The urgent necessity of plain language about abortion.

This post originally appeared at The Feminist Hivemind.

[TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of contempt for agency and autonomy.]
[Author’s note: Herein “women” is shorthand to be understood as “women and other people with uteri.”]

This week, the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1797 (pdf), the most restrictive anti-abortion bill to come to a vote in Congress in more than a decade. Sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the law would cut off legal access to abortion at 20 weeks gestation, nationwide. An uproar resulted after Rep. Franks made an incomprehensibly ignorant comment during the bill’s markup session: he said “the incidents of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” which I suppose would be an entirely reasonable observation if one thinks the 5% of rapes resulting in pregnancy for tens of thousands of American women is “low.” Interestingly, the rate of abortion after 20 weeks is actually much lower than that — 1.5% — and comprised almost entirely of impoverished women who unwillingly delay abortions until they can pay for one, and those who discover horrific fetal abnormalities later in pregnancy. In response to pushback from those who presumably understand things called “facts” and “implications” and “compassion,” H.R. 1797 was revised at the last minute to include an exemption for survivors of incest and rape — provided rape survivors have dutifully reported their assaults to law enforcement first, and that incest survivors seeking abortions are minors (i.e. victims not only of incest, but also statutory rape). The title of this bill? “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” Nice.

For reproductive rights advocates and activists, nothing about any of this is new. In fact, Rep. Trent Franks is a bit of a piker: eleven states have already passed similar 20-week bans, and Texas, South Carolina and Wisconsin are planning to follow them soon. Arkansas passed a 12-week ban, and not to be outdone, North Dakota banned abortion after only six weeks — a point at which many women have no inkling that they might be pregnant. Fortunately, most of these bans are or will be blocked and tied up in court: under Roe v. Wade, abortion rights are protected to the point of fetal viability (about 24 weeks) rendering these laws blatantly unconstitutional on their face. Unfortunately, these court actions are precisely what the proponents of such bans were hoping for: they want to take the appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, where they think they have a decent shot at undermining the framework of Roe. And rest assured if they don’t succeed with this tactic, they will never, ever stop trying.

Yes, the War on Women is succeeding quite nicely. TRAP laws are being enacted with ever greater gusto, and as a result clinics that perform abortion services are closing at an astounding rate. Several states have only a single clinic left standing; the last remaining facility in Mississippi is presently operating only because of a tenuous court order from a federal judge. There are draconian waiting periods being enacted and expanded in connection with biased “counseling” requirements, which include lies about non-existent breast cancer links to abortion and medically unnecessary ultrasounds (including transvaginal ultrasounds), all at the patient’s expense. Parental consent laws are also a popular tactic: proponents argue that parents have a right to decide whether they can block their children from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, allegedly because of the risks involved in one of the safest procedures known to medicine. (Parental consent is not required for giving birth, however, even though that is 14 times more likely to kill a pregnant woman than abortion is.) American women are being arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for having miscarriages. Forty years after Roe, the number of young women who are pro-choice is falling in relation to those who identify as “pro-life.”

It is worth our while, urgently so, to figure out why this is the case and what we can do to reverse it. As with all cultural shifts, there are many complex factors at play here. I’d like to discuss one of them I find particularly compelling: the Democratic establishment’s abandonment of the moral case for abortion, and the equivocating language they use to avoid and sabotage it.

Ever since the Clinton administration’s triangulation on abortion rights under the mantra of “safe, legal and rare,” Democrats have taken great advantage the inherent ambiguity in this slogan (President Obama himself parroted it as recently as 2010). No one on the pro-choice side would ever argue with “safe” and “legal.” But rare? How rare? More importantly, why rare? Rare because a national commitment to comprehensive sex education and access to effective birth control has caused abortion rates to plummet (yay!)? Or rare because there is something shameful, immoral or, shall we say, unseemly about abortion (boo!)? It is no accident that very few politicians will state which it is, because it is convenient that people can read whatever they want into it. At any rate, it seems pretty clear that the real answer from the mainstream Democratic establishment is “it means whatever gets me votes and money.”

