Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Abortion, Pluralism, and the Discourse of Genocide

Ben Meiches is an Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Washington-Tacoma and author of The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide.

On May 16th, Kay Ivey of Alabama became the latest governor to sign legislation designed to curtail and penalize the practice of abortion. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act makes performing an abortion a Class A felony with a 10 to 99-year term of imprisonment and is just one of a series of state level efforts to further eliminate legal abortions. In 2019, Georgia also adopted legislation banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected while Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio all enacted ‘six-week’ bans. Similar measures have been introduced in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Many commentators maintain that the goal of this legislation is not to prevent abortions per se, but to initiate the process of overturning or modifying Planned Parenthood v. Casey (505 U.S. 833), the controlling Supreme Court precedent that affirmed Roe v. Wade while justifying state regulation of abortion. After two additional Trump appointees to the Supreme Court, the logic goes, Casey and Roe may face unprecedented challenges. While these new state legislative efforts have been the focus of media attention, they represent the labors of a large network of anti-abortion activists that, at times, espouse overt hostility to pluralist values.

One of the tactics of the anti-abortion movement is to rhetorically reposition abortion as a practice akin to the worst. Amongst this arsenal of shameful tropes is a frequent claim that abortion constitutes a form of genocide and, moreover, the worst genocide in human history. This claim appears in the organizational materials of nonprofits. It mimics the structure of humanitarian projects and targets supposedly sympathetic college audiences. The rhetoric is severe enough that it has even become the subject of public dispute. Liberal and leftist responses to this tactic typically point out how this rhetoric trivializes the victims of the Nazis, Young Turks and other genocides. This is an important argument, but it fails to understand why genocide rhetoric has become such a powerful part of the anti-abortion movement and doesn’t sufficiently grapple with the implications of this discourse. Instead, it presupposes a model of contestation that presumes a shared set of norms and sentiments, which required explicit practices of memory work to construct. In addition, the trivialization response embraces a practice that has also been historically used to marginalize black and indigenous claims about genocide, a process of marginalization also entangled in the versions of this discourse embraced by anti-abortion activity. Lurking in the background of the abortion-trivialization is a foundational repression of racial and colonial politics.

Before proceeding, it is worth considering whether there is any possible link between abortion and genocide. The answer to this question is a strong affirmative. Article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention explicitly describes “imposing measures intended to prevent births” as a form of genocide, which could, hypothetically, include abortion. The existence of similar language was part of virtually every draft of the Genocide Convention. RaphaĆ«l Lemkin, the jurist who coined the neologism ‘genocide,’ frequently described efforts to prevent birth as a technique or form of genocide (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, 86). However, these comments were not directed at the practice of abortion per se. Rather, they were designed to ban acts of state discrimination and control directed against the reproductive capacities of specific groups. Lemkin was concerned about strategies for reducing the birth rate of a particular people not abortion writ large. Early drafts of the Genocide Convention, such as the Secretariat Draft, explicitly discussed “sterilization or compulsory abortion,” but these comments appear alongside concerns about policies that prohibit marriage or segregate the sexes. While Lemkin and his interlocutors were guided by presumptions about sex, gender and labor that are no longer salient, the impetus to defend these institutions was based on a desire to insulate vulnerable minorities from predatory efforts to eliminate their forms of life. It is this ambition, the elimination of forms of life in the name of life’s necessity, that animates Michel Foucault’s characterization of “genocide [as] the dream of modern powers” in the age of biopolitics (Foucault, HoS vol. 1, 137). The concept of genocide was created by Lemkin to reject the extension of this power over racial, religious, linguistic, cultural, and national communities.

Hence, under international law, “preventing births” only becomes a form of genocide if it occurs with the intent to destroy a targeted group. This raises the question of how anti-abortion advocates envision the ‘victims’ of this genocide and how they go about ascribing intent to the ‘perpetrators’ of this violence? Typically, this rhetoric focuses on the ‘unborn’ as a subject or victim of this genocide. This interpretation does not have any precedent in the academic or historical literature on genocide.

