How Fetal Politics Stole Americans' Reproductive Rights
An interview with Jennifer Holland about the origins and ethics of the anti-abortion movement
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“Held: The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” June 24, 2022
In a 6-3 opinion that does not seem to be significantly altered from an earlier, leaked draft, the Supreme Court of the United States has overturned two landmark cases that have protected a woman’s rights over her own body for 50 years. With minor variations that may themselves now be whittled down, the procedure will only be available to women in states where the laws protect them.
In preparation for this day, I interviewed Jennifer Holland, L.R. Brammer Jr. Presidential Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma about her book, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement (UC press, 2020). Holland describes the evolution of what she calls “fetal politics”—a political movement that turned embryos and fetuses into “unborn children” endowed with unique and inviolable civil rights.
Claire Potter: I want to start with the arresting title of your book, Tiny You. Can you tell our readers why you chose it?
Jennifer Holland: The book describes how a host of white, conservative, religious people become personally invested in fetal politics, and the title comes from a brochure created by the anti-abortion \movement for small children. It explained pregnancy and it said: “Everything that you are was there at this moment--a fetus is a `tiny you.’”
Next, the brochure describes abortion as when a parent choosing to kill their fetus. It's very explicit. So, the pamphlet captures what I think is happening in the movement as a whole: inviting people to have a relationship with fetuses, imagine themselves as fetuses—and especially aborted fetuses.
CP: So, tell us how do fetuses at all stages, from conception to birth, become transformed into babies and children?
JH: The movement works hard from the beginning to sell this idea. First, they use analogy. They narrate themselves as a civil rights movement, comparing abortion to slavery and the dehumanization of Black people during Jim Crow. But also, they compare abortion to the Nazi Holocaust.
Second, they pair their messaging with fetal imagery to humanize fetuses and persuade people to see them as babies. By the late 20th century, Americans cannot live their lives without encountering anti-abortion arguments conveyed through visual ephemera.
CP: What is the tradeoff between images that are arresting and suck people in, and images that risk people turning away and disengaging?
JH: That’s why the movement generates so many kinds of fetal ephemera because they are worried about it. It’s not that they don't want to keep the gory photos and the embalmed fetuses, but activists realize they're not good for every situation. For example, in the 1980s, they come up with these little plastic fetus dolls, which you can use in situations with children and young adults, dolls that aren't going to immediately horrify parents. As the movement develops in the 1980s and 1990s, activists also invest in the idea that they are protecting women from trauma. Those that create crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), turn away from the gorier representations and towards ultrasound imagery and fetal models.
CP: But the anti-abortion movement does not actually start out as a religious movement, and churches must be persuaded to embrace it.
JH: It's a little messy, because all the activists are, in fact, religious and they are coming out of religious organizations like the Knights of Columbus, or the Catholic Lawyers Guild. Religious institutions, especially the Catholic churches, prime them for activism. The default assumption is that anti-abortion activism is a top-down movement that individuals can't possibly be invested in.
But, especially if we look at the early 1970s, that was not the case. The Catholic church hesitated in a way that Catholic activists were upset about. So, you have activists who are meeting with priests and pressing them to give anti-abortion sermons. Not every priest needed to be pushed, but many did. And activists kept meeting with higher ups saying, you need to commit to this, in infrastructure and money.
By 1975, the Church made those commitments.
CP: So, a grassroots movement pushed churches into this struggle.
JH: I don't want to deemphasize how important religious leaders were, especially later and particularly on the religious right. But that doesn’t explain why those leaders have such an audience in the first place, and why they have such power. It’s largely because this movement has already created that audience, and those leaders tell stories that resonate because people already understand them.
By the time activists politicize churches, they've already integrated anti-abortion politics into the rhythms of how so many white people experience their faith.
CP: And some activists must overcome theology. In the Mormon Church, the soul does not enter the human body until birth, so to imagine abortion as killing a soul, Mormons must override their own theology.
JH: There are a lot of people who believe that fetal politics represent their church's theology, even when it doesn't. Catholic anti-abortion activists pitch the idea, hard, that the soul enters the body at conception, and the Mormon church doesn't press hard to correct that.
I don't think they know this, but Mormons often take up Catholic visions of spirituality and conception and they incorporate it into their vision of what Mormon theology is. Then there is the power of what Mormons are already invested in, social conservatism.
CP: One of the things I hope our readers are noticing is that you keep saying white Christians, white evangelicals, white activists. Even though many Black and Latinx people are Catholic, they don't get involved in the anti-abortion movement. Why?
JH: This was a question I had from the beginning, since the book is is set in multiracial spaces with a host of religious people who, as you say, are people of color. And I found that they didn't participate in the movement, or they did for a day at most; they're very peripheral. Longstanding activists agreed; they had all these explanations for why, but none of them really explained it.
I think that the answer is that this is a movement of white people that co-opts civil rights and racial justice rhetoric and narrates themselves as the inheritors of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. They speak in that language, but they don't do any work in communities of color on any of the other issues around race. They don't even talk about involuntary sterilization.
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