Commentary Abortion

Why ‘Personhood’ Lost, But an Anti-Abortion Tennessee Initiative Won

Amanda Marcotte

Why did "personhood" fail in Colorado and North Dakota, but a ballot initiative allowing radical anti-choice legislation in Tennessee succeed? Because people are moved to vote anti-choice not by "life," but by disapproval of others' sexual experiences.

While Democrats saw unexpected levels of defeat on Tuesday night, the results of ballot initiatives regarding reproductive rights were a mixed bag. Even as Colorado and North Dakota voters shot down ballot amendments that would define fertilized eggs as “persons,” those in Tennessee signed off on a new law amending the state constitution to remove its protections for abortion. In other words, the new law explicitly carves out abortion laws as the only place privacy protections don’t apply. And this, in a sense, formally makes women of reproductive age second-class citizens, who don’t enjoy equal protection under the law.

So why did Colorado and North Dakota do the right thing while Tennessee voters voted away basic human rights? It may be tempting to write it off as Tennessee being somehow more conservative than those other states, but there’s no real evidence for that—Colorado may be a bit bluer than Tennessee, but North Dakota sure isn’t. Miranda Blue at Right Wing Watch had a compelling alternative explanation: Colorado and North Dakota’s amendments failed because their proponents weren’t secretive about the incredibly restrictive effects of the laws, while the extreme anti-choice ramifications of Tennessee’s new policy aren’t as immediately obvious. Blue wrote:

On the electoral level, the personhood strategy’s biggest flaw may be it is just too honest about the goals of the anti-choice movement. While Americans are fairly evenly split between those who call themselves pro-choice and those who choose the label pro-life, 70 percent want to keep Roe v. Wade and only 24 percent want to overturn it. Americans have muddled views about circumstances under which they think abortion should be legal, but know that they don’t want it to be completely criminalized.

This is why major anti-choice groups prefer the incremental approach of slowly squeezing legal abortion out of existence via indirect means, Blue argued: so that voters never key into how radical their actions actually are.

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Everything Blue said is 100 percent accurate. But there’s also a simple, equally true explanation for the success of incremental measures like Tennessee’s: It’s because hostility toward abortion is about sex, not “life.”

Say what you will about the “personhood” people, but they are willing to stick to the disingenuous claim that conservatives deeply care about itty-bitty “babies” that aren’t materially different than the cells that you remove from your nose every time you scratch it. If anyone was ever going to convince me that anti-choicers actually believe their nonsense about how “life” begins at conception, it’s these folks. (Not that I actually believe them, because they also usually spout lies about how birth control pills and IUDs work in order to reclassify them as “abortion,” in an obvious strategy to build the case for banning female-controlled contraception.)

But they’re not going to get very far with this narrative, as the failed Colorado and North Dakota initiatives show, because no one actually buys that nonsense. Everyone knows, on some level, that claiming life begins when sperm meets egg is just a rhetorical flourish to draw attention to the anti-choice cause. Otherwise, people would make little gravestones for tampons to honor the half of fertilized eggs that depart without ever implanting in the first place. Call ’em all Fertie.

No, the incremental strategy works because it targets the real motivation behind anti-choice legislation: resentment of other people’s sexual experiences coupled with a belief that you, personally, are living a life that is morally correct. Outside of the hardline “personhood” folks, most people who are warm to “pro-life” arguments want abortion to be banned for other people, who are seeking abortion for the “wrong” reasons, while feeling that they themselves deserve access to abortion, because of course they would always get an abortion for the “right” reasons.

Pandering to the abortion-for-me-but-not-for-thee crowd was the strategy for passing this anti-choice law in Tennessee, on the ballot as Amendment 1. Anti-choicers framed the large influx of women who travel from out of state to get abortions in Tennessee not as a story of desperate women doing what they need to survive, but as “abortion tourism.” This implied that these women were a bunch of “sluts” who thought they’d toss an abortion in—you know, for fun—after taking a whirl around Dollywood. While you will rarely, if ever, see an actual anti-choice organizer outright accuse women who have abortions of being promiscuous—though raising your eyebrows and waggling them while talking about “abortion tourism” does quite the job of that—language about “common-sense” restrictions allows the muddled middle to believe what they want to believe. In other words, they can pretend that the amendment isn’t going to shut off abortion access entirely, but just make abortions harder to get, presumably to keep those who are less deserving at the gates.

The fact that the old “freewheeling sluts” campaign is still the most effective might seem surprising, considering how much the anti-choice movement has recently signaled a desire to hold itself out as the protector of women—what with its waiting periods and ultrasounds to force women to “think it over,” and its crisis pregnancy centers, and its silly claims that clinic harassers are merely “sidewalk counselors.” But, in fact, it makes perfect sense. Faux concern has long been used to hide the real desires of passive-aggressive reactionaries: to sit in judgment. The implicit narrative here is that a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy is being asked to choose between shallow promiscuity and virtuous, self-sacrificing motherhood of the sort that God intended.

“Obviously for those of us who believe life is sacred, this was the necessary first step toward protection not only for the unborn but for women and girls who fall prey to people looking to profit from untimely or unexpected pregnancies,” Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life wrote for The Tennesseean. It’s all right there: Anti-choicers and their “common-sense laws” are posing as people who are trying to save women from their sinful impulses and put them on the road to righteousness.

So that’s the main lesson from the ballot measures this election season: Appeals to embryonic life still don’t move anyone, but long-standing narratives about gender, sin, and sexuality have the power to shift votes. In that light, one almost feels a bit of pity for the “personhood” people. They really want people to believe that the “life” gambit is more than a paper-thin pretense for the real issue at stake, which is the ongoing struggle over who owns women’s bodies and their sexualities. But the mainstream anti-choice movement knows that if you want to win, you have to keep people judging women.

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