Commentary Abortion

Using Aikido to Change the Abortion Conversation

Valerie Tarico

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that makes use of the attacker’s own momentum as a defensive strategy. I suggest pro-choicers take the disgust, found on posters with anti-abortion messages or pictures of fetal remains, and in a non-confrontational, nonviolent way, amplify and redirect it.

Picture this: A group of abortion opponents stand outside a women’s clinic holding pictures of fetal remains. As they stand there, calling and offering pamphlets to people entering the clinic, a trickle of pro-choice activists also arrive. Instead of lining up on the opposite side of the sidewalk, they position themselves beside the first group in silence, holding posters of their own.

The signs have words—not their own words but words from texts that inspire the anti-choice movement. Some quotes are from modern church leaders or ancient patriarchs. Others are from the Bible itself. They read:

  • I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. –Saint Augustine
  • In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.  –Genesis 3:16
  • Women will be saved through childbearing. –1 Timothy 2:15
  • The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. –Martin Luther
  • If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her only die from bearing; she is there to do it.  –Martin Luther
  • If no proof of the bride’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.  –Deuteronomy 22:20-21
  • Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. –Saint Albertus Magnus
  • When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen. –Senate candidate Richard Mourdock
  • Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. –Pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, Seattle

The anti-abortion protesters are confused—Are these new people on our team or not? They lean and shuffle so that they can read the signs more clearly. A couple even ask, “Who are you?But the sign bearers just smile politely and decline to engage. Patients, staff, and passersby who read the words are offended. In fact, they are even more offended by the quotes than they are by the dead fetus pictures. And that is the point.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that makes use of the attacker’s own momentum as a defensive strategy. Rather than trying to oppose force head-on, an Aikido practitioner—who may be small and weak—leverages her opponent’s own strength and energy, nudging the attacker’s move in one direction or another, or exaggerating it slightly, rendering the assault harmless.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The above scenario describing a clinic protest is an Aikido move. The abortion opponents hold up signs of fetal remains in an attempt to elicit disgust; the counter-protesters simply take that disgust and in a non-confrontational, nonviolent way, amplify and redirect it.

Why do words from the Bible and Christian authorities have Aikido potential? Because they are the driving force behind the dead fetus signs that have plagued patients and providers for two generations, and they are morally repugnant.  Abortion opponents may talk about babies and medical science; they may say falsely that abortion causes cancer or induces a psychological trauma syndrome, and that contraceptives render women infertile or that birth control pills turn your blood serum green. They may fight in court using legalese or pose as medical caregivers themselves, but behind and beneath it all lies the relentless drive of Bible belief and powerful religious traditions that lend the weight of absolute divine authority to gendered scripts.

As futurist Sara Robinson has said, in a century that included both the first automobile and the first man on the moon, the pill may well have been the most disruptive technology of them all. Every prior cultural or religious system, including Judeo-Christianity was scripted around one immutable biological fact: Women had no control over their fertility. This was the defining reality around which whole civilizations structured roles and obligations. It is why early legal codes, like that in the Bible, treated women as chattel—literally, the property of men. In cultures obsessed with patriarchal inheritance and sacred bloodlines, the only way to get around “mama’s baby, papa’s maybe” was for men to control the sexual behavior of their daughters, wives, and slaves.

One of the functions of religion is to elevate the status of cultural scripts, making them more durable, less subject to question and revision. “Why?” asks the curious or frustrated child. “Because I said so!” answers her parent, as if that answered the question. Later in life, faced with contradictions, frustrations, suffering, or self-doubt, the child (now grown) calls upon an introjected parent of divine proportions, and the answer echoes, “Because God said so!”

Many abortion protesters, though deeply religious, honestly believe that they are saving babies. They honestly believe that family planning hurts women. They have no idea they have been manipulated and are spending their days on the picket line in the service of an archaic script that served our Iron Age ancestors. Such is the power of rationalization.

Some do know that the secular arguments against abortion are philosophically tenuous or that family planning has tremendous power to lift families out of poverty. They know that the fight really is all about theology, but they would still prefer to make their case in universal terms. “Because my God said so” has less and less weight in modern society.

Globally, secularism is on the rise thanks in part to the Internet, and the United States is experiencing an unparalleled shift toward secularism. The New Scientist magazine recently took stock of the trend lines:

A decade ago, more than three-quarters of the world’s population identified themselves as religious. Today, less than 60 per cent do, and in about a quarter of countries the nones are now a majority. … Even in the US – a deeply Christian country – the number of people expressing “no religious affiliation” has risen from 5 per cent in 1972 to 20 per cent today; among people under 30, that number is closer to a third.

In Christian-dominant cultures, the violent and inconsistent passages of the Bible are becoming more known, as are the roots of Abrahamic religion in the earlier cultures of the Ancient Near East. Exposed to sunlight, ancient idols crumble, both literally and metaphorically, especially when they are held aloft by religious fanatics who are seen as judgmental and out of touch. Each of these is a trend-line that provides reproductive rights advocates with an Aikido opportunity.

Recently deceased Baptist pastor Fred Phelps was master of what I now call “The Phelps Effect,” in which a person makes his own position so repugnant that he moves public opinion in the opposite direction. Caught in the tangle of biblical literalism, Phelps quoted chapter and verse to back up his conviction that “God hates fags.” He became the face of homophobia, and he helped to make it repulsive. In doing so, he also undermined the authority of the particularly noxious scriptures he claimed as his own.

