It’s become axiomatic in our political discourse that one of the reasons the anti-abortion crowd became so powerfully persuasive in the decades after Roe is that claiming to speak for a fetus is rhetorically unassailable. If every fertilized egg is a human life, nobody can claim to understand its preferences and hopes and dreams, so substituting the voice of the movement is a simple matter: All fertilized eggs want to live and thrive, goes the theory. End of policy debate.
This is why, as Barney Frank famously put it, “these people believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” It’s why the quote from Dave Barnhart that went viral right before Roe was overturned is still so perfectly apt. As the pastor put it:
The unborn are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus, but actually dislike people who breathe. Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.
The emptiness of this interest in life is also why so many anti-abortion politicians mouthed platitudes after Dobbs about their increased focus on poverty, food insecurity, and maternal and child health—and why very little of this has actually materialized.
But what many of us have missed is that the tactic of protecting the voiceless innocent unborn has now been deployed to deprive actual living, breathing, ambulating humans of moral agency as well. It’s the tactic being used to ban books, to silence teachers, to go after drag performances, to deny health care to families seeking to support trans kids. The notion that everyone must be protected from a scourge of immorality is, in some ways, old wine in a new bottle. But it is also a creeping form of illiberalism that ensures that for some GOP politicians, we all remain fetuses forever.
It was, of course, never even true that pro-lifers could speak for all fetuses. As we are increasingly being made aware, wanted fetuses can become children with lives so difficult that it is unclear they really did want to be alive. Wanted fetuses can become medical emergencies for mothers who might not be prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the chance of a fetus’ life. There has been shockingly little attention paid to these facts and scenarios, which are always complicated and frequently heartbreaking.
But as we hear Republican politicians gunning to hide books about race from children in Florida, or deny gender-affirming health care to trans families, or ban drag shows, their rationale continues to be that everyone is a baby. Teenagers are now de facto babies, but lately, so are their parents.
Here is an example. In Georgia this week, voting to ban gender-affirming care for anyone under 18, Republican Rep. Josh Bonner said this: “As parents, our role is to help our kids navigate through the confusion of growing up in a society that is often oversexualized and wants to place children in situations to make adult decisions they are not capable of making.” Under this construction of the case, it’s not just teens, but also their parents who are the children—who cannot even be trusted to make decisions about how to make decisions themselves.
In Florida this week, defending his deliberately confusing and chaos-ridden program of book bans in schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis said this: “I just think parents, when they’re sending their kids to school, they should not have to worry about this garbage being in the schools” and that “I think, though, there is a concerted effort to bring some of this sexualization into the classroom, particularly in these young grades.” But of course the lists of books that have been removed from classrooms and libraries are not limited to “porn and filth,” as PEN America has meticulously detailed. (HB 1467 mandates that any library or instructional books must be reviewed by a district employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate to make sure that they don’t contain porn or the fact that racism exists.) As a result, Florida textbooks are being edited so that someday schoolchildren may be spared the sentence, explaining Rosa Parks, that “African Americans had to give up their seats on the bus if a white person wanted to sit down,” in favor of the sentence “She was told to move to a different seat.” We are all the innocent unborn, deeply in need of protection, now.
Getting from parental rights to book bans means deploying, again, the meaningless language of “grooming” and “Marxism” and “CRT” and the “sexualization of teenagers” that reduces both them, and the parents who choose to send them to public school, to fetuses, with no moral agency to think or speak for themselves. Joan Walsh recently quoted the leader of a group called No Left Turn in Education who disrupted a Clay County School Board meeting last summer in his efforts to get the memoir Lucky, by Alice Sebold, banned because of its rape scene.* His rationale? “They are trying to sexualize and normalize deviant behavior,” he told reporters. “Sexualizing our children is grooming. It is not acceptable. It is illegal.” (The book in fact does the opposite of normalizing deviant behavior.)
Same story with the drag show bans sweeping the country. As the Texas Tribune recently reported, most opposition to drag events has been driven by anti-LGBTQ groups that deliberately mischaracterize them as efforts to groom and harm children:
The Texas Tribune reviewed more than two dozen anti-drag incidents, including protests and online harassment campaigns, that have occurred in the state since the beginning of Pride Month last June. Taken together, they show how a small but influential cadre of activists and extremist groups have fueled anti-drag panic by routinely characterizing all drag as inherently and nefariously sexual regardless of the content or audience. Those claims have then been used to justify harassment and legislation targeting the LGBTQ community as a whole, often under the guise of protecting kids. At least a quarter of the anti-drag incidents have been directed at events that organizers say are not even remotely sexual: drag queen story hours, where performers read children’s books, often at a library or bookstore, in an effort to promote literacy. Prominent anti-drag figures have made it clear that they think drag is obscene—regardless of the context.
Live human children, who have functioning human parents who either choose to take them to these events or do not, are being “protected” here, from being the ones to make decisions about their own lives. The opponents who insert themselves—into protected free-speech activity, by the way—have erased the moral will and decision-making choices of any player in this drama; have reduced them to nothing, zygotes in fluid. Their clarion call for parents’ rights now excludes parents. Who is being treated like a fetus now?
Once you are introducing policies that regard both teenagers and their adult parents as incapable of reasoned decision making, you are committing the very same ethical fallacy for which Barnhart called out “pro-lifers”: You are claiming to love American teenagers and their parents, and you are “advocating” for them “without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone.”
We are all fetuses now. American teens and, increasingly, their grown parents have become, as Barnhart so aptly put it, “the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus, but actually dislike people who breathe.”
Correction, March 20, 2023: This article originally misstated that Lucky is a novel. It is a memoir.