Commentary Abortion

How Abortion Restrictions Always Assume That Women Are Bad People

Amanda Marcotte

One part of the strategy of anti-choicers is to demonize women who have abortions portraying them as “fickle, foolish, or lazy.” So it was just a matter of time before the implicit argument of the Arkansas ban would be made explicit by a legislator defending the law.

Correction, March 11, 3:58pm: A line was added to this article clarifying Rep. Clemmer’s claim that 12 weeks of gestation corresponds to the second trimester of pregnancy. In fact, the second trimester is generally considered to start around 14 weeks of gestation.

After the Arkansas legislature overrode Gov. Mike Beebe’s not only pro-woman but also pro-taxpayer veto of an unconstitutional abortion ban the state will spend millions to defend, I speculated at Slate’s XX Factor about why the legislature thought that around 12 weeks was a good cutoff point for an abortion ban:

One reason that anti-choice legislators likely went with a ban at 12 weeks is that it’s an easier sell to the public than more aggressive bans. Eighty-eight percent of abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, making it easy to lull the public into thinking this is no big deal. It’s simple enough for moderates to convince themselves that women who have abortions later in their pregnancies do so because they’re fickle, foolish, or lazy.

This speculation was born from years of doing this work and hearing every excuse people make for supporting restrictions on abortions that fall short of outright bans. Despite all the focus on fetal life, by and large the support for abortion restrictions comes from internalized misogyny that’s hard to avoid in a culture that rags on women non-stop for roughly everything that they do. Subsequently, most ordinary people focus on assuming the worst of women who have abortions—the trifecta of believing women are “fickle, foolish, or lazy”—and see restrictions as a way to make sure women who are getting abortions for the “wrong” reasons don’t get them. With this in mind, I figured it was just a matter of time before the implicit argument of this ban—that a woman who “waits” 12 weeks is lazy and deserves what’s coming to her—would be made explicit by a legislator defending the law.

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And just like clockwork, here’s state Rep. Ann Clemmer (R), defending the ban on those grounds:

I really believe that we are not eliminating choice at all. We’re just saying after 12 weeks, the choice is over. You have a choice for the first 12 weeks. That’s almost three months. We’re talking the second trimester here — we’re talking about second trimester. abortions.

In fact, the second trimester is generally considered to start around 14 weeks of gestation.

She also denied that abortion “aids a woman’s health,” invoking the magical powers of anti-choicers all believe they have, the ability to determine a patient’s needs better than her doctor without examining the patient, talking to her, or even knowing her name. Lots of invoking the word “believe,” because for anti-choicers, what you “believe” trumps what women and their doctors actually know about women’s lives and health care needs. You can watch it here:

While Clemmer doesn’t say it directly, it’s clear that she’s using people’s negative stereotypes about women who have abortions to garner support for the ban. She emphasizes “three months” (in reality, for the average woman, it’s closer to two months between discovering a pregnancy/choosing to abort and the 12 week mark) in a deliberate attempt to invoke an image of some dumb lady who dithers around for months before getting around to that abortion. She wants you to think that women “like that” don’t deserve full reproductive rights.

In reality, as I noted at XX Factor, women get abortions after 12 weeks not because they are bad people, but because circumstances make it hard for them to get the abortions sooner. They don’t have the money or time earlier in the pregnancy. They didn’t know they were pregnant. They are young and don’t know much about how their bodies work. They’re traumatized and are in denial. All these sorts of things are situational reasons, and not the result of a woman having poor character.

Psychologists have a term for the kind of mistake that Clemmer is making here: the fundamental attribution error. Definition: Overestimating a person’s personality/values/character and underestimating a person’s circumstances as the explanation for their behavior. I like this example of how it works:

Imagine this situation, you are at school and someone you know comes by, you say hello, and this person just gives you a quick, unfriendly “hello” and then walks away. How would you attribute this situation — why did this person act this way? If you react to this situation by saying the person is a “jerk” or an “ass,” then you have made the fundamental attribution error; the tendency for an observer, when interpreting and explaining the behavior of another person (the actor), to underestimate the situation and to overestimate the personal disposition. Maybe the person was having the worst day of their life, just found out a loved one died, failed a test and was feeling devastated, etc.

This cognitive bias was brilliantly observed in the 18th century by Jane Austen in her book Pride and Prejudice, where a couple has to overcome their first, erroneous impressions of each other in order to fall in love. (That plot then became the basis for an entire sub-genre of romantic comedies.) Clemmer is relying on this tendency in making her point. She hopes that by emphasizing how long 12 weeks is, the audience will fall back on the fundamental attribution error and think the choice to wait is the result of stupidity or laziness, instead of the result of having a really bad time getting to the doctor any sooner.

This bias is all over the discourse about abortion. The right routinely wants to make abortion a matter of a woman’s character, when in nearly all cases, not only is the choice to have an abortion but also the choice of when and how a matter of a woman’s circumstances. (Really, the fundamental attribution error is a popular one amongst right wingers on all sorts of issues, not just abortion.) Unfortunately, sexism creates a situation where many to most people are trained to assume the worst of a woman based on the slightest of evidence, making this tendency to believe you can predict a woman’s character based on if, when, and how she got an abortion even worse.

This is why the anti-choice movement’s strategy to try to convince people they’re looking out for women’s best interests is such a laugh. You can’t look out for people while assuming the worst of them at every turn. All they’re doing is exploiting and reinforcing nasty stereotypes about women while restricting women’s rights. Nothing “pro-life,” much less “pro-woman,” about that. 

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