What do responses to the Washington DC 20-week abortion ban tell us about the habits of the prochoice movement?

House Judiciary Committee February 2011 hearing on the ‘No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act’

Last week the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation for women in Washington, DC. Organizational press releases and media coverage by friendly pundits decried this act by focusing either on a selected set of women’s stories or on the unconstitutionality of the ban itself.

I believe these approaches do little to help the general public understand this complex issue. Rather, they tell us more about the habits of the prochoice movement—and why a new approach is needed that focuses on all women’s need for resources, rights and respect to make reproductive decisions.

Over the last month, we have been reading a lot about the role of habits in people’s lives (see Power of Habits, by Charles Duhigg). These readings have led my colleague Sujatha Jesudason and I to think about the habits of the prochoice movement. We believe that two of our habits are utilizing a narrative of “victimization” and focusing on the constitutionality of the issue rather than on its larger social value. These two habits lead us to choose stories of women that amplify their victimhood and elevate a legal solution.

These approaches to resisting abortion restrictions were once deliberate choices about what was politically expedient, but I believe that today they have simply become habits.

Screenshot of ACLU discussion of the effect on women's health of the proposed ban on abortion after 20 weeksIn the case of opposition to the DC 20-week ban, the selected stories are ones in which women are deserving of abortion because they are victims of a larger tragic tale. More than a few press releases focus on the story of a woman pregnant with a baby without a brain; others share the story of a young victim of sexual assault. Later abortions are justified because women either don’t really want the abortions or because they were not at fault in the pregnancy.

I fully acknowledge that women who need abortions because of the health of the fetus or the violence that preceded the pregnancy may make more sympathetic protagonists for public storytelling. Indeed, the mobilizations of these stories may once have garnered public support for abortion rights. But as these later abortion bans sweep across the country and public support for abortions after the first trimester hovers at 25%, we have to question whether continuing to reinforce the idea that some women need abortions more than others does more harm than good. In other words, I do not believe we are served by continuing to resort to a familiar habit.

Indeed, the truth is that most of the women whose abortions will be banned in DC have far more complicated real-life stories. They include late discovery of pregnancy; difficulty making the decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy; conflict with the man involved in the pregnancy; inability to locate an abortion provider; and challenges in obtaining the money for the abortion, finding childcare, or getting the time off work. And most often, their stories are combinations of a lot of these factors.

While some women will need abortions because their wanted pregnancies “went wrong” or because they were victims of sexual assault, most women will need abortions because of the circumstances of their lives. We need to support all women’s ability to decide to terminate a pregnancy and not demand that they tell us a story of victimhood in order to gain access to abortions. No matter the circumstances, women get to decide about their futures and the futures of their families; women in our stories should not be victims needing sympathy, but heroes of their own lives.

Screen shot of reproductiverights.org coverage of unconstitutionality of DC abortion ban imposed by House Judiciary CommitteeThe second approach to critiquing the 20-week ban is to focus on its violation of the constitutional protection of Roe v Wade. This approach reflects a second habit of the prochoice movement—to focus on the belief that courts, not women, set the rules for abortion. As others have noted, women do not enter a clinic with the intent to exercise their constitutional rights. Rather, women have and have always had abortions because they are making decisions about their lives. Whether or not that act is “constitutional” is not the question they ask themselves.

The idea that what is wrong with an abortion restriction is that it is unconstitutional is an argument for the courts, not the public. What the public needs to understand is that women can and will terminate pregnancies after 20 weeks, as they have for centuries and across the globe, regardless of whether the courts say what they are doing is legal.

I do not write this to infer that abortion should be legal because women will revert to back alleys, rather to express that women have abortions because of the circumstances of their lives, not because it is a legal right. And it may well turn out that the Supreme Court decides that a 20-week ban is constitutional—after all, this Court found Citizens United to be constitutional, as well as Arizona’s hostile immigration law SB1070. Supporters of women’s decision-making need not rely on the Court to decide whether a ban on abortion after 20 weeks is unacceptable. Roe is not the standard for abortion; women’s decision-making is. It deserves legal protection because it is a fact of women’s existence; it is not a fact because it is legally protected.

Breaking habits requires risk-taking and learning to do things differently. Over the next year, we are likely to see many more efforts to ban abortions later in pregnancy—either by state legislatures or the federal government. This is a time for new ways of talking about the issue. Our approach should affirm that women have abortions after 20 weeks not because they are victims of a set of circumstances that makes their abortions justifiable or because abortion is a constitutional right, but because they are agents of their own lives.

Women face both horrendous and mundane circumstances in the context of later abortion. No matter the circumstances, all these women deserve to be respected in their decisions, to have the resources they need to enact those decisions, and the rights to do so without interference. The stories we tell should be of women as heroes, where it is their ability to act that deserves respect, not the circumstances that created the need for a decision. Twenty-week bans are wrong not because women are victims or because the Supreme Court said so in 1973, but because all women deserve the resources, rights and respect to make their own sexual and reproductive decisions.

