Agency and Abortion

What Donald Trump can learn from Frederick Douglass.

As a scholar of conservatism, I’m finding this Trump-wants-to-punish-women-who-get-abortions moment fascinating. At its heart, I’ve argued, “conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.”

It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves. . . . Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.

Though certainly hostile to women’s agency, Trump’s position recognizes it. He’s saying women make the choice to get an abortion, abortion is a crime, so do with women who get an abortion what we do with anyone who commits a crime: hold them accountable, punish them.

Trump’s detractors in the GOP refuse to recognize women’s agency. It’s the abortionist’s fault, they say! Hold the doctor accountable, not the poor unsuspecting women, who’s just an innocent victim of the doctor’s evil ways. (After much outcry, Trump seems now to have come around to this position.)

Setting aside the obvious politics of and maneuvering around this argument — the anti-abortion forces recognize what an electoral disaster Trump’s position is (as does he now, apparently) because they’ve been running from that position for decades — there’s some complicated stuff being worked out here about how to deal with the agency of a subordinate class, particularly when that class is insubordinate, when it defies your will.

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn.

And then you run into the problem that Frederick Douglass so shrewdly made a muchness of in his attack on the inconsistencies of the slaveholder’s position:

Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write.

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

On a related note, it’s amazing to me how the anti-abortion crowd has managed to claim they are the inheritors of the abolitionist movement. Though the analogy is admittedly imperfect, if anyone has the right to the anti-slavery mantle, surely it is those who believe that women should not be compelled to have their bodies used against their will. There is a reason it’s called labor, after all.