An almost deafening outcry has accompanied Alabama Senate’s passing of a bill that would represent a near-total ban on abortion. The hashtag #youknowme has been circulating, capturing the personal stories of women who have terminated pregnancies in order to ignite positive conversation on the issue. Celebrities such as Lady Gaga have weighed in, expressing shock and horror at what has happened. Chris Evans described the move as ‘unbelievable’ in a tweet.
But amidst the outpourings of disbelief and fury, we are perhaps only now beginning to understand the illusory nature of progress. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973 decriminalised abortion at a federal level, and while it has continued to be a contentious issue in the US, it perhaps never seemed possible before that the freedoms promised by this landmark precedent might be legally overturned.
Because to overturn Roe v. Wade would not only be to attack something that was deemed a constitutional right, but also to override the tide of progress.
I distinctly remember a moment from the 2012 US election preamble. Then congressman Todd Akin claimed that women who were raped would not fall pregnant: ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.’ Todd Akin’s statement was roundly condemned, with many critics noting that it had its roots in thirteenth century ‘science’. It thus became easy to dismiss Akin and his comments and as ‘medieval’.
Using the word ‘medieval’ as a means to insult ideas like Akin’s is certainly accurate, in the sense that many of these ideas and attitudes do have a basis in Medieval thought. But unfortunately, calling something ‘medieval’ does not have the power to consign it to the thirteenth century and make sure it stays there.
We make a mistake when we hurl this epithet at certain ideas and behaviours. Todd Akin’s beliefs and attitudes are being played out right here and now in 2019 as they were in 2012, and as they most likely were in 1312. They are probably the reason why the Alabaman Senate had such a rudimentary understanding of pregnancy as to not realise that being six weeks pregnant (the new cut-off for having a termination) is not something most women are going to notice in time.
And though commentators express their anger with all things from Trump to Saudi Arabia by calling them ‘medieval’, this terminology only buys in further to that myth of progress. The idea that what a (possibly large) group of people despise is somehow of a former age allows us to conveniently pretend that certain ideas can never truly take hold in society again. After all, we have moved on in time, so why shouldn’t our beliefs move linearly as well, following a neat and well-demarcated trajectory of ‘progress’.
But abortion rights are not the only things to have become less assured in recent times. The Trump administration has enacted a de facto ban on transgender personnel serving in the US military, pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and scrapped equal pay initiatives. To many people, all these things must signal the rise of a regressive era, pushing back the rights and freedoms gained over the last century. But this is not really the case. What we are seeing is simply the emergence of ideas that have long co-existed with notions considered ‘progressive’. Once deemed intolerable, these ideas are now rapidly morphing into the status quo.
And because many have scorned them as backward, these beliefs have been mocked and ridiculed without being properly addressed, and the concerns of those who hold them have been sidelined. The refusal by many on the left and centre of the political spectrum to see a certain type of politics as credible now find that their dismissal has actually enabled its credibility.
And this is not just happening in the US. Recent reports show that the UK is the most unequal it has ever been since the 1940s. The Guardian argues that the UK is beginning to match the US in terms of the disparity between the poorest and richest. Populist politics is on the rise; anti-Semitic hate crime is up 16% on last year. Things that some might have thought to be consigned in the past clearly are not.
Many in the UK often feel somewhat smug when it comes to America. After all, they have Trump, guns and travel bans over there. But America is coming to the UK: aggressive capitalist structures which undermine workers’ rights; the perilous state of the NHS; wage stagnation. Just as the past does not remain in the past, neither do Americanisms remain in America. We must not be fooled; as hardline policies can take root across the pond, so the same can happen here. And unless we confront the progress myth for what it is, those same attitudes some now dismiss as ‘medieval’ will become the new modern.