Prop 4 and the new trend in anti-choice campaigning

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, October 15, 2008 16:41 EDT
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Lynn Harris has a good blog post about the California ballot propositions that are an assault on gay people and teenage girls. Proposition 8, of course, is an attempt to ban gay marriage and force already married couples to lose their marriages against their will. Proposition 4 is another attempt to force underage girls to bear children against their will. The obsession on the right with forcing teenage girls in particular to bear children against their will should be a horrifying reminder of how depraved people can get in service of maintaining traditional social hierarchies. Right wingers have felt the loss of the mid-20th century baby mills for childless couples called “maternity homes” deeply, and would love to see a return. It’s a satisfying idea from a certain perspective—look up teenage girls who got caught fucking, take their babies and give them to childless couples. You get to reward the worthy married couples with babies and punish the girls for fucking. That they system treats baby making like it’s prison labor probably only sweetens the deal. Parental interference laws like Proposition 4 have to be understood in light of this fantasy. The hope is to re-establish the idea that pregnant teenagers are their parents’ property to dispose of as they see fit, and anti-choice groups have already established a funding and organization system that can easily be turned into the disposal valves for such girls if abortion is banned completely. (Currently, most teenage girls who abort do it with their parents’ blessing, which makes perfect sense if you’re a reasonable-minded adult.)

What’s interesting is that the anti-choice movement is trying to spin Proposition 4 as a law to protect teenagers from violence and injury, calling it “Sarah’s Law”. Obviously the idea is that people hear this nickname and think, “Gosh, some girl name Sarah had something bad happen to her because of legal abortion.” In other words, it’s 100% bullshit. Actually, 110% bullshit. It’s off the charts bullshit.

Supporters want you to hear the sobering story of ‘Sarah,’ a 15-year-old girl who didn’t tell her parents she was pregnant and then died after an abortion. Except” — according to the Mercury News — “‘Sarah’ didn’t live in California. She lived in Texas and was considered married under Texas law [a common-law marriage, I believe], so any parental notification law wouldn’t have applied to her. And her name isn’t Sarah, it’s Jamie Garcia Yanez-Villegas. Most telling of all, her tragic death took place in 1994. That means when Proposition 4 backers went looking for a story to illustrate the need for a parental notification law, they couldn’t find a better example in the past decade.” Or in white people.

Awesome! By the way, I love Texas laws that openly regard teenage girls as property to be transferred from parents to husband. I had a classmate in high school who was married, and her husband signed her permission slips. It was so weird.

The levels of deception are numerous, but not the least of these is the idea that legal and safe abortion is somehow more of a danger to teenage girls than the likely alternative: coat hangers, knitting needles, drinking heavily and throwing yourself down the stairs, douching with bleach, or any of the ingenious ways that women have injured or killed themselves in the process of trying to terminate a pregnancy because they didn’t know anyone with the skills to do it for them. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable populations when they don’t have legal access to abortion, because they don’t have the social networks to find an underground practitioner who knows what she’s doing, and will therefore resort to attempting self-abortion.

What’s interesting about the “Sarah’s Law” spin, however, is it’s part of the larger anti-choice trend of moving away from maudlin fetus worship and instead trying to argue that they only want to restrict women’s rights to help women. The argument is that abortion has to be banned for women’s own good, and the premise of the argument is an essentialist error—the idea is that because women can have children, that’s their main function in the world and a woman who rejects gestating right now is like a duck who won’t swim. Something must be broken, and the “cure” is to force childbirth on her in hopes that will set her right. I address those myths in this video.

RH Reality Check: Anti-Choice Stereotypes from RH Reality Check on Vimeo.

What I fail to understand is how this is supposed to be good P.R. With teenagers, people are more inclined to think, okay, their rights should be restricted for their own protection. But I just don’t see your average American being so paternalistic on this front. Even the most hoary sexists you encounter tend to object to abortion rights because they see it as an assault on men’s ownership rights over women or grouse that it’s unfair that women “get” to have abortions but men don’t, as if it’s like a walk in the park. But they don’t tend to think of women as incapable of knowing what they really want, and trust that a woman seeking abortion knows what she’s doing. And most “pro-lifers” are more entranced by their own fantasy of the fetus, idealized as the perfect people because they’re brainless and silent and you can project whatever you want onto them. (In this sense, they’re like the animal rights people who drift into misanthropy and specifically misogyny, with fear and loathing of women as imperfect, fleshy beings with minds and wills. Think: PETA.) The idea that women are “victims” of abortion is an afterthought for them. Really, there’s just not widespread social support for the idea that women are so incredibly stupid that they don’t know what they’re doing when they get abortions, so I can’t imagine that it’s a P.R. move for the anti-choicers.

I’m increasingly convinced it’s a legal maneuvering, actually. Fetal rights has been a dead end way to approach this issue for 35 years now, because the arguments in Roe make the most sense—that fetuses are not babies, but gain rights the more baby-like they become. There’s just no way to get around the biological reality that a woman is a person in a much more solid sense than embryonic tissue that hasn’t really taken much in the way of a solid form is, and so it’s a joke to suggest especially that a first trimester fetus has competing rights with the flesh-and-blood woman who has a mind and a life that is real. Even anti-choicers grasp this, because all the bloody fetus pictures they use are from later term abortions that are primarily done out of medical necessity. Because, to be blunt, showing pictures of what you get from the most common first trimester abortions is good pro-choice propaganda, because it shows people there’s not enough there to get worked up about.

Anyway, it’s a dead end. So I think this “abortion hurts women” maneuvering is a way to create a new legal argument that would get around even discussing the fetus. I’m working on a piece for RH Reality Check about this; hopefully I’ll have better formed thoughts to direct you to soon.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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