If Democrats had any say in the matter -- and to an extent they do -- they'd elect Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of South Carolina as the poster boy for the Republican Party. His chief qualification for such a dubious honor is the statement he made at a town hall meeting last week. Criticizing welfare policies that are still too liberal for his taste after a generation of retrenchment, he compared providing for poor Americans to feeding stray animals in the woods. The worst consequence? " [T]hey breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."
A comment like this admittedly puts the "pro-life" position of Bauer and those who support him in his current gubernatorial campaign in a different light. He's attempted to clarify his off-the-cuff comment by saying that he meant to invoke the perpetuation of a cycle of welfare-dependency, not the proliferation of new generations of poor people. But the abstract concept of "dependency" that so troubles Republicans is hard to separate from the plight of actually dependent people. Even if we accept his clarification, he still seems to be saying that the cycle of dependency is perpetuated by dependent people having more dependent children on a presumption that the government will provide for them. What else can the reference to "ones that don't think too much further than that" mean? This leaves us with an avowedly "pro-life" politician implicitly arguing that poor people shouldn't reproduce, though once one gets pregnant, one presumes, Bauer will still insist that the child be carried to term and delivered to take its chances in society.
Bauer's political equivalent of a Freudian slip should force the question of whether Republicans of his stripe want poor people to reproduce or not. There's presumably a biblical imperative ("be fruitful and multiply") in play, but that may be trumped by the unwritten Republican bible that commands against dependency. I can understand if they feel that a fetus shouldn't suffer for the sins of improvident parents, but their real preference, I suspect, is that poor families avoid getting pregnant. In practical terms, assuming Bauer to be a right-wing Christian, that means poor people shouldn't have sex. I have more direct evidence of this Republican attitude from my conversations with Mr. Right, a fanatic pro-lifer who once told me that abortion wouldn't be an issue if more women would just "keep their legs closed." But these are opinions more commonly exchanged within the confidentiality of churches, I'd guess, than on the public stage.
The issue of reproductive freedom is more complex than the moral absolutism of the abortion debates allows. For one side, obviously, the right of the fetus trumps the right of the mother, but there may well be times, even in the Republican imagination, when the mother's interest in having a baby conflicts with society's interest in having fewer mouths to feed at government expense. But Republicans can't articulate this conflict comfortably because it reminds them (and Democrats also) of China's "totalitarian" policy limiting childbirth, not to mention the taboo notion of eugenics. Since Republicans hold the family to be the sovereign unit of society, they're reluctant to see the state discourage people from having kids. But if "pro-life" Republicans are willing to have the state decide whether women can abort pregnancies or not, why not grant it like power to determine whether women can get pregnant in the first place? The latter idea irritates them, perhaps because they still want to think of a child as a creation of God, not the parents, so that its birth is His will, not theirs. While some still insist that sex be undertaken for procreative purposes only, so that intercourse becomes a purposeful attempt at impregnation, they also want the results to be seen as somehow accidental, an act of providence, which the mother did not will and therefore can't unwill. Despite all this, Bauer's remarks sound like an subconscious assertion that some people shouldn't breed for the simple reason that doing so would impose on taxpayers. The easy responses to this little scandal are to call Bauer heartless or hypocritical. It would be more interesting, though less comfortable or comforting to most people, to make his supposed misstatement a subject for a further debate. Such a debate might well creatively disrupt the bipolar absolutism that makes the reproductive-rights issue a favorite of the two-party system.
Update: It may not be irrelevant to note that the American teen pregnancy rate is going up, a trend that may be linked, according to this Newsweek report, to an allegedly growing number of coerced pregnancies. The report offers some possible explanations for this development, but the author sees it as a control thing -- men knocking up girlfriends as if thus establishing ownership. A would-be patriarch might not see things exactly that way, of course, and gender issues certainly further complicate the double debate over whether some women should get pregnant and whether every fetus should come to term.