Author G. K. Chesterton once said, “evil always takes advantage of ambiguity.” He was writing in opposition of Britain’s eugenics laws in 1922, which were worded in such vague, undefined terms that pretty much anyone could be incarcerated for being (apologies) “feeble-minded.” You could be epileptic, developmentally delayed, habitually angry, an alcoholic, or just a pain in the ass, and suddenly any authority figure had a broad mandate to make you go away. That’s handy if, say, your country has a robust set of workhouses where they can send disabled people to labor for free at backbreaking tasks.
A century later and an ocean away, American conservatives are still using the power of ambiguity to wage war on their own flavor of undesirables. Over the last several years, Republican governments across the states have used vaguely worded laws to create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
The most potent local example is Texas’s abortion ban. In theory, life-saving abortions are still legal, meaning that if a pregnant person risks death by continuing the pregnancy, they should be able to get a procedure. In practice, this hasn’t happened, and it’s led to some truly horrific outcomes.
Texas doctors don’t know how in danger a pregnant person has to be for them to legally be able to deliver care. Does an ectopic pregnancy that hasn’t ruptured an internal organ yet count? Does an incompetent cervix that has virtually no chance of safely delivering a child? No one knows, and that’s why five women and two doctors are suing the state over proper definitions.
There is this nebulous legal space where the clear intent of the law (no abortions ever) runs into the gritty reality of medicine (sometimes abortions save lives). By continuously leaving a firm definition of what counts as saving the life of the pregnant person, Texas Republicans maintain a potent miasma of fear where trained professionals do not dare use their skills to help patients and pregnant Texans who need abortions have no choice but to the flee the state.
This is a feature, not a bug. If the Texas Republicans have to concretely define when an abortion is acceptable to perform, then they have to admit that sometimes the procedure is necessary. The power of the misidentified pro-life movement is its pure righteousness built around saving the unborn no matter the cost.
That belief system does not stand under real, logical scrutiny, which is what will happen if laws have to account for the messy medical reality of pregnancy, obstetrics, and gynecology. Attorney General Ken Paxton has outright accused reproductive health advocates of trying to turn hospitals into on-demand abortion clinics under the guise of partum health. The implication is that Paxton doesn’t really believe abortion actually saves lives, and that those petitioning for relief are simply trying to trick the state into allowing the procedure.
Doctors who know exactly what circumstances they can perform an abortion to help a patient will do it. Doctors who don’t will punt the problem out of state. There is no way that is a coincidence.
This is becoming a favorite trick. During the pandemic, many disabled Texans wanted to vote by mail for their safety, as they are legally entitled to do. However, wouldn’t you know it, the state refuses to say what counts as disabled for the purposes of mail-in voting. This resulted in many disabled Texans either risking their health to go to the polls or abstaining from voting. Considering that Paxton and other Texas Republicans are on a years-long quest to punish anyone they can to justify the myth of widespread voter fraud, disabled Texans are very right to worry whether they “count” under current law. If the choice is between not voting, death, or jail, most disabled people are going to choose to not vote, which tends to suit Republican voting trends just fine.
Finally, there is the ongoing war against transgender Texans. There has been at least one bill filed this legislative session that looks to ban children from drag events. The way that bill is worded, a trans woman lip syncing in her car while two children watch her from another car could easily be interpreted as a drag event. A trans man leading a chant at a protest where minors are in attendance could count. A genderqueer person working in any band or theatrical production where kids were present could be legally defined as an erotic performance if the bill had it’s way.
Would the trans person get arrested in those circumstances? Maybe, maybe not. What will definitely happen is that many trans people will hide and not participate in society out of fear. Others will just leave the state.
If Republicans poison the air enough, they don’t even have to enforce these statutes. The people will do it for them purely out of self-preservation and fear. That has the bonus of keeping pesky constitutional questions of state overreach out of the mix. It’s a hands-off form of marginalization powered by a refusal to be honest about the intended goals of punishing entire groups of people for existing. These laws are bad on purpose because that’s the easiest way to oppress.