During a Saturday evening speech in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Donald Trump invoked the increasingly familiar myth of murderous mothers, cruel doctors, and bloodthirsty Democrats: “The baby is born,” Trump told the crowd. “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” “I don’t think so,” he added as the crowd booed.
Trump’s violent imagery was intended as a commentary on Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who recently vetoed a so-called “born alive” bill. The bill, like so many of the Republican-sponsored “born alive” bills currently making their way through statehouses, was built on a fantasy that Trump made literal on Saturday: that pregnant women are all potential murderers and that doctors are aiding them. It’s been a recurring theme in Trump’s rhetorical arsenal since Virginia governor Ralph Northam publicly voiced support of HB 2491, a bill that, among other things, would have reduced the number of doctors’ consent required to clear the administrative and legal hurdles to obtaining a third-trimester abortion. (The bill still required the one physician to certify that the pregnancy would “impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”) Though the bill effectively gave patients more discretion to make difficult medical decisions, it was effectively remade by Republicans into a violent fantasy of babies being ripped from the womb and executed by heartless politicians who were willing to offer up children as sacrifices to extremist voters. In February, after Senate Democrats blocked a similar bill, Trump said, “they don’t mind executing babies.”
During his Saturday speech, he continued spinning myth: “Until this crazy man in Virginia said it, nobody even thought of that,” Trump said. “You hear ‘late-term,’ but this is when the baby is born and came out... it’s there, it’s wrapped... that’s sick,” he continued. “Who believes that?” he added.
“Who believes that?” was a rhetorical question, meant to conjure up disgust from a supportive crowd. But it’s a telling question nonetheless. It’s clear that, despite story after story refuting Trump’s falsehoods about abortion, many of his supporters cling to this Trumpian myth of a nation of potentially murderous mothers, conspiring doctors and politicians alike. Even though the vast majority of abortions occur before 13 weeks and there is no such thing as
“post-birth abortion,” these facts, frankly, do not matter. Facts have no bearing on myth.
“Abortion,” Carol Sanger writes in About Abortion, should be thought of “in relation to women’s power.” “There is no question that the right to decide about abortion gives women significant authority over their own lives.” Quoting the anthropologist Rayna Rapp, Sanger notes that abortion “forces women to act as a moral philosopher.... adjudicating the standards guarding entry into the human community for which she serves as normalizing gatekeeper.” Trump’s transformation of the abstract fetus into a swaddled baby innocently waiting for slaughter is underscored by a ghostly image of a morally bankrupt woman; a woman willing to indulge in her basest urges, willing to sacrifice an infant for convenience. A baby awaiting sacrifice carries with it concrete imagery that the more familiar anti-abortion imagery of the fetus simply does not—a baby in a blanket, an Old Testament story, or biblical babies massacred by a determined government.
Buried in Trump’s myth—hidden behind the picture he conjures up of the “beautifully” wrapped baby—is a fundamental belief about the nature of women. Left to act as “moral philosopher,” women will fail; women will choose the immoral. In this iteration of myth, only the government supported and run by moral men can stop both her and the doctors who conspire with her. Think of how then-candidate Trump warned that Hillary Clinton believed that “you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month.”
This isn’t particularly new territory for either Trump or the anti-abortion movement. Though in recent decades, anti-abortion groups have stopped arguing that women should be punished, the myth of mother-as-murderer still animates the way in which the anti-abortion movement imagines women. In 2016, while still campaigning, Trump told Chris Matthews that there “has to be some form of punishment” for women who had abortions. Trump’s bloody myth of dead infants and babies torn from the womb is a fantastical construction, drawn from the potent myth of morally suspect women; of women who, given the chance, would quickly transform into Medea, incapable of gatekeeping or wielding even the smallest amount of power over their own bodies.
Trump’s authority has always come from making mythical images real, from serving them as facts to an angry electorate who is eager to reclaim moral authority. It is easy to fact check Trump’s lies, to repeat that he is lying, but facts cannot dismantle a fantasy so deeply entrenched. Facts can neither uproot myth nor change a fundamentally warped belief in the very nature of women. She exists because Trump conjures her; as we near the 2020 presidential election, we can expect to see more of her.