How Right Wing Would Respond to Tess

Arterton in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”

In today’s post, I return to an issue that never seems to go away in this election, which is women’s reproductive rights. Even as the Romney campaign keeps on insisting that it wants to focus on the economy rather than on reproductive freedom, many in the party–including its vice-presidential candidate–keep bringing the issue up. Meanwhile, I find myself thinking once again of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. (In a previous post I compared Paul Ryan to Angel Clare.)

I thought of Hardy’s heroine when I heard GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin claim that women who are raped “very rarely” get pregnant, at least in cases of “legitimate rape.” And although the Republican establishment came down very hard on him for both the theory and the phrase, it then came to light that Ryan had included a similar distinction (“forcible rape”) in legislation he had sponsored. Apparently, in some Republican minds only forcibly raped women get any kind of exception when it comes to abortions.

Except when it comes to the Republican platform at Tampa, which called for the outlawing of all abortions, even in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother. Last week in Virginia, meanwhile, the Republican governor and attorney general, in a fairly transparent attempt to close all abortion clinics in the state (just as Mississippi has been trying to do), forced the state health board to apply stringent new guidelines to the clinics, guidelines that no other health service organization has to follow. (The health board initially grandfathered in existing clinics but then, after threat of legal action against them by the attorney general, reversed course.)

One might have thought that Ryan would want to steer clear of such people and start cleaving to a more moderate path. Give him credit for consistency, however: there he was, this past Friday, addressing the Values Voter Summit, where he shared the program with a series of whackos who, in addition to their extreme abortion stands, were dispensing every conspiracy theory imaginable (Hillary Clinton is planning to close down all churches, Obama secretly prays to Allah while pretending to say the Pledge of Allegiance, Islam is not a religion and is undeserving of first amendment rights).

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post wondered what in the world Ryan was doing at the conference if Romney just wanted to focus on economic issues. One possibility has been offered up by The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky: maybe Romney has concluded that his appeal to independents and uncommitted moderates isn’t working and that his only hope of beating Obama now lies in his further galvanizing the base (including “values voters”). McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed also believes this to be the case.

Reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles provides us a human face for those rape victims who might wish to have abortions.

Tess is steered into a dark forest late at night by her employer and then, when she falls asleep, is raped. Here is how Hardy describes the incident:

The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm.

Would at least some GOP opponents of abortion allow this to a case where an abortion was warranted. After all, it seems a fairly open-and-shut case of forcible/legitimate rape. Hardy, however, understands, as these GOP ideologues do not, that women and situations are far more complex that one-dimensional depictions. I can imagine abortion opponents quibbling over the fact that Tess goes on to live with her employer for four weeks after the rape before leaving him.

Does this make her complicitous? Does this suddenly make the forced rape unforced, the legitimate rape illegitimate? What are we to make of Tess when she says, upon leaving,

“If I had gone for love o’ you, if I had ever sincerely loved you, if I loved you still, I should not so loathe and hate myself for my weakness as I do now! … My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all.”

He shrugged his shoulders. She resumed—

“I didn’t understand your meaning till it was too late.”

Hardy scandalized 1890s audiences by continuing to call Tess “a virtuous woman” (the book’s subtitle), even though it takes her a month to leave Alex. But for me, that’s a part of the book’s realism. Virtue doesn’t mean adhering to a rigid ideological platform. Virtue is making a good-hearted effort to do the right thing in extremely disorienting circumstances. In Tess’s case, her future prospects are threatened (and indeed, eventually they are destroyed) by her pregnancy. She should have access to an abortion if she wants one.

There are forces in the GOP, including its presidential ticket, that want the Supreme Court to repeal Roe vs. Wade, which would make it impossible for the Tesses of the world to get abortions in a good many states. With one more Republican appointee to the bench, they could pull it off. And as we see in Virginia, forces are at work making it as difficult as possible for women to obtain abortions, regardless of the circumstances.

And Republicans claim that they are being falsely accused of waging a war on women.

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