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The new Civil War

Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, October 12, 2010

There are, in the perpetual war over abortion, two myths.

The first myth is that told by the pro-choice camp: Pro-life partisans, they insist, seek to control women. Without access to legal abortion, they reason, women will be forced to actually bear their children — who will, of course, need care for decades to come. In becoming mothers, therefore, women will become housewives — kept from meaningful careers so that they can bear their men many sons: Their lives will be, as were the lives of their mothers, spent utterly in vacuuming rugs, pressing shirts and cooking pot roasts. To respect women as our equals, insist pro-choice partisans, requires correcting the systematic injustice inherited from our forefathers — indeed, inherited from nature. To do otherwise is crass manipulation.

The second myth is that told by the pro-life camp: Pro-choice partisans, they insist, seek to control women. With access to legal abortion, they reason, women have no claim on the fathers of their children — who will, of course, suggest termination. In not becoming mothers, therefore, women will effectively become concubines — kept from meaningful relationships so that they can remain sexually available to their men: Their lives will be, as the lives of their mothers were not, spent utterly in exploitive relationships that grant them nothing in social or economic legitimacy. To respect women as our equals, insist pro-life partisans, requires taking them seriously as our partners in parenthood — indeed, as our partners in life. To do otherwise is crass manipulation.

It is tempting to reject both myths as hysterical propaganda — tempting, but too quick. Of course, those of us who are mere foot soldiers in the perpetual war do not think in these terms: those who stage protests, hold marches and write newspaper columns — for whichever side — commit themselves to the freedom, not the enslavement, of women. The motivations of the wealthy and powerful elites behind each movement are less clear — though it is perhaps paranoia to attribute their actions to calculating misogyny. But motivations do not tell the entire story.

During the American Civil War, Northerners took themselves to be fighting for the integrity of their nation and the freedom of all men to live on their own terms; Southerners took themselves to be fighting for the integrity of their way of life and the freedom of all states to order themselves as they saw best. And indeed, this perspective — the motivational one — is legitimate. But also legitimate is the sociological perspective: The American Civil War was, in the end, a conflict about how elites could best manipulate the masses — how labor could be most efficiently extracted from laborers and put to the service of society. Northerners held — or might as well have held — that the most efficient way to extract this labor was by the system of wage slavery — that is, of industry; Southerners held — or might as well have held — that the most efficient way to extract this labor was by the system of chattel slavery — that is, of agriculture. The American Civil War was, in this sense, a war regarding the future economic ordering of American society, a war over the most efficient way to wring sweat from the brow — and, in asking this question, the war also answered it: The North defeated the South precisely because its economic ordering was the more productive by far. It is not coincidence that the newly industrial United States was able, over the next century, to dominate merely agricultural nations around the world.

The perpetual war between pro-choice and pro-life camps differs from the American Civil War only in its matter and its duration, not in its structure: It is, from a sociological perspective, a debate about how men can best manipulate women — how fertility and labor can be most efficiently extracted from women and put to the service of society. It is tempting to reject both the pro-choice and pro-life myths as hysterical propaganda — but, from a sociological perspective, both are true.

This does not mean, again, that anyone on either side of the perpetual war actually thinks in these terms: Women are numerous in both camps, and it verges on absurdity to think that they are advocating their own manipulation. This does not change, however, what that society has witnessed the triumph of both camps — first, before 1973, the pro-life, and then, after 1973, the pro-choice: Under the former regime, women were indeed often housewives, forced by the necessity of motherhood into lifetimes of cleaning, laundering, cooking and child-rearing; under the latter regime, women are indeed free to look significantly beyond homemaking for employment — but, at the same time, they fall into cycles of empty, exploitative relationships that prevent many of them from realizing marriage and family — goods that their mothers obtained as a matter of course. Neither the pro-choice nor the pro-life camps think in terms of how to best manipulate women into offering more of their resources to society, but this does not change the fact that this is — from a sociological perspective — exactly what they are debating.

It goes without saying that the liberation of women is linked to the sexual revolution, the rise of abortion and the contraceptive pill, and the breakdown of marriage and the family. This point has been made before. The problem, it seems, is the social framework that establishes this link — the same social framework that establishes the link between the liberation of slaves from the farm and their re-enslavement on the assembly line. In choosing between the industrial and the agrarian economic orders, one should not have to make the choice between two varieties — and rather sinister varieties at that — of enslavement. Similarly, in choosing between the pro-choice and the pro-choice regimes, one should not have to make the choice between two varieties — and rather sinister varieties at that — of sexual manipulation. If some social framework forces this choice upon one, one ought to reject the choice — that is, one ought to reject the framework.

 

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on WVFI. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.