Ignorance Is Blessed

Supporters of Alabama’s extreme abortion law weren’t just confused about what exactly it does—they were proud of their cluelessness.

Chambliss with other Alabama state senators around him.
Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss, center, is seen with other senators during an Alabama State Senate vote on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States on May 14. Reuters/Chris Aluka Berry

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has approved the country’s most repressive restriction on women’s health care: a total ban on abortion with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Her signature comes a day after the Alabama State Senate voted 25–6 to pass the legislation. Though a female representative in the state House had introduced the bill to that chamber, every senator who voted for the bill was a white man. All but one of the senators who voted against it was not.

You don’t have to have a female reproductive system to know how one works. But if you’re going to advance legislation that bars women from making their own decisions about pregnancy and childbirth, you should at least have a working familiarity with the biological processes you’re enshrining in the penal code.

Based on Tuesday evening’s floor debate, Alabama’s GOP senators not only appeared to fall far short of that threshold—they were pleased by it. Sen. Clyde Chambliss, one of the bill’s main supporters, demonstrated a fair bit of confusion about how human reproduction works as he debated Democrats. “I’m not trained medically, so I don’t know all the proper medical terminology and timelines and that sort of thing,” he said, “but from what I’ve read, what I’ve been told, there’s some period of time before you can know that a woman is pregnant. … It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that.”

This unscientific fumbling would have been pretty funny had it not been the preamble to a vote to strip women of the ability to decide whether or not to bear a child. Chambliss appeared to be confused about the difference between the moment when the chromosomes of the egg and sperm meet—fertilization—and the moment when a pregnancy test, which tests hormones, not chromosomes, shows up positive. Chambliss was unable to answer questions about whether an abortion under the new bill would be legal in the days or weeks between those two events.

Chambliss also drew a blank when asked how he would define an “attempted abortion,” which would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He said he didn’t know what an “attempted abortion” was, but that it meant that a fetus somehow remained viable after an abortion procedure. He was likewise stumped when questioned about how doctors would be able to tell a miscarriage from a medication abortion, since the two would present indistinguishably to a doctor. “The burden of proof would be on the prosecution,” he shrugged—implying, as if he’d just considered it for the first time, that all women who miscarry in an Alabama with an abortion ban should be investigated as criminal suspects.

Chambliss’ ignorance about the female body he was so zealously trying to police struck me as moderately disturbing. If a legislator arguing for lower or higher taxes is expected to know how the tax system functions, shouldn’t a legislator legislating about pregnancy and abortion know how pregnancy and abortion work? But for me, the truly galling part of this exchange was the fact that Chambliss seemed utterly unbothered by his own cluelessness. Indeed, he seemed to flaunt it proudly.

Republican men with anti-abortion agendas have long taken a perverse kind of pleasure in their illiteracy on the very topics they harp on the most. They love to talk about the sanctity of motherhood and the milestones of fetal development; Chambliss, for instance, wore a pin on Tuesday night that he claimed was the size of a fetus’s feet after 10 weeks of pregnancy. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of biology that medical professionals, insurance companies, and patients will have to parse to determine what reproductive health care is legal and when, they plead ignorance.

This is not a strictly Alabamian phenomenon. Consider the comments of Ohio state Rep. John Becker, a Republican who proposed a bill that would curb insurance coverage of all abortion care provided under non-life-threatening circumstances. When journalists and health care practitioners noted that the bill would also ban coverage of contraception devices, including certain IUDs, that prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs, Becker seemed exasperated. “That’s clearly not my area of expertise,” he said. He then suggested that pharmaceutical companies could simply “reformulate” their contraceptives to work differently, somehow, to comply with his legislation. That legislation, by the way, included an exception to allow insurance coverage of a medical procedure Becker appears to have invented out of whole cloth. Under Becker’s bill, if a woman experiences an ectopic pregnancy—a life-threatening event wherein a fertilized egg attaches somewhere other than inside the uterus—insurance companies would be permitted to cover a procedure to “reimplant the fertilized ovum into the pregnant woman’s uterus.” That procedure does not exist.

Becker and Chambliss have a kindred spirit in Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who said a woman being raped cannot get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” They share a philosophy of lawmaking with Texas state Rep. Dan Flynn and Idaho state Rep. Vito Barbieri, who seem to believe the uterus can only be reached through an incision in the abdomen or via the digestive tract, respectively. (It seems impossible, given their premodern hypotheses about human reproduction, that these men are even aware that infants exit the body through the vagina.) To men in this cohort, the female body is more symbol than fact, more allegory than flesh and blood. It is a site adequately understood through assumption and conjecture, at once too simple and too unknowably complex to warrant the humility of self-education. Instead of shaping their laws around the realities of medicine—decisions and procedures that directly confront the daily possibilities of pain, injury, and death—Republican legislators are asking modern medicine and women’s bodies to conform to their almost entirely faith-based wishes.

It should be no surprise to hear conservative politicians discuss these medical and biological processes in the same blithe, slapdash tone they’d use in a conversation with a child about why the sky is blue. For people convinced that a just-fertilized blastocyst carries the same human value and moral weight as a toddler, reproduction is better understood through magic than medicine. As with any magic trick, it doesn’t matter how the magician achieves the effect; the audience isn’t privy to that information. It’s only the end result—a flower produced from thin air, a woman legally compelled to give birth—that counts.