Alabama state Rep. Rolanda Hollis (D-Birmingham) introduced a bill last week calling for forced vasectomies for men within a month of their 50th birthdays or after the birth of their third child, whichever comes first.
I was skeptical of this over-the-top bill, along with similar ones filed by pro-choice lawmakers in other states, for several reasons, including that it stands no chance of realistically passing—but I now recognize the importance in a strategy that employs humor in the reproductive rights debate.
The Alabama vasectomies bill, HB 238, is intended as a satirical counter to the flood of anti-abortion bills introduced in state houses across the country last year—everything from near-total abortion bans (so-called heartbeat bills) to forced counseling laws, initiatives by anti-choice legislators to control the bodies of people who can become pregnant.
“Under existing law, there are no restrictions on the reproductive rights of men,” the text of HB 238 begins, going on to say that Alabama men would have to fund their own vasectomies under the law. Though the bill has no chance of passage through Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature, Hollis told Rewire.News she was motivated to write the bill because “year after year the majority party continues to introduce new legislation that tries to dictate a woman’s body and her reproductive rights. We should view this as the same outrageous overstep in authority.”
Hollis’ legislation doesn’t stand alone. Last March, Georgia Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick (D-Lithonia) proposed a “Testicular Bill of Rights,” which would require men to obtain permission from their sexual partners before seeking erectile dysfunction medication and make it a crime to have sex without a condom. In December, South Carolina state Sen. Mia McLeod (D-Richland) introduced the “South Carolina Pro Birth Accountability Act,” which would enjoin the state to compensate people forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
The “Testicular Bill of Rights” is funny, but I felt like the South Carolina bill made light of what are, in many cases, life-or-death situations for pregnant people who live in states that are hostile to abortion rights and reproductive health care. This is especially true when Democrats already send mixed messages on reproductive rights across local, state, and federal legislatures, and the party’s presidential candidates can’t seem to align on the importance of protecting abortion access.
However, Kelly Baden, vice president of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange, a nonprofit that works with progressive state legislators to shape public policy, made a judicious point in an interview with Rewire.News: These types of bills function to “grab someone’s attention and alter their thinking about what abortion restrictions really are,” she said. In other words, it’s a way of getting male legislators to think about what would happen if the roles were reversed and the ridiculousness of legislating people’s bodies.
In the past decade alone, state legislatures have introduced over 400 anti-abortion laws, Baden said. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, which will decide whether abortion providers in Louisiana need admitting privileges for nearby hospitals and whether providers can challenge abortion restrictions on behalf of their patients. In our current sociopolitical moment, abortion access could not be more important or less secure.
“These kinds of satirical bills can create an energy” that goes beyond what state and local media are able to provide, Baden said. Legislation that focuses on male reproductive organs just gets more attention, sometimes national attention, than the legislative attacks on people with uteruses, Baden said.
Hollis certainly does not believe state lawmakers should be legislating on people’s reproductive freedoms. “Just as I would turn to my doctor over my state legislator to make recommendations when deciding whether or not to have a surgery, or whether or not to take a certain type of medicine, it is my doctor with whom I, or any of my loved ones, should consult when it comes to making the incredibly difficult decisions related to my personal reproductive rights,” Hollis said.
The point that Hollis and other lawmakers want to make is this: There is an inverse relationship between gender and legislation, meaning that laws attacking men’s reproductive freedom are seen as overstepping and unreasonable, but restrictions on women’s reproductive health care are commonplace.
Satirical bills from pro-choice lawmakers aren’t undermining the reproductive justice movement—it’s anti-abortion, anti-choice, and anti-autonomy legislation that makes it difficult, at times near impossible, for people to seek care. Baden noted that joke bills are often introduced in tandem with critical reproductive justice legislation that addresses the lack of abortion resources or the flood of misinformation in a state.
Sometimes it can be necessary to employ “satirical, call-your-bluff bills,” as Baden calls them. “Humor is an amplifier, and sunshine is a disinfectant,” Baden said, citing that the way to effect change is to get attention for the issues.
Given that a majority of people in the United States are in favor of reproductive choice, and every state in the country wants to retain abortion access in some way, getting and holding the public’s attention is most of the battle.