington, August] begins with a dead woman: Savita Halappanavar, who died of a septic miscarriage in Ireland in 2012. It is fitting, too, that Halappanavar wasn’t seeking an elective abortion at the time of her death; her pregnancy was wanted, but non-viable. Many people in the United States may soon find themselves in her predicament: in desperate need of lifesaving medical care but in a hospital unable or unwilling to provide it.

As the philosopher Kate Manne has argued, misogyny depends on a distinction between “good women” (generous, servile, sexually available) and “bad women” (selfish, ambitious, out of reach). The former are celebrated; the latter are denigrated, threatened, even killed. When abortion is restricted, as pro-choice advocates remind us, “women will die,” a prospect some on the right may greet with glee. But in the post-Roe United States, no doubt many of the wrong women will die: white women, Christian women, devoted mothers, perfect wives. These women will not die from illegal abortions—which, thanks to the efforts of human rights activists, are increasingly safe and accessible—but from miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, hemorrhages, and cancer. They will die because hospital administrators and medical practitioners fear lawsuits more than they fear losing patients. A woman could obey a misogynist law against abortion perfectly and yet still lose her life.

Manne’s binary undergirds the anti-abortion movement, including its supposedly compassionate wing, which advocates free health care for mothers and imagines that, under a robust welfare state, the need or desire for an abortion would simply disappear. But bodies are unruly, and right-wing morality and ethical medical practices do not neatly align. People will need abortions for all kinds of reasons, socially approved or not, and they won’t be able to obtain them. The consequences will be disastrous.

Maggie Doherty
Cambridge, Mass.

 

Abortion legislation is about so much more than elective terminations. After Savita Halappanavar died, I joined the hundreds of people protesting outside the Irish parliament. The pressure soon pushed the government to introduce the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, a law designed to prevent the deaths of more women. Still, doctors argued that it was too difficult to identify exactly when a woman’s life was in jeopardy, and the penalties for getting it wrong were too great. (Medical professionals were liable to be prosecuted if the state determined the termination was unnecessary.)

Shortly after this act was passed, I had a “missed miscarriage.” Following some bleeding, I went for two separate scans, at which the attending midwives could not find a heartbeat. But ambiguity in the results meant that neither would pronounce the pregnancy over. I was desperate for an answer, but they just stared at the floor, silenced by the ban. At immense personal distress to me and my partner, I carried a dead fetus for two weeks.

In 2016, Ireland held a Citizens’ Assembly to hear stories like mine. For ten days, the assembly—a group of ninety-nine people, randomly selected and demographically representative—considered presentations from medical, psychiatric, and legal experts. They had access to more than twelve thousand public submissions and heard stories of crisis pregnancies and fatal fetal abnormalities. After listening to evidence-based discussion, a majority of the participants voted to recommend repealing the abortion ban. Their report laid the groundwork for the national referendum of 2018.

The referendum campaign was divisive. Those against repealing the ban employed scare tactics, taping posters of babies pleading “please don’t kill me” to lampposts. But there was also an atmosphere of compassion and a focus on reliable evidence. In May of that year, two thirds of the population voted to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion. For a long time, Irish women had looked to the United States as a model of hope; perhaps now the reverse will be true.

Emilie Pine
Professor of Modern Drama,University College Dublin
Dublin

 

 

Pure and Simple

The popularity of the Founding Fathers has plummeted. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are now rightly recognized as hypocrites and enslavers; it’s understood that Abraham Lincoln, for generations known as “the Great Emancipator,” propagated racist stereotypes. Marilynne Robinson seeks to resuscitate a different set of flawed founders, but it’s a hard sell [“One Manner of Law,” Essay, August]. After all, the New England Puritans opened the door to the displacement of indigenous peoples. They exiled Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams and barred women from preaching. Sorcery, adultery, and rape were capital offenses. They restricted alcohol, tobacco, long hair, and unsanctioned intimate relations, laws Alexis de Tocqueville deemed “deviations” which “bring shame on the spirit of man.” As Robinson notes, “puritanical” has come to mean censorious and abstemious; H. L. Mencken defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.”

Puritans rejected the term “democracy” because they believed it implied an inappropriate equality between the elect and the non-elect—as well as between men and women. And yet, as Robinson writes, they were truly “revolutionary from their founding,” and nowhere more so than in their governance. Members of the church chose their own ministers; citizens chose their own leaders. Tocqueville wrote that in Puritan communities, “democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity had dared to dream sprang full-grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society.” These early, proto-democratic experimenters can teach us something about contemporary politics. John Winthrop once said that we elect leaders in the hopes that they’ll do their best—which is all they can do. If we find them lacking, we can vote them out in the next election. But as long as they’re not corrupt, we should give them the benefit of the doubt until then. In this light, the Puritans should be seen as astute progenitors of a generous and communitarian strain of American politics—one that is sorely needed today.

Joshua I. Miller
Professor of Government and Law,Lafayette College
Easton, Pa.

 

 

Correction

Because of incorrect information provided by the photo agency, a caption that accompanied Daniel Bessner’s “Empire Burlesque” [Essay, July] misstated the year in which the U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower is pictured visiting Bonn. It was 1959, not 1952. The caption also incorrectly implied that the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer was in the photograph. We regret the errors.