At the end of March 2019, the legislatures of Georgia and Mississippi passed laws that would ban legal abortions after six weeks of a woman’s pregnancy; Georgia’s version was labelled the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act”. After the bill’s passage, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp proclaimed, “Georgia values life. We stand up for the innocent and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
These states’ actions are part of a campaign by religious and social traditionalists to promote what is known as “fetal heartbeat” bills that would ban the legal abortion of a fetus after six weeks or when the fetal heartbeat is reportedly detected. On March 15th, two weeks before the two states acted, a federal judge blocked a similar action in Kentucky.
These three states, along with a handful of others that will likely join the fray, are seeking to provoke a legal showdown over the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision, Roe v Wade. For nearly a half-century, U.S. law accepted a pregnant woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy during the first trimester. Conservatives are counting on Pres. Donald Trump’s two new appointments to the Supreme Court — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – to vote to either overturn or severely restrict the Roe decision.
Every war begins with a series of first or opening “shots” and the culture wars is no exception. On January 20, 1973, Richard Nixon was inaugurated to his second term as president. His landslide victory over Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) — who had been labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” — was driven by a “Southern strategy” that reconfigured the national political landscape for the following half-century. (On August 9, 1974, he resigned.)
Two days after Nixon’s inauguration, on the January 22nd, the Supreme Court issued its Roe decision legalizing a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion. Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “… throughout the 19th Century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn ….” The Roe decision forced 46 states to liberalize their abortion laws and is the defining issue of today’s culture wars.
Today’s culture wars have dragged on for nearly a half-century. Trump’s two recent appointments to the Supreme Court, policies of the Trump administration and the legislative initiatives in Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia reveal how the culture wars have been reduced to a single issue, a woman’s right to the privacy of aborting her fetus. Other issues are raised by conservatives as threats to the nation’s moral order, including homosexuality, teen sex education, campus speech codes, multiculturalism and religion’s shrinking place in public life, but they do not invoke the same political passion.
The current culture battles has increasingly become single-focused issue, a woman’s right to an abortion; as its go so focused, it become increasingly bitter, mean spirited. Anti-abortion proponents are well organized, well-funded and with strong political allies. Nevertheless, one can well question whether these apparent strengths are really weaknesses, indications of a last-stand campaign as the nation’s sexual and cultural values further realign.
For all the religious and conservative right’s fulminations, there is one simply development that it cannot deal with – that the personal quest for sexual pleasure has become an essential aspect of postmodern, 21st century adult life. People — especially women and female partners in relationships — are concerned about their right to privacy as much as fulfilling their right to sexual pleasures. The privacy to enjoy a personal experience sexual pleasure is the same that ensures a woman’s right to an abortion.
Nothing illuminates this change is sexual values that the changes in premarital sex among American woman. The Guttmacher Institute found that women who turned 15 years between 1954-1963, one quarter (26%) had premarital sex by age 18 years and the median age of premarital sex was 20.4 years. For those who turned 15 years between 1994-2000, more than half (54%) had premarital sex by 18 years and the median age of premarital sex was 17.6 years. The most recent data from the CDC finds that as of 2015, 89 percent of ever-married women aged 15-44 years of age and 90 percent of men 20-44 years of age had engaged in premarital sexual intercourse.
Up until Trump’s election, the culture wars appeared to be in a stalemate with only individual states (e.g., Texas) adopting restrictive legislation. Such legislation included mandatory waiting periods, mandatory ultrasound tests, doctors required to read anti-abortion statements to patients, clinics required to have hospital-like facilities and/or be located near a hospital, and require women seeking an abortion to attend anti-abortion counseling. Trump has aggressively renewed the religious right’s campaign to further curtail – if not overturn – Roe. The Trump administration is seeking to closedown Planned Parenthood clinics; to end teen sex-education and restrict their access of contraceptives; and to block further efforts to normalized gay life as well as the lives of gender non-conforming people. However, other than shutting down the website Backstage.com for alleged sex trafficking, the sex industry has not been targeted.
More troubling, Trump has extended the culture wars into a perpetual campaign against an ever-growing list of enemies. His primary target is immigrants, especially those arriving at the southern border. He has promoted gun ownership, saying little about school shootings or white nationalist terrorist actions. By not actively opposing militant white nationalism, he passively encourages the violence directed at Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, students and at public gatherings. Most disturbing, Trump is raised the issue of racial identity – whiteness — as a defining cultural issue.
Pew Research has found that six in ten (60%) of Americans favor a woman’s right to an abortion. Yet, sadly, die-hard anti-abortion traditionalists will fight on, aided by a mean-spirited president and Republican in the Congress and in state legislatures across the country.For the foreseeable future, this bitter tension between those seeking to end a woman’s right to an abortion and those promoting the privacy of ever-greater personal freedom, (consensual) sexual pleasure and a woman’s right to an abortion will only likely intensify.