In her book Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin includes a chapter called “The Coming Gynocide.” For anyone relatively unfamiliar with patriarchy, its roots, and its modes of enforcement, this chapter might read like paranoid fantasy or conspiracy theory. In it, the author discusses the ways in which US policies surrounding sterilization, abortion, welfare, and in-vitro fertilization can and will come together to allow and enforce absolute governmental control of the uterus. This control will create a new version of what Dworkin terms the “farm model” of misogynistic control—a breeding ground, with its nexus in a scientific lab. The women who are subject to this control will not be white and middle-class—they will be low-income, African-American and Hispanic. Although I found much of Dworkin’s approach to feminist analysis bleak (she seems to leave little room for faith in humanity as a whole), her words haunted me yesterday, when the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation can deny health coverage to women in the name of the corporation’s religious freedom.
As the flurry of post-announcement commentary settled out, it became clear: as Kevin Drum put it over at Mother Jones, this decision is not about religious freedom, it is about abortion. The owners of Hobby Lobby believe that any birth control device that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in a uterus is equivalent to abortion, tantamount to murder. If a fertilized egg is a full person, with rights not given to a human woman—the point of personhood bills, which have been around in one form of another since Dworkin wrote this book (the first edition in 1978, the version I read in 1982)—Roe v. Wade is irrelevant. That case hinged on a woman’s privacy, and every tactic of the religions right since has assumed that a woman’s privacy is null and void, an abomination to a woman’s God-determined role as incubator.
Fundamentalist Christianity plus corporate power plus a patriarchal Supreme Court equals these words of Dworkin’s: “For the sake of religion, they are taking from religion its moral authority to demand obedience from the faithful and turning that authority over to a soulless state apparatus incapable of moral discernment.” This. Is. Not. Religious. Freedom. It is the embryonic beginning of what Dworkin foresaw: absolute state control of non-white, non-middle-class uteri. I think many people know this, on some level. We might not perceive it in quite the way Dworkin did—she had a sweeping, brutal brilliance, a political mind capable of perceiving the far-reaching ramifications of governmental patriarchy. But as the religious right makes more and more inroads into our politics, combining financial and political clout with fundamentalist beliefs about the role of women in society, their motives are becoming more transparent: as Soraya Chemaly says in an article for Time, this is not democracy—it is patriarchy.
This decision strikes at the heart of freedom and humanity rather than uplifting it, enforcing state-sanctioned religion onto the bodies of poor women. Even if we don’t concur with Dworkin’s bleak projections about the future—and there is much in her vision that is indeed foreshadowed here—we must see that this decision, once again, requires American women to submit to patriarchy in the name of religion. What, then, do we do? I think the final words of Dworkin’s book can help us: “The freedom of women from sex oppression either matters or it does not; it is either essential or it is not. Decide one more time.”
And once we’ve decided, again and always, we must act. Our future depends on it.