The way this noncommittal and deliberately vague position manifests itself is in the exploitation of anti-abortion actions by Republicans to generate outrage and dollars (even as members of their own party support the same extremist measures), and in the process using bland, inscrutable and abstract euphemisms for abortion and the effects of such policies on women in order to do it. For example, shortly after H.R. 1797 passed in the House, various Democratic organizations and their constituent groups unleashed a a slew of email messages in response. I won’t bore you with extensive quotations here (and they are very, very boring, particularly since they’re repeated virtually verbatim every time the Republicans in the House do something misogynist, i.e. regularly). Instead I’ll just pull out the relevant language used to describe H.R. 1797 and the issues surrounding it, and summarize the rest.

Organizing for Action (OFA): “one of the most unbelievable, unconstitutional attacks on women’s health in a long time.” Last year Americans rejected politicians who would “restrict a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care” and would “get between a woman and her health decisions.” Sign our petition today! (Women’s health? Huh. Wait, are these villians going after my fast-acting insulin?)

Emily’s List: “The House of Representatives just passed the most extreme national anti-choice bill we’ve seen in recent years” that “decimates the rights of every single woman in the country.” (There is no explanation as to how or why — not even via a link — and the word “abortion” appears nowhere in the message.) Give us money right now!

Democratic Headquarters (whatever that is): “an extreme and unconstitutional bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks” caters to Republicans’ “radical, anti-women, right-wing base.” (This language implies that the vast majority of House Republicans themselves are not really in favor of the bill, a proposition for which we have seen no evidence.) “Women are systematically denied basic rights.” (That sure sounds terrible. Wait, are Democrats finally pushing the Equal Rights Amendment? No, they’re just asking me for… three dollars.)

DCCC: “Republicans are bowing to the Tea Party by passing the most radical anti-choice bill in decades.” (Again, letting Republicans off the hook as if they are not overwhelmingly in favor of H.R. 1797. They are.) Give us money!

OFA again: “Congress voted to stand between a woman and her doctor when it comes to her health care decisions.” (What? My doctor can’t prescribe a decongestant for me unless we conference in my congresscritter first? I better sign that petition today!)

It’s hard not to notice that abortion is rarely mentioned, if it is mentioned at all. Neither are the grotesque consequences of this bill, like women forced to bring wanted pregnancies to term that will predictably result in a child that suffers needlessly before a painful death, and poor women with no recourse except the Gosnells of the world — or worse. And of course you will never hear a peep about the six Democrats who voted for H.R. 1797: Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Daniel Lipinski (IL-3), Jim Matheson (UT-4), Mike McIntyre (NC-7), Collin C. Peterson (MN-7) and Nick Rahall (WV-3).

All of these issues present problems in more than one respect, but the key point is that weaselly messaging does not work. Real women are losing ground in this war every day.

Compare the above language to a petition from currently making the rounds on the interwebs. I urge you to read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:

We recognize that women are full human beings who must have the right – through unrestricted and unstigmatized access to birth control and abortion – to decide for themselves when and whether they will have children. We reject the view that a woman’s highest purpose and fundamental “duty” is to bear children, even those she does not want or cannot care for.

The truth is: Fetuses are NOT babies. Abortion is NOT murder. Women are NOT incubators.

Forced motherhood is female enslavement.

[emphasis in original.]

Whew, that was certainly refreshing. What would be even more refreshing is Nancy Pelosi saying the same thing. At the recent Women in Secularism 2 conference, Susan Jacoby lamented the tepid rhetoric from the pro-choice side, specifically the oft-heard pablum that nobody is for abortion. She stated emphatically, “I am! At least under certain circumstances, I think it is absolutely the best course of action!”*

So far, the Democratic establishment has been on the losing side in the war on women — that is, when they are not engaging in it themselves. That will likely remain the case until they consistently make the case for abortion and why restrictions on abortion are inherently wrong. Compromising or equivocating on abortion directly harms women and girls. Those who would have our money and political support will need to learn to say the words forced motherhood is enslavement. It shouldn’t take extraordinary bravery for anyone to say so, because it has the virtue of being true.

*This Susan Jacoby quote is reconstructed from my notes and memory; while I am not certain the words are perfectly accurate, the quote captures the essence of her statement — which received wild applause.

Iris Vander Pluym is a godless, feminist lefty blogging at perrystreetpalace, a contributing columnist at The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy and Worldwide Hippies/Citizen Journalists Exchange, and an occasional guest poster at Pharyngula, The Greanville Post, and elsewhere. When she is not busy mocking conservatives and other fools, she is an artist and activist living happily in New York City’s West Village.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s