Dear Mr. Stupak: Do You Trust Women?

Hilary Hammell and Anat Shenker

We must make legislators the protagonists in the abortion debate by changing the frame, and asking Stupak and his allies: Do you trust women?

The Stupak amendment has prompted our well-deserved ire. But it also presents an opportunity for serious reflection about what abortion represents and how we represent it.

We have often spoken the language of my: my child, my choice; keep your laws of my body; U.S. out of my uterus. With some laudable exceptions, a rights-based, essentially libertarian framework has formed the basis for our argument.

This appeal, while deeply resonant with the pre-Roe generation, has become less and less effective. We’ve heard the problems before. Choice is simply too weak a concept to stand up against Life. Choice conveys quick decisions made without thought, reinforcing the already negative stereotypes about why women abort. Choice is necessary but completely insufficient.

Alternative frameworks, like A Woman Knows offered by the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, present an antidote to the limitations of choice and individual rights in this debate. Critiques from the Reproductive Justice movement and others at the front lines of contemplating how we communicate deserve our attention. Now more than ever.

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If any of us actually believed we could achieve our aims by staking our claim to individual rights or privacy and taking government out of the picture, the jig is up. Details aside, the public has heard that the issue now on the table is government funding for abortion. This isn’t government out of my decisions, this is government please foot the bill (and while your at it make sure doctors are trained to do it.)

This is a moment to change the debate. We must hold legislators to account and make them the protagonists in the abortion issue. They’ve inserted themselves into the process, it’s only fitting that we bring them into our frame. We propose to start by asking Stupak and his allies one thing: Do you trust women?

Abortion does not happen magically, by virtue of being funded. Abortion happens because women seek it out. Anti-abortion legislators need not fear that by allowing federal funds to cover abortion, they are renouncing their anti-abortion values. No one will be forced into having an abortion under comprehensive health care reform.  Instead, abortion will happen – safely – when and if women seek it. Abortion is a decision. If you are anti-abortion, it is always someone else’s decision. But critically, it is a decision that only ever implicates women. 

We need to ask one thing when we talk about Stupak: Do legislators trust women?

If these anti-abortion legislators do not trust women, then it is logical to make sure abortion will not be part of health care coverage. In this Stupak and Hyde world, women seeking abortion must be wrong, they must be stopped. But if legislators do trust women, then they must think again about prohibiting abortion, even if they are personally opposed to it as a moral or ethical issue.

We need to pose the following questions to the anti-abortion Democrats:

Do you agree that pregnancy implicates women’s health?

Do you think that the person primarily affected by a health care decision should make that decision?

Do you agree that pregnancy is something that happens only to women?

Do you think that sometimes pregnancies are not planned?

Do you think that sometimes a woman might want to terminate a pregnancy?

If the answer to all of the above is yes, legislators would still allow health plans to fund abortion without challenging their core values, as long as they answer yes to the next question: Do you trust women? That is, do you trust them to make their own decisions, even if you think their decisions are wrong? Another way of asking this is: Do you think that women have the right to be equal citizens with men under the law?

If the answer to this question is no, then at least we would hear this in a public forum, and we’d see the abortion debate for what it really is – a proxy for the belief that women are inferior to men.

Trusting women doesn’t necessarily mean you are “pro-abortion.” In fact, you don’t even have to sign on as “pro-choice.” You can oppose abortion. This means, at the personal level, if you are female, you will not get an abortion. If you are male, you will try to ensure that your female relatives don’t get an abortion. At the policy level, for abortion opponents of either sex, it can also mean that you will support adoption resources, you will support family-planning initiatives, you will support neonatal care and early childhood resources in your community. Disagree vocally with abortion as a bioethical issue. But when it comes to access to health care, in order to comport with the Constitution and with our shared American values of freedom and equal rights, say that you trust women. And then try actually doing it.

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