A Tennessee Abortion Bill, and Some Musings on the Framing
This is going to be one of those “musing out loud, wall of text” posts, so sit tight, or go look around the archives for shorter fare. Now then. There’s a bill proposed in my home state of Tennessee that would require abortion providers to put up signs effectively saying that it’s illegal for anyone to force a woman to have an abortion.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to tease out whether a woman is being coerced into having an abortion and to make sure she is choosing abortion of her own free will. In fact, I think that is a pretty standard part of pre-abortion counseling. Still, I don’t see what harm putting up signs in waiting areas and patient areas does. Reinforcing a woman’s personal bodily autonomy is never a bad thing.
I worry that perhaps the language in the bill about having the signs in “appropriate” languages is some kind of “gotcha” because the standards are vague and someone may make a case that some language is missing to generate a punitive action against providers. But again, reminding women of their own bodily autonomy is never a bad thing in my book. Communicating with women in their own preferred language is not a bad thing. When a bill doing so is being pushed primarily by anti-abortion folks, I start to worry that I missed something, though. We do get so used to fighting about these things.
In a thread over at Post Politics on the bill, there are a number of comments about how “most” or “all” women are being forced into abortions – abortions they presumably would not choose on their own. I can’t help wondering, then, if this is yet another example of framing women who choose abortion as victims and/or uninformed. Not unlike mandatory waiting periods or forced viewing of ultrasounds, it seems to suggest that women seeking abortion just haven’t thought it through, that they just don’t know what’s going on. It’s also not entirely dissimilar from the arguments of those who insist they would punish providers but not women if abortion were criminalized. In other words, the majority of women having abortions couldn’t possibly be choosing them for their own reasons, with full knowledge of their choice and responsibility for the consequences, it must be because someone is forcing them to do so, because they’re uninformed or otherwise not really the ones responsible for the choice to have abortions.
This is operating simultaneously with a “don’t women have a right to know?” spin that tries to make a women’s rights or freedom of choice type argument. Of course women have a right to not have forced abortions, and to know of that right.
Now, we do know that some abusive partners do try to control the reproduction of their women partners. If someone goes for an abortion because she is being abused or threatened, that’s a problem, and one for which she will need support. When women choose abortion, it should be their own free choice. However, I haven’t seen any good evidence to support the notion that “most” or “all” women are only getting abortions because they’re being forced to do so. A Guttmacher (yes, a pro-choice source) survey reported that 14% of women listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as at least one factor in their decision, and 6% reported “parents want me to have an abortion” as at least one factor in their decision. So, yes, at least some women are feeling external pressures that factor into their decision-making. And so the signs are probably not a bad reminder, on top of the counseling process already in place. But somehow I still don’t think we’re actually talking about concern for women’s autonomy and free choice here. Somehow it seems like this is more of the same, of framing abortion in a way that both takes presumed agency away from women and also attempts to put a “women’s rights” or protection of women spin on things that is totally insincere.
That thread also degenerated into people making statements about all of the supposed horrible long term effects of abortion being stated as absolute facts. Many of which have been roundly debunked and the existing evidence does not support any kind of statistical or causal link – specifically for mental health outcomes and breast cancer. It’s difficult to let those stand without wading into a long argument and recitation of citations and methods and confidence intervals, but Post Politics isn’t exactly the kind of place where that sort of effort is rewarded. When you provide one possible answer to a question about rates of women feeling pressured or being forced to have abortions and get a direct response asking if/implying you don’t support a woman’s right to know she doesn’t have to have a coerced abortion, it’s time to walk away, because productive discussion is not about to happen.
Aside from which, we all make our choices given our individual tolerance for various risks and rewards. Even if abortion was found to actively cause depression in many women, that’s still that woman’s decision to make and outcome to weigh and tolerate. Carrying a pregnancy to term is dangerous for women, too, and much more so statistically than legal abortion. I won’t hold my breath waiting for a companion bill to put up signs about the risks of continuing a pregnancy and birth. I think it’s appropriate to inform women of the evidence-based outcomes and risks they may experience during any procedure, and good and ethical providers should and do every day conduct such discussions of risks to inform health care decisions – whether or not the state has a specific script for it, which they don’t for numerous other procedures carrying some and even significant risk. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to decide for all women that they may not take on those risks of their own free will.