Antichoice Apostles: America's New Authoritarians Wage War on Women

The retrograde bans on abortion in Mississippi, Texas, and elsewhere are of a piece with the GOP's embrace of strongman-style fascism.

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper this weekend, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves, a 47-year-old Republican, extolled the virtues of his state’s new law banning all abortions at 15 weeks, with no exceptions for rape, incest, or health of the mother.

“For people such as myself that are pro-life, I believe that the Supreme Court made a mistake,” he said. “[W]ith respect to understanding and appreciating and respecting science, the fact is we know so much more in America today about the formation of young children in the womb than we did when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973….What we know now, Jake, is that we know that the heart has partially formed at 15 weeks. We know that the baby in the womb is practicing breathing. We know that most internal organs have started to form and we believe that child is viable outside the womb.”

It may be that Reeves spent so much of his time at Millsaps College parading around in Confederate Army uniforms and blackface that he is actually ignorant enough to believe this horse-shit. Tempting as it may be to go through the transcript and call out the factual errors—it’s a fetus, not a baby; that fetus would die immediately outside the uterus at 15 weeks; many pregnancy terminations are performed to save the life of the mother, a word he does not once utter during the interview—that misses the point.

The abortion debate has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with power. Antichoice politicians are not crusaders for the unborn; they are authoritarians who want the state to exert absolute control over its citizens, who want half its population to live in a state of constant dread. Banning abortion is a time-honored technique of dictators, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes in Strongmen: “Control over female bodies in the name of population growth is another constant….Perceived demographic emergencies due to the decline of White births and the invasion of the country by non-Whites, which inspired fascist policies, spur new authoritarian measures in Europe, Brazil, and America today.”

New Authoritarian politicians like Tate Reeves may claim to be protecting the most vulnerable, but what they’re really doing is seizing the means of production—another strongman tactic. They want the argument to be about the “science” that Reeves so understands, appreciates, and respects. They want the debate to be about “when life begins.” They want to frame abortion as an assault on religious freedom—as if pregnant women go to a church for this medical procedure rather than a clinic or a doctor’s office. They want to disseminate the fascist propaganda that “abortion” is a euphemism for “baby-killing.”

Those narratives, you see, rile up both sides and thus distract from their own rank hypocrisy.

Consider: Reeves presides over a state that ranks 49th in life expectancy and dead last in coronavirus vaccination rate. Mississippi’s covid-19 death rate of 246 per 100,000 is fifth-worst in the country, with all four states ahead of it being places where the first outbreaks occurred. All three of those dismal rankings are influenced by his own abominable governance during the pandemic, when he opened up Mississippi much earlier than he should have. He also refused $600 million in federal funding to expand his state’s Medicare system—during the pandemic. As the Mississippi Free Press reports, “Since 2014, Mississippi has rejected more than $7 billion in federal dollars that could have been used to expand eligibility to an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 more Mississippians.” If the state’s abortion ban holds, it will be catastrophic for the health of women in Mississippi.

In short, Tate Reeves has wielded his gubernatorial power to implement policies that directly led to more of his constituents getting sick and dying. And yet he proudly identifies as “pro-life,” without shame, without irony—and the media just lets him do this. He is not, by any viable metric, “pro-life.” He is “antichoice,” and he is “pro-life-control.” He is, in Ben-Ghiat’s phrase, a New Authoritarian. Call him what he is.

If conservatives like Reeves were genuinely interested in reducing the rate of abortions, they would promote sex education and birth control. But they always oppose those initiatives. Because, again: it’s not about abortion, it’s about power.

Banning abortion does not stop abortion, but it does help New Authoritarians assume more control. First, it hampers women, who are more likely than men to oppose fascist rule (e.g., the Women’s March was mostly women, January 6 was mostly dudes). Second, it opens up the door for organized crime to do its thing. As I wrote in “Leo the Cancer,” my piece about Supreme Court eminence grise Leonard Leo, a radical Catholic ideologue:

If abortion is criminalized, abortions will still take place—in back alleys, illegally, by fly-by-night abortionists who only work for cash…

And maybe, just maybe, that’s the real objective.

Before Roe, abortions were one of the many illicit services on offer by crime syndicates. The mob took a cut of the fee, and, more importantly, knew who was getting secret abortions—and who the fathers were. The abortion racket, in other words, was a means to collect both money and dirt.

It is also ironic that Republicans, those champions of the free market, who rail against government regulation at every turn, make an exception for women’s health. “Government is the problem,” Ronald Reagan declared in his infamous inaugural address. He spent eight years in the White House taking a machete to federal regulations, to the detriment of the health and safety of all Americans—but the Gipper was “pro-life.”

A few days before Tate Reeves appeared on CNN to spew his anti-choice lies, Paxton Smith, the valedictorian of Lakelands High School in Dallas, gave a graduation speech in which she railed against the so-called Heartbeat Bill, a new Texas law that, preposterously, bans abortion after just six weeks.

Here is what she said:

I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does, and we have spent our entire lives working towards our future, and without our input and without our consent our control over that future has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter.

I hope that you can feel how gut wrenching that is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you. And I’m talking about this today, on a day as important as this, on a day honoring 12 years of hard academic work, on a day where we are all gathered together, on a day where you are most inclined to listen to a voice like mine, a woman’s voice, to tell you that this is a problem, and it’s a problem that cannot wait.

And I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights, a war on the rights of your mothers, a war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your daughters. We cannot stay silent.

Her frame is the correct one. This is a war. It is a war on women’s bodies and women’s rights, as Smith points out. It is also a front in the larger war against democracy, waged by New Authoritarians like Tate Reeves, Texas governor Greg Abbott, former president Donald John Trump and his political disciples, rightwing religious leaders, and other powerful men who use the word womb.

If you believe abortion is wrong, then your choice is simple: don’t have one. But you don’t get to impose your morality or your religious beliefs on anyone else, whether it’s the 14-year-old raped by her uncle, or the married 38-year-old mother of three whose ectopic pregnancy will kill her if allowed to continue. New Authoritarians like Reeves want us to think abortion is the equivalent of Herod massacring the innocents. They want us to see it as a morality test. In practice, abortion is never one-size-fits-all. It is always more complicated than prigs like Reeves would like us to believe.

The ban on abortion is a manifestation of tyranny. Abortion bans don’t occur in states that are liberal or progressive, but rather in places that actively seek to restrict rights: abortion and voting rights today, free assembly and free speech tomorrow.

It’s not just a war on Paxton Smith’s rights, a war on the rights of our mothers, a war on the rights of our sisters, a war on the rights of our daughters. It’s part of the larger war on democracy itself. And it threatens all of us.