The political theorist Hannah Arendt described how a combination of gullibility and cynicism allowed people to fool themselves into accepting totalitarian rule in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

“Mass propaganda,” she wrote, “discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

In such a world, Arendt noted, “everything is possible and nothing is true.”

She died in 1975, but she could have written it after tuning in to C-SPAN last week, watching Republican members of Congress spin the lie that abortion providers are dismembering healthy babies in the delivery room and storing their arms and legs in freezers, sometimes burning them to make electricity.

The setting was a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and the subject was “Revoking Your Rights: The Ongoing Crisis in Abortion Care Access.” A panel of experts was assembled to give members of Congress information that could help them develop policies, especially as the Supreme Court may be on the verge of eliminating the fundamental right to abortion and letting states decide whether it’s a medical procedure or murder.

But for the Republicans on the panel, the witnesses were just for show. The real point of the hearing was to get some viral clips on social media that fuel enough hysteria to drown out the majority who recognize abortion as a right.


Their main target was Dr. Yashica Robinson, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Alabama who provides abortions under some of the most restrictive state laws in the country. Robinson patiently answered one ridiculous question after another, treating congressional bullies with more respect than they showed her, but she seemed stumped by one line of questions, from Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.

“Do you support the right of a woman who is just seconds away from birthing a healthy child to have an abortion?” Johnson asked

“I think the question you are asking does not reflect the reality of abortion care,” a mystified Robinson said.

Johnson cut her off and fired up another hypothetical: “How about if a child is halfway out of the birth canal – is an abortion permissible then?”

“I can’t even fathom that ever happening,” Robinson said, looking legitimately confused.

But that’s because she is a doctor who works with patients in a clinic, and not a politician who works in a world of mass communication. Johnson’s goal was not getting information from an expert, but making her look like she had something to hide. As Arendt wrote in “Origins of Totalitarianism,” propaganda works because modern people have been convinced that everything important happens behind the scenes and they have to be told what’s really going on by someone who knows.


“They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience,” she wrote. “They do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations.”

The congressmen’s vision of abortion clinics as human slaughterhouses is not based on anything they’ve seen, but a debating trick known as reductio ad absurdum, in which you challenge an opponent’s argument by pushing it to its extreme.

The Woman’s Health Protection Act, which has passed the House and stalled in the Senate, would recognize a right to abortion in all 50 states and would invalidate state laws that limit abortion access, including those that put arbitrary bans on abortion at various stages of gestational development, usually marked by weeks.

The anti-abortion propagandists have turned this into the absurdity that we need laws to stop women from changing their minds in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy and seeking “abortion on demand” right up to their due date.

If they had let her talk, Robinson, an expert, could have told the congressmen that 99 percent of abortions happen in the first 20 weeks of what is typically a 40-week pregnancy, and almost 95 percent occur within 15 weeks.

Later in pregnancy, abortions require surgery and are needed in cases where there are fatal fetal abnormalities or conditions that threaten the life of the mother.

Women may also seek abortions after 20 weeks because they didn’t know they were pregnant. Others had to wait because they needed to raise the money, either for the procedure itself or for travel costs because they live in a state that has reduced the number of providers.

That is the reality of abortion in America, not the house of horrors that the anti-abortion congressmen promoted last week. These facts are available to anyone who is willing to look.

And for those who aren’t, that’s what Hannah Arendt warned us about.

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