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Reproductive rights and the power of the secret ballot

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, November 9, 2011 11:40 EDT
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Going into the polls yesterday, there was strong reason to worry that Misssippi voters would vote to amend their constitution to declare fertilized eggs to be "persons". After all, a slight majority of voters favored the ballot initiative going in. And the people who strongly favorited it, basically white Republicans, are the ones who are sadly more likely to vote, especially in an off-year election. Still, seeing that 11% of voters were undecided gave me reason to hope. On a lot of issues, undecideds can break even, but on reproductive rights, they tend to break pro-choice. By a lot. 

It's not something I've ever seen an extensive study on, but the folk wisdom of pro-choice circles is "pro-life in the streets, pro-choice in the dark", as it were. In other words, there's an intense amount of pressure to identify as "pro-life" in conservative communities, even if you secretly disagree. To be vocally pro-choice is to be marked as a pervert and a feminist, and so it's avoided, to the point where some polling data suggests that half of people who identify as "pro-life" are actually pro-choice, at least to some extent. Certainly enough that they're not willing to see women thrown in jail for having miscarriages. Because of this intense social pressure, I suspect many people who side with pro-choicers on this law or that law won't say so to a pollster over the phone. Not only are you admitting out loud something that can get you marked as a "pervert" in your community, you may be doing so in front of friends, colleagues, or family members who overhear your conversation with the pollster. No wonder so many people say they're "undecided". But when you actually have your ballot in hand and you know that no one will ever find out how you voted, a solid percentage of voters go with common sense (and with sex!) instead of prevailing community pressures. Frankly, the way the poll numbers turned out, it appears many people who said they would vote yes on 26 instead voted no. 

I'm not just talking out of my ass on this, either. This happened before in South Dakota, when they tried to ban abortion both in 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the polling numbers going into election day weren't looking good for pro-choicers: 44-44 with 12% undecided. Again, you have the same problem of better turnout for more anti-choice demographic groups, as well. But when the ballots were finally counted, the abortion ban saw a surprisingly heavy defeat, 55-45. Seems like a combination of all the undecideds breaking pro-choice and more than a few people lying abou their views to pollsters. 

This trend reflects the larger situation with sex in the red states. In Bible Belt areas, the only thing more popular for teenagers than idealizing virginity is losing your virginity. Beyond that, you have the Saturday-night-is-for-drinking, Sunday-for-praying (yeah right) thing going on. I used to hang out at this honky-tonk-ish karaoke place outside of Austin, for instance, where more than a few people would get up and sing sentimental Jesus songs, then get liquored up and have a one night stand. You know, while no doubt fully believing that it's best to "wait for marriage". It's hard to explain, but they don't even seem to feel like there's a disconnect there, or not one that's much worth worrying about. Stringent sexual morality is put in the same bucket of ideals as going to church every Sunday, making your bed every day, and skipping dessert in order to go running: everyone knows that's what you "should" do, but no one is actually doing it. Openly rejected these prudish ideals is considered far more scandalous in many ways than simply not following them. Part of it is I think a lot of people think they'll eventually fall into a sexual relationship that fits within the narrow confines laid out by the religious right, so they're not ready for that big leap of questioning authority on this. It's very similar to people assuming they're going to get organized at some indeterminate date in the future, so they don't have to worry about it now. 

But of course, passing a law that truly could fuck with your basic freedom to live how you actually live, and not how you imagine your more upright and normative self will be living 10 years hence is a different story. Thus the sudden shift to the left in people's ideals when they don't think anyone is looking or judging. 

I'll add that the severity of the restrictions proposed in South Dakota and Mississippi didn't help the anti-choice cause. They do better when they aim for smaller restrictions that voters can convince themselves apply to other people, you know, sluts. That's why they were able to sell the defunding of Planned Parenthood to conservative voters, because it's easy for them to say, "Well, if you can't afford the pill, keep your legs shut." Anything where conservative-learning voters who fall short of fanaticism can feel they're sorting people into "good" and "bad" categories, and only depriving the latter of their rights, they'll support. It's why ultrasound laws pass easily; they invoke stereotypes of extremely stupid women who don't know that pregnancy means you're carrying a fetus. The non-fanatical supporter can imagine that should ever they need an abortion, that tactic won't apply in their case. Either they think they obvious superiority will get them an exception, or their obvious superiority will make it a less miserable thing to endure. Some may even like the idea of having to endure trials to prove you "deserve" the abortion. 

But this law put all women of reproductive age into a criminal class, as I explain at Alternet. Even the unicorns—women who wait until marriage, only have sex with their husbands, have the means and desires to have 5 or 6 children, and attend church twice a week—are eligible for criminal investigation for miscarriages, employment restrictions, and contraception denial. The whole point of the wingnut fascination with with sin and punishment is that there should be an ideal to aspire to, but this law made that impossible. This can't be discounted as a reason this ballot initiative went down in defeat.

Still, the most important factor is the casual hypocrisy of the Bible Belt. Sarah Morice-Brubaker asked this question in the wake of personhood's defeat: 

But sometimes a movement conducts itself in such a way that one wonders whether they truly grasp that most people simply do not agree with them, and are not likely to change their minds. Certainly this is not something that only conservatives (religious or otherwise) do. But those religious conservatives who argue against legal abortion, full stop; and who wish to see access to contraception curtailed… well, one begins to wonder: Do they get what a tiny minority they are?

No, they do not, because they wield so much social power in their communities. When they say things like, "the only way to prevent STDs is for two virgins to marry and stay faithful" or "contraception thwarts God's intentions for human sexuality", they face a chorus of amens from people who then often turn around and demonstrate, with their behavior, that they simply don't agree

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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