Why Herman Cain's Mixed-Up Comments on Abortion Can Make Sense to the Base

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 18 2011 12:51 PM

Can Herman Cain Be Pro-Life but Pro-Choice?

Herman Cain
Is Herman Cain trying to have it both ways regarding abortion rights?

Photo by Getty Images.

Herman Cain is all over the place when it comes to the abortion debate. He claims to be "pro-life," but also says that he believes the government should stay out of it. Dan Amira of New York Magazine's Daily Intel mocks Cain for this, presuming that Cain is just plain stupid and ignorant when he says in the same breath that abortion shouldn't be legal and women shouldn't have one, but also that it's her choice and the government should stay out of it. It's understandable that Amira would see these opinions as stupid, since they directly contradict each other. But I think Cain could very well be doing something brilliant here, at least in the sense of appealing to the base. After all, many people who consider themselves "pro-life" don't actually want to ban abortion. They just dislike it and associate it with dirty sluthood, but they haven't really thought through the ramifications of what being "pro-life"--aka, anti-choice--means.

I often like to use the term "forced childbirth" when describing what the anti-choice movement supports. This is, of course, an accurate description of what a ban on abortion will do: force women who are pregnant and don't want to be to give birth against their will. When I use this entirely accurate term, anti-choicers flip out on me and often say, "I don't want to force childbirth on women." Except that they do, if they support banning abortion. There are other weaselly strategies anti-choicers use to avoid talking about the legal issue at the center of this debate. You often, for instance, see anti-choicers say that women should "take responsibility" for getting pregnant, as if scheduling and going through an abortion doesn't require responsibility. But they don't seem to grasp that when you force someone to bear children, she's not taking responsibility. Her will has been removed from the equation, and will is a necessary component of taking responsibility. The widespread delusion that advocating for bans on abortion won't mean that abortion is, you know, banned, runs so deep that if you ask a typical anti-choice obsessive how much time women should do for breaking the law they wished existed, they straight up can't answer the question because they've quite literally never thought that banned means banned. To hear anti-choicers like Michele Bachmann talk, you get the impression that they think the Supreme Court invented abortion with Roe v. Wade, as opposed to legalizing something that was already common. 

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How can so many people support banning abortion without really supporting a ban on abortion? The anti-choice movement has done a remarkable job of making the discourse about how it's just awful that dirty sluts get abortion and fantasizing about it just disappearing, instead of addressing the realities of what they're asking for. Anti-choice literature pretty much never addresses the underground networks that will pop up when they ban abortion, or the women who will self-abort, or how to structure the jail terms for abortion providers and women who get abortions. If pressed, they may vaguely say they'd simply throw providers in jail but not women who get abortions, even though that's a completely incoherent position if you think abortion is murder. (If you hire someone to shoot a person, guess what? You both go to jail.) Many women who get abortions identify as "pro-life," in fact, and use that self-identification to ask special favors of abortion providers, such as not having to go through the same channels they believe are reserved for the other women getting abortions. You know, the "promiscuous" ones who don't "take responsibility." Because of this utter unwillingness to discuss the legal issues, many people who identify as "pro-life," like Herman Cain, feel free to do so while blanching at the idea of rounding up the 1 in 3 women who will get an abortion in her lifetime and throwing them in jail.

In fact, recent anti-choice incursions against reproductive rights are genius in that they pander to most people who identify as "pro-life" by making it seem like they're just showing those dirty sluts how to take responsibility without actually making abortion unavaible, you know, should your nonslutty self need one. Mandatory ultrasounds, for instance, satisfy a typical conservative's belief that most women who get abortions are just bimbos who, with a little coaxing, will clean up and become happy housewives. However, the problem is that laws that seem on paper to be about allowing abortion while applying pressure to mythical women too stupid to know what they're doing actually have the effect of reducing access. Thus the hardcore misogynists get what they want--forced childbirth--while the mushier folks like Herman Cain get to believe that they're allowing abortion loopholes so that the good girls who get into trouble still have a choice. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.