Kamala Harris on abortion: ‘Our country has a history of claiming ownership over human bodies’

Kamala Harris on abortion: ‘Our country has a history of claiming ownership over human bodies’

Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the NAACP on Monday, and if you’ve heard about it at all it’s probably because of a portion of her speech that focused on “fundamental freedoms,” including abortion rights, and the Supreme Court’s recent actions to curtail those rights.

“We know, NAACP, that our country has a history of claiming ownership over human bodies. And today, extremist so-called leaders are criminalizing doctors and punishing women for making health care decisions for themselves,” said Harris.

That first sentence up there got a lot of feigned outrage, mostly from news outlets allied with the extremists being referenced in the second sentence. The Daily Caller, National Review, and Fox News jumped in to fret that Harris was comparing the end of abortion rights to slavery and/or that her assertion that “our country” has a history of owning people was rude and/or inaccurate. If you’re wondering why three outlets with a history of boosting white nationalism are the ones whose anchors’ feelings are most hurt by Harris saying a thing, then get with the program: White nationalism is all about getting upset when anyone, anywhere mentions the historic legacies of That Crap They Support.

Writer Michael Harriot has a very good thread examining the reaction to Harris’ remarks that’s worth reading in full. I mean it, it’s worth the read.

I know that talking about race & acknowledging historical facts are now “controversial” & “divisive” topics. But I have to admit, that I was surprised at the reaction to when VP Harris. Maybe the VP is biased. She might be completely wrong, so I check the facts. A (live) thread pic.twitter.com/2wglPv8DHw

— Michael Harriot (@michaelharriot) July 19, 2022

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The most interesting point Harriot makes is that hey, Harris might not even have been referring to slavery when she mentioned a national history of “claiming ownership over” humans. She could have been talking about the United States’ failure to recognize married women as even legally people, one of those bits of long-established magical thinking from the ancient witch-hunting drunkards Sam Alito and his conservative peers so admire that America adhered to until the 1960s. If you’re a woman in America, it’s almost certain that you, your mother, or your grandmother was at some point refused a loan or bank account or wasn’t allowed to make a major purchase without the official in-writing approval of your husband, because as far as the banks were concerned, a married American woman had no financial rights independent of her husband.

None of this is ancient history. The current Senate and Supreme Court are chock full of alleged leaders old enough to have personally experienced the America in which American women were, from a legal standpoint, the property of their husband. And nearly every last one of them is old enough for their mothers to have lived through it.

When Alito and the other justices blather on about abortion rights not being “deeply rooted” in our history, not something intrinsic to American and English law to the extent that keeping slaves and burning witches were, these are the sorts of rights they’re endangering. For all of this talk about The Handmaid’s Tale and the threat of looming misogynistic dystopia, Americans today have a bafflingly shaky grasp of just how recently the United States started to shift away from its long, long history as a creepy misogynistic dystopia—or, at least, a dystopia for anyone who wasn’t white, male, and of the correct religion, and of the correct kind of white. Look through the history books. Until very very recently, that was the only version of personhood that ever applied in the House, or Senate, or White House, or judicial systems.

Justice Clarence Thomas was very eager to point out, as Roe fell, that all these other rights from the 1960s onward now need to be revisited too. If it wasn’t common wisdom during a time when people were tossing leeches on each other’s faces to draw out the bad humours, then the Constitution doesn’t apply and the state(s) can do whatever they damn well want. And a great many Americans want to go back to a time when vaccinations were only theoretical and women who turned down marriage offers were suspected of being in league with the devil.

That said, it’s almost certain that Harris was referring to slavery in referencing America’s “history of claiming ownership over human bodies,” and if the American fascist movement wants to get bent out of shape over people comparing the criminalization of abortion to chattel slavery then by all means, they should go nuts with that. It’s a fair comparison. Currently, multiple Republican states are claiming ownership over the bodies of pregnant residents, restricting their rights and threatening criminal charges against residents who do not comply with new state demands that they carry an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy to term. Republican states are claiming that an official state interest in a six-week old clump of nonsentient cells requires the state to commandeer a person’s body, monitoring for unauthorized miscarriages, possibly restricting not just medical care to be allowed but restricting the right of travel.

Republican states are declaring that they have “rights” over a person’s physical body that trump the “rights” people have over their own bodies. Is that a claim of bodily ownership? It’s plausible! By all means fight about it.

But I guarantee you the Americans currently finding out that every miscarriage or missed period may now result in a state inquiry or, in Texas, put a possible bounty on their heads are coming at this from a very different place from the mostly male mostly white nationalist theocracy supporters pretending that Kamala Harris’ take is the more “extreme” one. This is no longer a theoretical argument that the insufferably pedantic can bicker about among themselves in a battle for Internet Points. Americans who had rights before don’t have those same rights now, and you can’t make them not notice that.

Abortion rights, climate change, and gun safety are all on the ballot this fall, and there are literally thousands of ways to get involved in turning our voters. Plug into a federal, state, or local campaign from our GOTV feed at Mobilize and help Democrats and progressives win in November.


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