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A Tennessee Abortion Bill, and Some Musings on the Framing

March 4, 2010

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.

Okay, then.

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.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2010 4:11 pm

    This is so strange, but here’s what I wonder. There is still a very strong traditionalist bent in this state, with the expectation that the man sets the rules for the family and the woman might try to change his mind, but that he has the final say. Are these folks trying to create an abortion exception for appropriate women’s autonomy?

    I just wonder if that’s part of why this whole thing seems so weird to us. I mean, eh, sure, if you want to remind women that we don’t have to have abortions if we don’t want to, great. Weird, but fine.

    But I don’t think these notices are designed to remind women of anything. I think they’re designed to TELL women who don’t know that there are circumstances in which they can defy their husbands, and when it comes to the lives of their fetuses, that’s one such time.

    I think the source of the weirdness is that “pro-lifers” in this state area also usually very committed to “traditional” family structures as well, so they can’t exactly frame the problem as a feminist issue, since they hate us feminists, “Women! In this one case, it’s okay for you to defy your men.” Instead they have to frame it as if the problem is at the abortion clinic, that the rules need to be made to instruct the folks at the clinic about how to present information.

    But I think, really, this is about trying to get these women to buck patriarchal authority in this one specific case.

    Which I find hilarious.

    • March 5, 2010 8:33 am

      Thanks for your comment, B. It’s definitely baffling to me that there’s this assumption that women couldn’t possibly be choosing abortion of their own free will, it must be that they’re being pushed around by the menfolk – but maybe that makes more sense if that’s how you assume most male-female relationships are supposed to be or are in the first place. That “don’t you think women have rights?” angle also seems only to apply to the right not to have an abortion, not the right to have one.

  2. Ethel permalink
    March 4, 2010 5:28 pm

    For me this bill comes down to the old thing – men controlling women through their bodies. They want to control when, how and where we are pregnant and whether we stay pregnant and how we deliver as well. Nothing less then that, women in general are not to have control over our bodies in any form including deciding whether or not we wish to be pregnant.

    Such as the evidence that violent men often interfere with birth control so the victim does become pregnant, it’s another form of control – control over making her pregnant and then using that against her when she is pregnant, it’s not about “protecting life” it’s about abusing her life.

  3. TNProLifer permalink
    March 5, 2010 8:08 am

    It’s interesting to me that it’s okay for you to use Guttmacher Institute statistics since the institute was founded as a semiautonomous division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1968, and was called the Center for Family Planning Development. It was renamed for Alan F. Guttmacher after his death in 1974.

    In fact among the Guttmacher Institute’s guiding principles: “The Institute regards sexual and reproductive health as encompassing a wide range of people’s needs from adolescence onward. The Institute works to protect, expand and equalize access to information, services and rights that will enable women and men to … exercise the right to choose abortion.”

    So everyone should agree 100% with Guttmacher’s findings and ignore their guiding principles?

    I don’t understand why if a woman has a right to choose an abortion as she also has a right to choose to parent or adopt, then that choice should be hers and she should not be forced into a decision. A woman should know her rights.

    • March 5, 2010 8:29 am

      No, I specifically pointed out in the post here as well as at Post Politics that it was a pro-choice source so it would be apparent to people that the one I was selecting from has an agenda. I also specifically pointed out at Post Politics where you came from that the 64% figure supporters are quoting comes from a lead author who makes their name pushing an anti-abortion agenda through promoting the “post-abortion syndrome” line, and noted that the truth was probably somewhere in between the two.

      I also specifically said above that a woman should know her rights and not be forced in a decision. Perhaps both of those items were unclear to you despite my explicitly stating them, but I doubt that so I’m just going to go ahead and assume you’re trolling rather than interested in reading or discussing.

  4. TNProLifer permalink
    March 5, 2010 8:44 am

    So, it’s okay if a Mother or a Sister or a female friend forces a woman to have an abortion? But not okay if a man forces her to have one. Because only men force women to have abortions.

    My understanding of the proposed signage applies to any person that may be coercing a woman to have an abortion.

    I’m one that people should know their rights when contemplating serious decisions such as this. But I guess you can take down the Do Not Carry a Weapon In This Place signs on doors and No Smoking Allowed signs to, because people know the law and really don’t need reminders.

