South Dakota’s New Abortion Restrictions Reveal Theocratic Intentions

The fact that the anti-choice movement is just one arm of the larger religious right is often ignored. But a new law mandating religious indoctrination of women should change the discourse.

Leave it to the legislature of South Dakota, which tried to ban abortion outright but found the law rejected by a popular vote, to come around in a season of unprecedented attacks on women’s rights and really stand out from the crowd.  The new law requiring a three-day waiting period and a lecture from the busybodies at crisis pregnancy centers before you get an abortion now almost surely qualifies as the most restrictive abortion law in the country, especially since the single provider in South Dakota has to fly doctors in and may not be able to handle the three day waiting period requirement.  But what’s really amazing is how overtly theocratic the law is.  Anti-choicers are usually cognizant of the danger of being perceived as shoving their religious dogma on others through the law, because it’s expressly forbidden in the Constitution, even though that’s exactly what they’re doing.  But now the pretense of secularism is barely even shrugged at, because there is no way that sending women to religious institutions to get religiously motivated lectures about religious dogma isn’t a strike against religious freedom.

I expressed this concern at Alternet, and Michelle Goldberg made the same observation in The Daily Beast, and joked to me on Twitter that the phrase “secular crisis pregnancy center” made as much sense as saying “secular mass and secular madrassas.”  Michelle’s research indicates that proponents of this law are aware that this could be a problem, because they assure her the law requires women to consent before having to hear a Jesus lecture.  But remember that the women are already there under duress, and may not think they have many rights.  Also, the folks doing the reassuring, Leslee and Allen Unruh, are hardly the most reliable people.  Leslee has faced trouble with the law for illegal bribery to give babies up for adoption, and she also lied to the New York Times, telling them CPC counseling is provided by medical professionals, when in fact CPCs are unregulated and usually run by volunteers. I’m sorry, but I don’t trust folks like that to keep the Jesus talk to a minimum when the door is shut and they have an already non-consenting woman in their snare.

By passing this legislation, South Dakota has managed to forefront the theocratic bent of the anti-choice movement.  Even though it’s well understood that the anti-choice movement is just one arm of the Christian right, the full implications of this fact are surprisingly under-discussed in most media discourse about the struggle over reproductive rights.  It’s usually just framed as women vs. fetuses, but in reality it’s far more complex than that.  I’d say the most dominant axis of the struggle is secular humanism vs. religious fundamentalism, being fought on the battleground of women’s bodies.

As I note in this week’s podcast, the same legislators who are passing anti-choice legislation also are in a full blown tizzy over the possibility of “sharia law” somehow being used in the courts.  You know, despite the fact that a) Muslims are a very small minority in the U.S. and relatively powerless b) there’s no indication that there’s any organized effort to have sharia law considered in the courts and c) it’s all moot since the First Amendment explicitly prohibits the establishment of religion, which precludes any use of religious law to determine legal matters in the United States.  But perhaps it’s this last point that confuses the issue, since as this mandatory-Christian-lecture law in South Dakota demonstrates, the Christian right does not accept the separation of church and state at all.  They love the idea of using the force of law to cram religious dogma down people’s throats, but they just want it to be their religious dogma and not anyone else’s.

Whenever I bring my objections up to mandatory indoctrination laws, I inevitably get someone whining that I’m blowing it out of proportion, because the people being punished with these lectures are free to disregard them if they wish, and that this is just a “second opinion.”  This complaint misses the mark for a number of reasons.  First of all, it starts from the false assumption that the woman in question hasn’t been exposed to the idea that she could have a baby.  This is false.  Not only does the culture at large regularly and repeatedly make it clear that having a baby is the outcome of being pregnant, but abortion is routinely shamed and discouraged.  Beyond that, the assumption that clinics are pushing abortion like CPCs are pushing against it is also false.  Clinics are medical facilities, and are geared towards best outcomes for the patient, not pushing their desires on patients, regardless of what patients want.  Not having an abortion is on the table at a real clinic.  CPCs want a birth to happen, no matter what the circumstances or what the patient wants.

Creating this false equivalence is one of the reasons that indoctrination is so toxic.  CPCs dress up religious indoctrination in the white robes of medical authority, and these false equivalences only reinforce this false notion.  Putting state authority behind it only adds to the problem.  This isn’t a situation where someone’s anti-choice opinion is being presented simply as an opinion.  CPCs go out of their way to hoodwink vulnerable women into thinking they’re imparting authoritative information.  Consider that many to most CPCs then take that authority and abuse it further by presenting outright lies about the dangers of abortion.  The government should simply not be involved in lies-based propaganda.  It cheapens us all.

And most importantly, mandatory counseling is punitive.  Most government-mandated counseling is in response to law-breaking, such as when drunk drivers or drug users have to go into treatment. And, unlike with CPCs, most government-mandated counseling is real counseling and not just ill-informed propaganda.  But the point is that abortion is not illegal, and nor is it wrong or anti-social behavior.  Punitive responses to abortion semi-criminalize it, and since the CPC punishment is coming before the abortion has even occurred, it’s functionally punishing a woman for even considering abortion.

South Dakota voters have rejected the legislation’s attempts to criminalize abortion in the past, but the legislators clearly refuse to listen.