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