Commentary

Susan J. Demas: The anti-abortion movement’s extremism can no longer be whitewashed

May 16, 2022 4:05 am

Graham Stokes for States Newsroom

After years of seeing gauzy anti-abortion ads cajoling women of color not to “kill” their Black and Brown babies, last week may have been a bit of a jolt.

Amid a baby formula shortage (thanks to a heavily monopolized industry), Republicans quickly adopted the talking point that the Biden administration should withhold formula from migrant babies at the border. 

America First apparently means pitting babies against babies now, which is, of course, deeply weird and depressing.

We’re in a moment where one of our major parties — which pundits keep telling us are a lock to win the midterms — is advocating for migrant babies to starve to death while they’re plotting ways to criminalize abortion after a U.S. Supreme Court leaked opinion showed Roe v. Wade is on the cusp of being overturned. 

If Republicans’ extreme campaign against basic health measures and vaccines during a pandemic that’s killed 1 million Americans and counting didn’t already, their latest stunt should disabuse anyone of the idea that the term “pro-life” means anything. If you’re A-OK with babies at the border dying painful deaths, we don’t need your sanctimonious lectures that abortion is wrong because life begins at conception.

But this does underscore some things that too many of us — including many in the media — have tried to ignore for decades about the anti-abortion movement. 

There are blatant ties to white nationalism. Many religious right activists didn’t initially care about abortion in the 1970s. They were primarily concerned with preserving segregation, but pivoted to fighting reproductive rights because it was a better sell. 

We're in a moment where one of our major parties — which pundits keep telling us are a lock to win the midterms — is advocating for migrant babies to starve to death while they’re plotting ways to criminalize abortion after a U.S. Supreme Court leaked opinion showed Roe v. Wade is on the cusp of being overturned.

– Susan J. Demas

And anti-abortion policy jibes with the extremist goal of producing — note the term, which purposely takes away agency from women — more white babies to combat an increasingly diverse America. That’s why far-right leaders try to induce panic over Black, Latina and immigrant moms having big families, while still claiming to be “pro-life” and “pro-family.” 

Most anti-abortion leaders understood that going full “great replacement theory” wasn’t a great way to get good press — hence the soft-focused ads purporting to care about BIPOC women. 

But time and time again, it’s become clear that there’s never been a real concern for Black and Brown lives. 

When research came out that the water crisis in Flint, a largely African-American city, was linked to miscarriages, Michigan anti-abortion leaders turned a blind eye to the horror, lest they criticize their GOP allies in power. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately sickened and killed African Americans, particularly in the early days, Right to Life was silent about Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s health measures to save lives. Instead, they savaged her for keeping abortion clinics open and then fearmongered against vaccines over fetal cells used in some research.

There’s nothing remotely “pro-life” about any of that. There’s zero concern for public health. There is, however, plenty of crass politics at work.

There’s also a deep-rooted history of violence in the anti-abortion movement, which dovetails well with right-wing politicians explicitly arguing migrant babies should die. 

From 1977 to 2020, there have been thousands of cases of anti-abortion violence, including 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 956 threats of harm or death, four kidnappings, 42 clinic bombings and 194 arsons at clinics, per the National Abortion Federation. (That includes self-reported incidents, which means it’s likely a significant undercount).

While many of these crimes, particularly murders and bombings, have been well-covered by the media, big anti-abortion leaders and their political benefactors have long been permitted to skate responsibility. The violence is almost always dismissed as the work of deranged lone wolves, as though they’re not an important part of the coalition.

Hundreds rally at the state Capitol for the MI Body MI Choice event on Oct. 2, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

You can see a parallel with how the 2020 election deniers have often been treated as a wacky separate class from mainstream Republicans, even though more than 100 GOP lawmakers voted not to certify Electoral College votes from key states President Joe Biden won. 

And now some of the loudest conspiracists, like Attorney General candidate Matt DePerno and Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo, have been endorsed by the Michigan Republican Party for 2022.

The call for extremism is literally coming from inside the house.

Now that abortion bans are about to become the law of the land in more than half of America — with Republicans plotting to make abortion illegal nationwide if they take power in 2025 — the mask of the supposedly peaceful and caring “pro-life” movement has been ripped off.

The decades-long tolerance — and sometimes open embrace of — white nationalism and violence is something that can no longer be papered over and indignantly denied.

It’s time to have a frank discussion about who far-right leaders believe should be endowed with certain basic rights and be protected from violence and state intrusion. 

Now that abortion bans are about to become the law of the land in more than half of America — with Republicans plotting to make abortion illegal nationwide if they take power in 2025 — the mask of the supposedly peaceful and caring “pro-life” movement has been ripped off.

– Susan J. Demas

This is something that BIPOC communities have never had the privilege of ignoring, as they have endured slavery, broken treaties, police brutality, deportation, segregation, discrimination, poll taxes and more. 

Now millions of women — particularly white women who have taken for granted for the last half-century that they had the right to make their own health care decisions and control their own bodies — are waking up to find they will soon be second-class citizens under the law.

I don’t think anyone knows what this will mean politically (frankly, the fact that most coverage has focused on the horserace aspect of Roe dying instead of the millions of people who will be harmed is enormously offensive). I don’t think anyone knows what this will mean for society, which is already badly fractured with creeping authoritarianism and a neverending pandemic.

We are in uncharted territory with half the population suddenly finding their human rights can be nullified.

But what I do know is that pretending that far-right radicalism will just wither on the vine isn’t working. It’s finding new, powerful friends everyday, from tech titans to billionaires to Republican leaders. 

The question for each and every one of us is: What are we going to do about it?

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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