Illustrative image for The Great Leap Backward

Bioethics Forum Essay

The Great Leap Backward

The government and many residents of the state of Texas like to brag about their love of personal freedom and individual choice.  That is why it is so strange and morally repugnant that the state has turned for guidance on how to manage reproductive decisions to the Chinese Communist Party of the Mao Zedong era.

A new Texas law, set to take effect in September, allows and even encourages individuals to sue anyone who helps a woman get an abortion. This includes anyone who provides financial assistance or  who drives a patient to a clinic. Religious leaders who counsel pregnant women considering an abortion could be targets. So could doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. 

And how did Texas decide to enforce this offensive effort to have citizens monitor one another’s reproductive lives? Incredibly, the law relies on community policing by civilians. People who snitch on their neighbors can earn a bounty of at least $10,000 if they win their lawsuit. A parent of a teenager raped by a family member, a  meddling neighbor, or an abusive spouse with a gun could target a woman’s doctor or counselor to claim their $10,000 reward. 

This model of community shame, blame, and punishment for behavior the government does not like has been tried before.  Where? Post-World War II China.  Let that sink in. Communist China.

Chinese Communists began to embrace community “right think” in the countryside during the late 1940’s. So-called class enemies and political opponents who had been fingered by their neighbors were paraded through villages, often with shaming caps placed on their heads. Show trials and mass rallies, where certain targeted culprits were forced to confess their misdeeds in front of their villages were used to “educate” the masses and instill Communist Party discipline. 

After 1949, public displays and shaming of class enemies and other “criminals” became a fixed component of government punishment. The Communist state grew into a “theatricality state,” in which public outings, drama, and criminal justice were merged to extend the powers of Mao’s regime.

Texas, for all its talk of liberty and freedom, has chosen the repressive, coercive path pioneered by a rights-quashing authoritarian state to enforce a moral choice about continuing a pregnancy. What the legislature can’t achieve through argument and persuasion it is now going after by incentivizing intrusive acts by people who ought to have no say or role in individuals’ intimate reproductive choices.

Totalitarian systems of mind-control are hardly the stuff of freedom-loving democracies. It is time to mess with Texas and get this horrid, repressive law overturned.

Arthur Caplan, PhD (@ArthurCaplan), is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics and the founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He is a Hastings Center fellow and a member of the Hastings Center’s advisory council. 

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  1. This should be published in the Dallas Morning News. Thank you, Art. With a follow up essay on the similar methods used in East Germany and Cuba.

  2. Only the SCOTUS can mess with Texas here. But no reason to think they will. Perhaps a better strategy will be widespread civil disobedience.

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