Let's assume for the moment that we take this position seriously. If the unborn are a group targeted for genocide then this generates a host of other questions about what other practices violently intend to destroy the life for the unborn? Does racial discrimination in maternal medical care constitute genocide according to this standard? What about plastic pollution, which affects fertility or ecological destruction that leads to miscarriages? The traumas of intimate partner violence or sustained domestic abuse? Clearly, these are not a part of the anti-abortion agenda and they show the tensions that emerge if the ‘unborn’ become the group subjected to genocide. The reason anti-abortion advocates do not treat these other practices as forms of violence against the so-called unborn is because a set of religious or cosmological commitments resides in the background of these discourses. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's brilliantly demonstrated how faith and theodicy inform anti-abortion policy prescriptions. If the unborn are interpreted a priori as part of a Christian community then the category of genocide sounds different because abortion appears to constitute an attack against a specific type of religiously defined life. The legitimation of abortion by the secular state becomes, from within this perspective, an attack against the futurity of this identity. However, the underlying move here is the extension of the theocratic principles of a specific model of Christianity to all peoples, which implicitly dispenses with any other articulation of religiosity, faith, belief, etc. Put differently, a subterranean hostility to pluralism, to the contestability of belief, is crucial to making the deployment of genocide rhetoric intelligible in this context.

The tragedy is that the theocratic principles and policy ambitions expressed in this genocide rhetoric more closely resembles the practices that Lemkin and the other authors of the Genocide Convention were working to prohibit. Here is Lemkin defending his own version of pluralism: “The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigor as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and a well-developed psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contributions to the world” (Axis Rule, 91). We may find ourselves discontent with Lemkin’s invocation of authenticity or nationality, terms he redefines and contests within this text, but this statement illustrates that a convention prohibiting genocide was inspired by a pluralist commitment. This commitment rejected the predatory anti-pluralist practices characteristic of fascism and sought to prevent any single theocratic or nationalist principle from dictating the value of political life. Ultimately, anti-abortion genocide rhetoric repurposes a pluralist aspiration to justify evangelical governmentality.

Given Lemkin’s aspirations for the Genocide Convention, how did this language become a resonance machine for anti-abortion advocates? The broader history of the concept of genocide, in spite of its origins as a part of an international justice movement, involves a takeover by reactionary forces. At its inception, genocide was understood to have far reaching anti-colonial and anti-racist implications. In the American context, it was the prospect of the Civil Rights Congress’ ‘We Charge Genocide’ petition and other anti-segregation struggles that demonstrated the impossibility of reconciling the Genocide Convention with a status quo dominated by white supremacist violence. To thwart these struggles and ideological distance themselves from the Nazi regime, the Great Powers crafted the Genocide Convention to limit its scope and applicability. Moreover, in the United States, these anti-racist movements were hounded, defeated, and largely erased from public memory. As a consequence, genocide became a language for criticizing state power (first totalitarian and then communist), but was later taken up by more powerful constituencies on the right to articulate how social reform endangered their identity. Unfortunately, many prominent applications of the language of genocide in international politics also ignore this complicity. What occurred was a rarefication of the language of genocide so it became about moral emergency and the state of exception rather than political justice or social struggle. Just as the prospect of international legal action on genocide became more and more remote, the ability of genocide, as a form of social discourse to incite powerful, stilling resonances grew. The notion that abortion constitutes a form of genocide not only shares a tacit complicity with what Dirk Moses calls “liberal theories” of genocide, but presupposes this capacity of the discourse to intensify, polarize and mobilize. Indeed, in general, the discourse of genocide produces is an affective reorientation of perceptions in relation to harm. It is one of the most acute methods of crystallizing processes that Wendy Brown refers to as ‘states of injury.’ As a consequence, it is difficult to discredit the connection between abortion and genocide solely by asserting competing truth claims. To do so is at best necessary, but not sufficient and at worst a dead end. The goal of this genocide rhetoric is not to have a debate. Instead, it cultivates reactionary affect and amplifies the danger associated with abortion as practiced in the United States. In this sense, it helps craft subjectivities structured around the need to prevent genocidal violence. Subjectivities also fearful of women’s lives, autonomy, and feminist movements in ways that strongly resonate with Klaus Theweleit’s exposition of fascist fears about the feminine. Does this rhetoric inspire attacks on women, abortion clinics, and doctors? Certainly not if the standard of proof depends on linear causality, but the intensities engendered by these discourses alter what is thinkable and contribute to an ecology of values that does produce this kind of violence. 

Disputing this rhetoric by pointing to the ‘real cases of genocide’ isn't sufficient. This gesture creates its own forms of exclusion and trivialization while failing to register the productive effects of genocide discourse. Contesting anti-abortion advocates will be a complex process including multiple scales of political thought and action. A critical history of genocide makes a small contribution to this process by showing that the underlying pluralist orientation of this language is one opposed to the imposition of theocratic principles. However, it also reveals that the explicit rejection of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements was a key condition of possibility for the appropriation of this language by anti-abortion. Challenging the latter also depends on addressing the former.



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