Nothing creates unity more effectively than division. All too often, societies have defined themselves by what and who they are not: Here is what we value and believe, and if you don’t, then out with you. Constructing a community through exclusion entails the denial of full citizenship rights or human status to certain people, often those who differ in appearance, language, or “culture” writ large. In this way of thinking, the rights of citizenship are contingent upon the choice to espouse beliefs that — by definition — are presumed to be superior. The belief that other people are making the wrong choices offers a particular body of citizens a bewitching confirmation of their own excellence.
Even more potent is the authorization of citizens on the “right” side to take matters into their own hands. Something like this is happening in Texas under SB 8, which deputizes anyone — even people who don’t live in Texas — to sue clinics, practitioners, and those who aid and abet abortions after six weeks. Anyone who successfully brings suit will be awarded at least $10,000. In effect, this law instigates civic division, turning citizens against each other to support a select group’s political dominance.
As I absorb the details of this law, I am struck by a parallel with ancient Rome, the culture that I study and teach, and which provides the template for so many of our institutions.
In 43 BCE, as the Roman Republic went through its final throes after the assassination of Julius Caesar, three leaders rose to fill the power vacuum he left behind: Octavian, Caesar’s 19-year-old great-nephew and adopted son, who would become Rome’s first emperor; Mark Antony, Caesar’s ambitious lieutenant; and Lepidus, the proverbial third wheel. Together, these three formed the triumviri reipublicae constituendae, the triumvirate for the preservation of the state. In pursuit of this nebulous goal, the triumvirate took steps to provide funding for their military forces — some two-thirds of the Republic’s army — and rid themselves of political opponents. They published a list of citizens who were automatically condemned to death without trial, their properties subject to confiscation by the state. But here too the state did not carry out its own dirty work. Instead, anyone could kill a proscribed citizen and claim a reward. Not only did these legally sanctioned murders reinforce the triumvirate’s claim to be protecting the Republic; they also reinforced the unity of those not proscribed. This enacted a new definition of Roman citizenship: Those who supported the triumvirate were in, while its opponents became the excluded “other.”
Although Rome was nominally a republic, citizenship and its privileges were the exclusive preserve of a narrow slice of its population. Only adult citizen males enjoyed full legal rights, while women, minors, slaves, and freedmen and -women were always subject to the control of others. Under the triumvirate, the proscriptions effectively inflicted the same non-status on those marked as threats to lawful rule, depriving them of the citizen’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy. What followed was the end of republican rule. Octavian soon turned Rome’s military machine against his own colleagues, and after defeating them, he instituted autocracy for the remainder of the Republic’s history.
The fictions that sustained the triumvirate’s proscriptions have a parallel in the dehumanizing effects of SB 8, which is rooted in a monolithic apprehension of those deemed “pro-abortion.” No one is pro-abortion; rather they are pro-choice, seeking to defend the right of bodily integrity for all citizens. So as we watch events unfold in Texas, we should be deeply concerned not only with the horrifying impact of SB 8 on people in need of abortions but also with the way the law co-opts those who choose to act as voluntary agents of a repressive regime. If history has any lesson here, they implicate themselves in the downfall of the society that they claim to protect.
Jessica Blum-Sorensen is assistant professor of classical studies in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of San Francisco.