Over the course of its relatively short life, the selfie as we know it has become a cultural phenomenon, evolving from a seemingly narcissistic, self-indulgent pastime into a common marketing tool, a contemporary political campaign strategy, and a rich source of individual and collective feminist empowerment. Selfies offer feminists the opportunity to resist misrepresentation as well as erasure, and also to engage politically.
A noteworthy example of this sort of action is coming from the Bible Belt: South Carolina’s Be the Voice campaign. An initiative of the Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network (WREN), this recently launched campaign aims to raise awareness about how South Carolina residents feel about the attacks on reproductive rights and freedom in the “Palmetto State.”
The Be The Voice campaign works simply: Supporters are asked to publicly share selfies on social media, using the hashtag #BetheVoiceSC; there is also a petition in support of reproductive rights. The goal is also simple: to create necessary dialogue and awareness around abortion access.
Over the last decade, the South Carolina legislature has introduced more than 90 bills aimed at restricting access to reproductive health care and services in the state. And it isn’t alone: In 2015, legislators across the country proposed more than 500 provisions restricting access to abortion. Nearly 400 similar measures became law in the United States from 2001 to 2013.
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South Carolina’s record on reproductive rights and health is particularly poor. According to the Population Institute’s annual 50 state report card, South Carolina is 1 of 20 states to receive a failing grade. Similarly, NARAL Pro-Choice America, which works to protect reproductive freedom and access, issues an annual report card, which South Carolina also flunked.
Even with all of that data, it’s unclear how everyday South Carolinans experience the onslaught of anti-choice legislation. Enter Be The Voice.
While reproductive rights are only part of the broader issues WREN works to protect, they have become a priority for the organization in light of a White House filled with anti-abortion leaders and emboldened anti-abortion action. Through the Be the Voice project, the organization wants to show how the feelings of a majority of South Carolina residents on abortion are incongruent with the current political climate.
According to WREN’s director of communications and learning, Eme Crawford, “There was a difference between what we heard people saying. The constituents were saying other things .… We found out through public polling that 86 percent of South Carolinians agree that access to birth control helps the financial situation of families.” Crawford said WREN also discovered through polling that 85 percent of South Carolinians think abortion should be available statewide. “Yet we also found there’s a sense in South Carolina from people, that ‘I believe it, but the person I go to church with probably isn’t going to be too happy about this.’”
In small towns and rural communities, where everyone knows everyone (and their business), abortion is a topic few are willing to openly discuss—yet it’s these very conversations that are necessary to effect change. “A lot of people aren’t aware of [just] how restrictive laws are in South Carolina,” Crawford told Rewire. “When it comes to something like the 20-week abortion ban, if they were able to see the legislation in a broader context, that is helpful .… The implications affect pregnant women, they affect birth control. Take the most peculiar piece of legislation that’s been introduced for the past 19 years, personhood legislation. When they look at it, most people are on board, but when they see the implications for pregnant women, for contraceptive access, then people see how these barriers negatively impact women and their families.”
Implications of personhood legislation range from effectively banning in vitro fertilization treatments and some forms of contraception to criminalizing abortion and limiting health care for pregnant people.
Ironically, restrictions on abortion are frequently supported for the supposed protection they provide women’s health. “One bill introduced last year was a method to ban D and E,” Crawford said, referring to the most commonly used method for second-trimester abortions, dilation and evacuation. “They’re using this rhetoric that it’s to make things safer for women; that’s why they want you to wait. So it’s longer that you’re making women wait to access services, and then putting time restrictions on all of it, that makes it worse for those women.”
South Carolina resident Katie Sacra has had to grapple with multiple restrictions to abortion. Although her pregnancies were planned, tests showed the fetuses had Peroxisomal biogenesis disorder, Zellweger spectrum disorder (PBD-ZSD), an incredibly rare, very lethal disease, which her son also has. As Sacra told Rewire, “You have to know it’s in your family in order to ask for testing for it, and the earliest testing can occur is 11 weeks.” In 2007, while pregnant after discovering she and her husband were PBD carriers, she underwent multiple tests to determine the health of the fetus. Problems with her placenta meant she had to go out of state for more advanced testing. She incurred the cost of travel, hotels, and work missed. Then she had to wait several weeks for test results.
The wait time for the results put her over the time limit for an abortion at a clinic, which is now restricted in South Carolina to 14 weeks. She would have to have an abortion at a hospital. Despite the fact that a nearby doctor was willing and capable of performing the abortion, the local hospital wouldn’t allow it, so she had to travel 2 hours to a different hospital.
The multiple restrictions Sacra encountered made an already stressful situation even more taxing—not only emotionally, physically, and mentally, but financially as well. And while Sacra was fortunate that her insurance covered the abortion, if she had had state insurance, it would not have been covered, creating an exorbitant cost.
In states with the most restrictive abortion laws, women’s health receives the least protection and health outcomes are worse; this includes maternal mortality and access to preventive care. Poor women, who are disproportionately women of color, suffer most under these types of laws. Women who live in rural areas also struggle because a majority of abortion providers are located in urban areas. In South Carolina, 93 percent of counties lacked an abortion provider in 2014; 71 percent of South Carolina women lived in those counties.
Raising awareness about the issues of abortion and reproductive freedom are vitally important in South Carolina. But considering the various critiques of selfies, which are overwhelmingly directed at women and girls, despite the fact that men and boys also post them, raises the question: Why use this form of social media to propel the Be The Voice campaign? “If we are asking people to be the voice, be the face, we’re asking them to be kind of brave and courageous when they talk about these things,” Crawford said. “And that’s empowering for people, as an individual and as a group. It’s kind of like ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like.’ There are a wide variety of people who support [abortion], and using selfies to raise awareness shows this variety.”
Ideally, increased awareness will empower voters and ignite political involvement. This is always important, but especially in a state where the legislature is so hostile to reproductive choice—and whose legislative session ends this coming May. “We anticipate seeing a rash of harmful, restrictive bills,” Crawford said.
Crawford hopes the Be The Voice campaign, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, can bring about more parity between the South Carolina legislature and its citizens. “We want to show people you’re not alone,” she said. “To the voters, we want to show them: The majority of other people in your state are in agreement about these issues. And to the legislators, we want to show them: The majority disagrees with you; they don’t want these barriers.”