‘Strong ideas about morality and how to uphold it’

In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fine novel Heat and Dust, her narrator reflects on the experience of her step-grandmother Olivia’s decision to end her pregnancy in 1920s India:

But he knew about Indian “miscarriages” and the mens employed to bring them a bout. The most common of these was the insertion of a twig smeared with the juice of a certain plant known only to Indian midwives. In his time Dr. Saunders had extracted many such twigs from women brought to him with so-called miscarriages. Afterwards he confronted the guilty women and threw them out of the hospital. Sometimes he slapped them — he had strong ideas about morality and how to uphold it. But even he admitted that certain allowances might be made for these native women born in ignorance and dirt. There was no such extenuating circumstance for Olivia.

Olivia has had sexual relations with the Nawab, an Indian prince of minor importance allowed to govern at the whim of the Raj. Now, it happens that I finished Heat and Dust yesterday, hours after learning Kentucky legislators had in essence ended abortion in their state. No legal commenter expects the Supreme Court to merely poke holes in Roe v. Wade. Insofar that it has a focus beyond a congeries of resentments, the Republican Party since 1980 exists to deny women power over their bodies, allow states to discriminate against minority voters with IDs and gerrymandering, keep homosexuals in closets where they hope they end their lives, and treat their children as possessions.

From the Heritage Foundation to the Cato Institute, think tanks give college interns employment and pedigree and little else besides the carapace of intellectualism under which the solons once hid their ambitions; the likes of Bill Kristol and George Will, rattling von Mises and Hayek references like Mardi Gras beads, were the suckers once Donald Trump descended the escalator in June 2015. Conservative legislators needn’t traffic in bad faith anymore: their party and voters reward the cruelty.

I cited this passage not just for its gruesome, po-faced description of primitive rituals performed for the sake of miscarriage but for crystallizing an attitude by men about women in trouble. We will soon see how GOP legislators and their voters’ strong ideas about morality and how to uphold it will punish women born in ignorance and dirt.

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