Like Phelps, most abortion opponents perceive themselves to be on a divinely appointed mission. Unlike Phelps, they may seek to downplay the biblical imperative that drives them, to deflect the debate onto topics like when life begins or fetal pain. They may use prenatal photography selectively to activate our protective instinct toward anything that looks big-eyed or remotely human. They may labor to blur the distinction between a fertilized egg and a baby or child. What they try to avoid is exposing the deep seated misogyny of their worldview. This year, the Republican Party has held trainings for national candidates on how to talk about women. Their goal is to try and avoid a repeat of the “rape Tourette’s” phenomenon that plagued the party two years ago. You can think horrible things about women, but just don’t say them.

This is where Aikido comes in.

Abortion opponents, on their own, may not go far enough to trigger the Phelps Effect. But we can. The clinic scenario that opens this article is one hypothetical example, but the opportunity is broader. I recently wrote about five religious leaders who are prone to saying awful things about women and LGBTQ people. I could have written about 50, each of whom provides ample opportunity to expose the long legacy of misogyny behind the man.

When we spotlight what drives the anti-choice movement, we expose a set of archaic imperatives that demand female submission and that tell young women they will be saved though childbearing. And ordinary Americans don’t like what they see.

News Abortion

Study: United States a ‘Stark Outlier’ in Countries With Legal Abortion, Thanks to Hyde Amendment

Nicole Knight Shine

The study's lead author said the United States' public-funding restriction makes it a "stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations."

The vast majority of countries pay for abortion care, making the United States a global outlier and putting it on par with the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and a handful of Balkan States, a new study in the journal Contraception finds.

A team of researchers conducted two rounds of surveys between 2011 and 2014 in 80 countries where abortion care is legal. They found that 59 countries, or 74 percent of those surveyed, either fully or partially cover terminations using public funding. The United States was one of only ten countries that limits federal funding for abortion care to exceptional cases, such as rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Among the 40 “high-income” countries included in the survey, 31 provided full or partial funding for abortion care—something the United States does not do.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, lead author and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California (UC) San Francisco, said in a statement announcing the findings that this country’s public-funding restriction makes it a “stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The researchers call on policymakers to make affordable health care a priority.

The federal Hyde Amendment (first passed in 1976 and reauthorized every year thereafter) bans the use of federal dollars for abortion care, except for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Seventeen states, as the researchers note, bridge this gap by spending state money on terminations for low-income residents. Of the 14.1 million women enrolled in Medicaid, fewer than half, or 6.7 million, live in states that cover abortion services with state funds.

This funding gap delays abortion care for some people with limited means, who need time to raise money for the procedure, researchers note.

As Jamila Taylor and Yamani Hernandez wrote last year for Rewire, “We have heard first-person accounts of low-income women selling their belongings, going hungry for weeks as they save up their grocery money, or risking eviction by using their rent money to pay for an abortion, because of the Hyde Amendment.”

Public insurance coverage of abortion remains controversial in the United States despite “evidence that cost may create a barrier to access,” the authors observe.

“Women in the US, including those with low incomes, should have access to the highest quality of care, including the full range of reproductive health services,” Grossman said in the statement. “This research indicates there is a global consensus that abortion care should be covered like other health care.”

Earlier research indicated that U.S. women attempting to self-induce abortion cited high cost as a reason.

The team of ANSIRH researchers and Ibis Reproductive Health uncovered a bit of good news, finding that some countries are loosening abortion laws and paying for the procedures.

“Uruguay, as well as Mexico City,” as co-author Kate Grindlay from Ibis Reproductive Health noted in a press release, “legalized abortion in the first trimester in the past decade, and in both cases the service is available free of charge in public hospitals or covered by national insurance.”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Welcome to the New World After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’

Imani Gandy & Jessica Mason Pieklo

With the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, change may be afoot—even in some of the reddest red states. But anti-choice laws are still wreaking havoc around the world, like in Northern Ireland where women living under an abortion ban are turning to drones for medication abortion pills.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

The New York Times published a map explaining how the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt could affect abortion nationwide.

The Supreme Court vacated the corruption conviction of “Governor Ultrasound:” Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who signed a 2012 bill requiring women get unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds before abortion.

Ian Millhiser argues in ThinkProgress that Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the true heir to Thurgood Marshall’s legacy.

The legal fight over HB 2 cost Texas taxpayers $1 million. What a waste.

The Washington Post has an article from Amanda Hollis-Brusky and Rachel VanSickle-Ward detailing how Whole Woman’s Health may have altered abortion politics for good.

A federal court delayed implementation of a Florida law that would have slashed Planned Parenthood’s funding, but the law has already done a lot of damage in Palm Beach County.

After the Whole Woman’s Health Supreme Court ruling in favor of science and pregnant people, Planned Parenthood is gearing up to fight abortion restrictions in eight states. And we are here for it.

Drones aren’t just flying death machines: They’re actually helping women in Northern Ireland who need to get their hands on some medication abortion pills.

Abortion fever has gone international: In New Zealand, there are calls to re-examine decades-old abortion laws that don’t address 21st-century needs.

Had Justice Antonin Scalia been alive, explains Emma Green for the Atlantic, there would have been the necessary fourth vote for the Supreme Court to take a case about pharmacists who have religious objections to doing their job when it comes to providing emergency contraception.