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.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care. Her district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquires from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.


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