    • March 5, 2010 8:49 am

      No, I think you’d have to be willfully misunderstanding the post above to come to that conclusion. You mentioned coercion by a partner at PP, and another commenter mentioned coercion by the father or a family member. Other than speculation about gender-related relationship dynamics in response to B’s comment above, I’d like for you to point out where I ever say that when it does happen, it’s only a problem of men and that female coercers are okay. What I’ve said is that women should be aware that they cannot be forced and that women should be able to choose abortion of their own free will. I don’t who you think you’re convincing by be being deliberately obtuse.

  5. March 5, 2010 10:24 am

    I was going to point out the issue that Ethel mentioned; I wonder whether the same people who want these signs also want signs up in every OB/GYN’s office to remind women that it’s illegal for anyone to force them to carry a fetus to term. And I wonder whether TNProLifer is in favor of parental notification before a minor has an abortion, being all worried and all about how parents can force their daughters into doing things those daughters don’t really want to do.

    I further wonder whether TNProLifer can find a single instance of anyone showing that the Guttmacher Inst. has falsified their results.

    • TNProLifer permalink
      March 5, 2010 2:46 pm

      I’m absolutely in favor of parental consent. Parental consent is not the same as corecion or forcing a minor to have an abortion. Are you stating that it is okay for a Mother or Father to force a minor to have an abortion? It’s okay to tell the minor that she cannot live in the house if she doesn’t get an abortion? That does happen and even if it is 14% of the cases, in Tennessee there were 14,245 abortions which means there were 1,994 women/minors that felt they were coerced or forced to have an abortion. Isn’t that number 1 too many?

      I’m not saying the Guttmacher Institute falsifies their results, often results can be swayed based on the question that is asked. For example, would you trust a Republican polster to give you an unbiased result on the issue of health care reform? Or would you trust a Democrat polster more?

    • March 5, 2010 4:39 pm

      Again, the possibility of a pro-choice bias with Guttmacher has been explicitly and repeatedly noted, and it has been repeatedly and explicitly stated that nobody should be forced to have an abortion. Please note that repeatedly asking questions which have already been clearly addressed (in some cases multiple times) is not courteous or productive blog behavior and further comments are on moderation; this one is approved because it specifically responds to nm’s point and I would like to leave it to her to restate her point if desired about the effects of parental consent, which I believe you have missed. I’m all for discussion, but am not going to restate the same thing 8 times.

    • March 5, 2010 5:16 pm

      Parental consent is not the same as corecion

      Please explain how forcing a minor who wants an abortion not to have that abortion because her parents haven’t consented is different from forcing her to have an abortion because her parents want her to. In either case, the parents are overruling what their minor child wants to do with her body.

  6. March 6, 2010 12:25 pm

    I appreciate this post, Rachel, and it is kind of charming (unless it ventures into the insulting) to watch someone as smart as Aunt B, for example, working so hard to get into the mind of pro-lifers/traditionalists. And regarding the “musing out loud” aspect of it, it just occurred to me that such posts may be the best at fostering sincere dialogue about controversial subjects.

    The motivation of this legislation is to do what almost every American claims is worthwhile: decreasing the number of abortions, in this case, by helping empower women who might not choose to get an abortion if they were not being pressured/coerced. Some people commenting here might be more ambivalent on the rationale for such legislation, but can’t most of us agree that one-out-of-five is a statistic that calls for reasonable measures to educate whether the motivation is to prevent wholesale “violations of a woman’s autonomy” or to “protect innocent human life”?

  7. April 5, 2010 7:37 pm

    Most anti-abortion activists oppose abortion for their own moral and religious reasons. Abortion foes repeatedly site research that suggests abortion can cause infection or injury which is sometimes undetectable at the time of the abortion which in turn increases a woman’s risk of pre-term and low birth weight delivery. Those studies fail to account for the fact that elements such as a history of sexually transmitted infection may be more common among women who have unintended pregnancies, and therefore may have an abortion.

  8. Ned permalink
    April 5, 2010 8:14 pm

    “Most anti-abortion activists oppose abortion for their own moral and religious reasons.” Yeah, I find that most pro-abortion activists support abortion for their own moral and religious reasons. So?

    “Those studies fail to account for the fact that elements such as a history of sexually transmitted infection may be more common among women who have unintended pregnancies, and therefore may have an abortion.”

    Who says?


  1. Fear Of A Force Abortion : Post Politics: Political News and Views in Tennessee
  2. Just What Is This Bill REALLY About? | Speak to Power
  3. Sunday News Round-Up, Back Online Edition « Women’s Health News

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