Photo of House Judiciary Committee © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

  • Anaite Letona:

    Tracy, I agree with your analysis. It is a position I have always held with regard to the education gap and racism. Whenever these stories are portrayed it is always to hear a “success” story or to portray a person or family who are “caught in the system” through circumstances outside their control. Both of these position portray victims. It’s almost as if as long as we can identify victims then there is something to fix. The much larger socioeconomic, societal institution of racsim and American caste system is far to large a concept for most to understand and accept, much less propose or be a part of a solution. It would require that we all sacrifice for the larger good and most, I think, are unwilling to do that. They are willing to help a victim but unwilling to help make lasting changes that would benefit all for fear this will change their lives.
    The dialogue does need to change. How do we do that in a political climate that so quickly devolves to the lowest level of conversation?

  • One Woman:

    After giving much thought to your article, I’m going to take a slightly different spin on what I think you are saying:

    We are coming at this fight with the voice of the powerless. Instead of saying, “we are women and we deserve to have autonomy over our bodies and freedom over our fates, goddamnit.” We are saying, “Please, oh please, we know you are basically going to strip us of this right, but please leave a loophole or two for these incredibly terrifying circumstances that surely even you can find an iota of pity in your heart to excuse.” We are not coming at this as warriors. We are scrambling to hold onto whatever we can as they roll over us.

    I happen to be one of the few women out there with such a terrifying story — I could perfectly represent the voice of the victim, as you put it. I don’t feel like a victim, but I can understand the use of that word describing the discussion dynamics.

    You’ve convinced me that we need to change these dynamics. But how?


    How do you get women who have abortions for non-medical reasons to speak up? There is enough vitriol to keep me quiet, and I have my thin armor of tragic circumstances to hide behind. It would be even more terrifying to speak out in this culture without that.

    How do you get people who have never had to make the choice think critically on this issue and join in the fight? Nobody thinks it will happen to her. We all live our lives avoiding the thought until we find ourselves pregnant when we shouldn’t be. Denial is a huge hindrance to widespread acceptance.

    How do you talk to people who don’t care if women hand over a suitcase of cash only to bleed to death on some quack’s kitchen table? How do you talk to people who have so little respect and love for women that they believe that end is what she deserves?

    I agree that women deserve this unconditionally because freedom over our own bodies is the most basic and righteous of freedoms. I just don’t know where to start in changing the power dynamic of this discussion.

    • Jean Nieman:

      I agree ,but where are the right to life people on the importance of the sanctity of a women’s life if she dies during an illegal abortion why isn’t her life valued by the pro life people as much as the fetus’s right to live? Are they ok with letting a women die over the few hr,day month of a fertilized egg? That seems more immoral to me.Why is a fertilized egg superior to a live women? That is the issue here. I had an abortion because I could not afford to have another child and my birth control failed me.I think that is a right that should be upheld! I really think that is my business and not the governments.I think if you deny women the right over there own body then there should be laws regulating men from being irresponsible about not having some sort of birth control effort. Why lay this on only half of the equation ? Why should women be discriminated against and decision over her body taken away and not do the same to the man who fertilizes the egg?

  • Willie Parker:

    Thanks for this piece. It resonates with me deeply as a provider of abortion care and as an “out” advocate of reproductive justice, the framework most cogent with your remarks but least known by people moved by this issue. To your point, when advocates have sought stories from me to make the case for abortion, it has always been a request for tragic circumstances, the stories felt to be the most likely ones to move opinion. The reality is that that is not the typical patient I see, as most women having abortions are not raped or are not carrying a lethally flawed fetus, and yet I have not identified a clear distinction between women I am willing to help and those I am not based on “acceptability” of circumstance. My requirements to proceed with an abortion when women present for care are ability to consent, absence of coercion, clarity of thought, and certitude about the decision. “Why” she is having the abortion, even as her physician, I choose to leave in the realm of her privacy where it can remain beyond even my ability to judge her. I have found that a reproductive justice framework, where all reproductive possibilities are weighed equally and placed within reach of individual to select, allows me to do that and I join you in your call for a shift in how we do advocacy and activism.

  • Megan Rosenfeld:

    Tracy has articulated something that has bothered me for a long time. I suspect the only way to change the conversation is for women and men all over the country to get brave and say they’ve had an abortion, helped someone have one, or would, that they have no regrets. I’m continually appalled at the narrative in fictional media that requires trauma to either prompt or be the result of an abortion, and that colors the whole conflict.
    But I understand that we have naturally responded to the emotional blackmail of the other side by trying to do the same. When someone calls you a “babykiller,” etc. it’s impossible to respond and they know that. Maybe there is room also for an offense as well as a defense — laws to delay all elective surgery for 20 weeks? Manadatory parental permission to use viagra? There must be something.

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