Freshman Oklahoma state senator Ralph Shortey recently introduced a bill that would ban “the sale or manufacture of food or products which contain aborted human fetuses.” After a collective brow-raise over such a bizarre proposal, Shortey told the Los Angeles Times he got the idea “while doing some research on the Internet.”
So is there an issue with aborted fetuses ending up as foodstuffs? No. And there never has been.
Shortey’s bill is a wild overstatement of the latest front in the anti-abortion fight, one being prosecuted on an obscure Oklahoma anti-abortion website that has been trying to organizing a campaign to boycott PepsiCo because of a research contract it has with a company called Senomyx for beverage sweetener research that the anti-abortion activist charge involves using the HEK-293 cell line in laboratory tests. HEK-293 is a cell line developed in Holland in the early 1970s through the fusion a kidney cell from an aborted fetus and a virus that immortalized the cells, or allowed them to keep replicating in a laboratory. “Senomyx does not provide ingredients to PepsiCo, nor do they manufacture PepsiCo products. Our work with Senomyx is focused on beverage sweetener research to help us reduce sugar in future global products,” according to Pepsi.
But solving a problem is not the real goal of proposing a ban.
Shortey’s bill sits squarely in a tradition of vilification that’s existed longer than English, mass media, or even Christianity. It’s the timeless Blood Libel, the blood drinking straw man who’s been given different titles over the millennia. Not only do abortionists kill babies, the bill implies, they want us all to commit the most culturally repulsive of all offenses—cannibalism.
The first recorded Blood Libel is from 31 AD. It’s told by two Jewish historians, who lived in the first century in then-Roman Alexandria, Egypt: Philo, in his account of Flaccus the Lieutenant-Governor of Egypt; and Flavius Josephus, in his work, “Against Apion.”
Here’s what these sources tell us: Apion was a skilled hyperbolist and Lieutenant-Governor Flaccus was a desperate politician who tried to avert Caligula’s wrath.
Around 30 AD, Apion, a Graeco-Egyptian grammarian and writer, had spent a great deal of time spreading nasty snipes about the Jewish citizens of Alexandria. His motives for this pastime have been lost to history, but Apion claimed Jews worshiped weird gods and refused to have images of the emperor in their temples. Oh, and to make this all worse, he whispered to many a curious audience, that the Jews had been led out of Egypt because they were lepers.
Apion created a narrative. He wrote that it was a part of Jewish law to kidnap a Greek once a year and fatten him up and taste his entrails. Jews were cannibals.
Lieutenant-Governor Flaccus used the suspicions about the Jews as a wedge to curry favor with the new emperor. Since the Jews of Alexandria were against Caligula, Flaccus appointed himself as the guy to remedy the problem.
Thousands of Alexandrian Jews—men, women and children—were tortured and killed as a direct result of Apion’s defamations, a pioneering set of slanders that have proved to have real staying power.
Propaganda depends on things sounding vaguely familiar, lending a veneer of credibility to false claims. This is also why repetition is a popular tactic to sway public opinion—the creation of familiarity, which is then mistaken for truth. The Jews are not the only group to have suffered from slander campaigns; they also have been waged against alleged witches, gypsies and many other outsiders, often with equally dire consequences.
In the 19th century, Catholics were a popular target of sharp and false tongues in the U.S. The most widely read book of that century here was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also widely read was a memoir by a woman calling herself Maria Monk titled, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk: or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, published in 1836. The book claimed to be the first-hand account of a former nun in a Quebec convent, and to provide an insider’s view of Catholics. One of her claims was that there were libraries packed full of books and not one bible. Another allegation: Not only were the priests having sex with the nuns, the unsuspecting narrator had stumbled upon a room where the convent kept baby corpses. Yes, the Catholics, who already ceremonially drink the blood of their Savior, also were killers of babies. Piles of them. Because that way the illegitimate but baptized infants would ascend to heaven more rapidly—without any further sinning.
The book was a sensation—perhaps the most widely read book in America before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, according to Richard J. Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” And its tale was, of course, false. Even basic facts about the convent where “Monk” claimed to live were not true. The book was totally debunked—but not before it had burrowed into the popular imagination. Most of the century’s immigrants, the 19th century underclass, were from Catholic countries, and any justification for scorning them was welcomed. The Nativist movement and the Know-Nothings thrived on anti-Catholic sentiment. And remember, the Klu Klux Klan was not just terrorizing black people in the south—they were also terrorizing Catholics.
An example closer to our own time was the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. That decade saw widespread allegations of very specific type of Satanic cult conspiracy which, in retrospect, had all the elements of a classic Blood Libel. On a 1988 ABC special, the channel’s then-resident schlock hawk, Geraldo Rivera, did his utmost to enlighten the general public about something evangelicals had held true for years. “Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country,” Rivera declared in prime time. “The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town!”
The Satanic Panic was a whiplash from the cultural revolution of the 1970s, a cultural spasm that oddly united therapists and evangelicals. The Christian community had some self-proclaimed former Satanic Priests in their ranks dishing about all the children’s blood they used to drink and the therapists had some new and “innovative” (read: questionable) ways to “recover memories” of being the victims of the Satanic conspiracy. Both schools took over a decade or two to completely discredit.
A 1989 study by the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion published in the book Satanism in America: How the Devil Got Much More than his Due by Shawn Carlson, Gerald LaRue and others reported there were 33 organizations and 90 individuals who were actively promoting the Satanism scare. This was a conspiracy all right—just not the one depicted on talk shows with depressed-looking teenagers. Nevertheless, these Satan experts were not only on news programs and at conventions—they were teaching law enforcement seminars on how to spot and investigate Satanic crimes.
The Satanic Panic was barely mentioned in the recent release of the West Memphis Three, the three now thirty-somethings who have spent nearly 20 years in prison for little more than wearing black clothes in a small southern town in 1993. Three 8-year-old boys were murdered in May of that year. And because Jessie Misskelley, 17, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Damien Echols, 18, fit the profile of what was thought at the time to be a Satanist (as in someone who killed children for sport and listened to heavy metal), they were railroaded, found guilty and sentenced to life. Echols was sentenced to death. It took two decades and dozens of celebrities to get them out of jail. Blood libels are far reaching.
The point of rehearsing these historical episodes is this: When a junior senator from the same state that banned Sharia Law proposes to ban feeding Oklahomans aborted baby fetuses, it’s not just some wacky guy in a square state being eccentric.
There is a long and storied global history of demonizing groups of people with whom you disagree by tarring them with the charge of cannibalism—tapping into one of humanity’s deepest and most firmly held taboos. The consequences of such charges have often been deadly. Abortion service providers are already routinely harassed, threatened, shot at and even bombed. Casting them now as handmaidens to cannibalism is just the next extreme step in turning the decades-long effort to make them into pariahs.
This piece originally ran in Skeptic Magazine.