This article is cross-posted from On the Issues Magazine.
Abortion: most of us tend to think the word has a fixed meaning, which is: terminating a pregnancy through the use of drugs or surgery. There’s also the medical term “spontaneous abortion,” used to describe what most people euphemistically call a “miscarriage.” Unfortunately, many in the mainstream media don’t realize yet that when social conservatives invoke the dreaded A-word, they may not be talking about the termination of a pregnancy. Confusion therefore ensues. That’s because, for social conservatives, abortion has now become a catch-all term for anything threatening, particularly if it relates to feminist politics: the list extends to contraception, women’s rights in general, even economic and social policies they disapprove of, such as health care reform.
“Abortion” is a great scare term, so reliable both for making mainstream pundits squirm and right wing troops turn out, that social conservatives can’t help but give in to the temptation to apply it even in situations where there are no pregnancy terminations in sight. A friend of mine who must remain anonymous had a recent run-in with this new, expanded conservative definition of “abortion.” While doing research, she attended an anti-abortion conference, and while most of the speakers stuck to the actual topic at hand—terminating pregnancies and how they’re against that—one speaker in particular stuck out. He was a professor at a Catholic university and an adamant anti-feminist. For much of his speech, he ranted about his belief that women troll bars looking for guys to impregnate them during one-night stands, so that the women can later sue for child support, which the professor believed usually amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars, a kind of sperm-based lottery. Unsurprisingly, he was opposed to this practice, even though it mostly exists in his vivid imagination.
As my friend told me this story, I piped up and said, “He was saying these things at an anti-abortion conference? Doesn’t he realize that women who get abortions also terminate their rights to sue their impregnators for child support?” She laughed, and agreed that in reality-based terms, this indeed seemed the contradiction. But in the emotional landscape of an anti-feminist, it all makes sense. Abortion is a woman’s right and suing for child support is a right of custodial parents (usually women). Therefore, it’s no big thing to equate child support with abortion, even though there would, in the real world, be fewer abortions if child support was more readily available.
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The process of expanding the word “abortion” to mean whatever people on the right wish it to mean started in a predictable place, with contraception. The anti-choice movement, rooted as it often is in religious ideas about gender and sexuality, doesn’t feel much warmer about contraception than it does about abortion. Unfortunately, to sell their views to a larger public, they’ve focused on their contention that abortion ends a life — and since contraception does no such thing, they’re facing a real PR struggle when it comes to opposing birth control.
The solution? Call contraception “abortion,” and attack it from that angle.
Making Contraception Equal ‘Abortion’
This has been the strategy behind attacks on female-controlled hormonal contraception, such as the birth control pill, “the ring,” hormonal shots and emergency contraception, as well as on the highly effective female-controlled intrauterine device, or IUD. According to right wing propaganda, hormonal contraception works by causing a woman’s body to reject fertilized eggs, which they argue means you’ve terminated a pregnancy that never even started by any real world medical standard. (In reality, hormonal contraception works by suppressing ovulation, which means that women on the pill release fewer eggs — in most cases, none — which can be fertilized. And because, in the normal course of things, many fertilized eggs die naturally — this actually means that far fewer fertilized eggs will die in the bodies of women on hormonal birth control than in the bodies of women who are not using any contraception.)
We can demand a world where ‘abortion’ has no stigma
Under the Bush administration, the unscientific equation of terminating a pregnancy with preventing a pregnancy allowed the Christian Right-controlled FDA to delay approving emergency contraception for over-the-counter sales for years. Currently, anti-choice forces are testing the electoral possibilities of “personhood” amendments, such as Prop 62 in Colorado. These amendments declare fertilized eggs to be full human beings with full rights. If passed, such amendments would certainly have implications for legal abortion, but could also impact female-controlled contraception. Opponents of birth control hope that if the pill can be portrayed as “abortion,” personhood amendments could be used to present legal challenges to use of the pill, with possible criminal penalties for women who take it.
Personhood amendments tend to fail on their own grounds–Colorado voters just rejected one such amendment by a large margin. The public isn’t ready to believe that an eight-celled embryo is the same as a kindergartener, but the tactic has managed to sow public confusion about what abortion actually is. Now it’s quite common to hear even rabid pro-choicers accept that the birth control pill kills something besides the hormone fluctuations that cause ovulation. Those of us who know both the science and the politics behind this find ourselves trying to put out two fires, trying to argue that fertilized eggs aren’t people — and also that you can’t have an “abortion” when you aren’t even pregnant.
Women’s History As ‘Abortion’
Conservatives have been so successful with labeling contraception “abortion” that they’ve moved on to expanding the definition of “abortion” to include any support for women’s liberation and equality. Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMintrecently levied questionable legal arguments along with their not-inconsiderable power to stop the National Women’s History Museum, a private organization, from buying land to build the museum. One reason was that a group called Concerned Women for America wrote the senators complaining that the museum would “focus on abortion rights.”
It’s hard to buy the argument that love of fetal life has anything to do with their opposition: Not only would the museum, being a museum, not be providing abortions, the CEO of the museum has made it clear that there wouldn’t even be an exhibit on the reproductive rights movement. The objection to the museum is clearly due to the fact that it celebrates women, women’s work and women’s right to equality. It’s hard for DeMint, Coburn, or the CWA to openly object to women’s equality, so they simply label equality “abortion,” and bank on the stigma that word carries.
During the battle over health care reform, conservatives found that flinging the word “abortion” around gave them a great deal of power, and it nearly killed the bill. In order to get it passed, in fact, President Obama had to sign an executive order that made it nearly impossible for insurance companies to cover abortion, the actual medical procedure. But despite the fact that anti-abortion Democrats were in the forefront of this campaign to reduce women’s access to abortion coverage, social conservatives have dumped enormous amounts of money into this year’s campaigns against Democratic candidates, claiming health care reform will cover “taxpayer-funded abortion.”
It doesn’t. If you assume “abortion” means “termination of a pregnancy through drugs or surgery,” then the health care reform bill not only doesn’t have federal funds for this, but it includes provisions that make it extremely difficult for private funds to be used to cover abortion. The claim is beyond farcical. The only way it makes sense is to assume that conservatives have expanded the definition of “abortion” to mean not just contraception and not just women’s rights, but to mean any social spending they disapprove of.
It makes sense, from a political standpoint. On its own, health care reform is quite popular with the voting public. People want to curb the abuses of insurance companies, want to do something about the millions of Americans that are uninsured, and want some kind of cost controls on insurance. But if you can call health care reform “abortion,” then you can get people to quit thinking about how they’d like to have health insurance, and start getting them to think about how much they hate it when women can make their own sexual and life choices, as if they were men or something.
This is the result we get from media that are working on too short of a cycle (or are too cowardly) to check the veracity of claims emanating from the right, a world where the right can brazenly use the term “abortion,” and discussion about women’s health care in general, as scare tactics without much fear that they’ll face criticism from supposed fact-checking referees. Pro-choicers shouldn’t stand for it. We can demand a world where there’s no stigma attached to abortion itself, and where the word “abortion” isn’t used inaccurately to dredge up fears and hostility towards issues that don’t have anything at all to do with pregnancy termination.