How politicians talk about abortion matters, now more than ever before
America's attack on the constitutional right to access abortion has hit a fever pitch, and while many well-meaning politicians have denounced the recent policies, some of them won't even say the word "abortion" out loud in public. Our inability to consistently, candidly, and accurately discuss the matter is fueling the introduction of anti-abortion laws, but now, more than ever, we shouldn't be afraid to talk about it.
We shouldn't be afraid to describe abortions — common, safe medical procedures that one in four women will have in their lifetime — in detail. Those of us who want to and can safely discuss our abortions shouldn’t be afraid to share our abortion stories.
And we shouldn't be afraid to say that we’re not just pro-choice. We are pro-abortion.
But far too many of us who consider ourselves to be "pro-choice" are afraid. During a recent interview with CNN, actor and activist Alyssa Milano said in opposition of the recent Alabama abortion ban, "Nobody wants to get an abortion. We are all pro-life. But there are circumstances that we cannot avoid," overlooking the fact that, yes, many people who find themselves pregnant do, in fact, want to get an abortion, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that desire or that decision. And the leading Democratic hopefuls for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, both failed to use the word "abortion" when denouncing the recent slew of anti-abortion bans in Alabama, Ohio, and Missouri. They instead relied on more "palatable" language like "choice" and "decisions about her own body."
These avoidances hide the truth: that some pregnant people do want abortions, and for a variety of valid reasons, including but certainly not limited to: the ability to better care for the children they already have, the ability to maintain or work toward financial stability, the ability to maintain or pursue higher education or a career, the ability to leave a partner or potentially toxic and/or abusive situation, or the ability to put off or simply never experience motherhood.
And in response to the recent abortion laws, primarily so-called "fetal heartbeat laws," a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe "abortion should be legal in all or most cases." One-third of Republicans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. Over 50 percent of Republican women support upholding Roe v Wade, the landmark case that solidified a pregnant person's constitutional right to have an abortion.
So yes, it's OK to say the word "abortion." In fact, it's arguably politically advantageous. But most importantly, it's necessary, because when those who believe in the constitutional right to access abortion call it by any other name — "pro choice," "reproductive rights," "a woman's right to choose," etc. — and shroud their support in neutral language, those hoping to strip pregnant people of their right to complete bodily autonomy are free to fill the gaps with anti-abortion rhetoric that not only poisons our political discourse, but shapes public policy.
A new study from Media Matters for America found that, of the top-engaged U.S. Abortion-related posts — using an extensive list of terms used by anti-abortion, pro-choice, and neutral media to describe abortion (including contraception, which is often conflated with abortion) — on Facebook in the month of April, over 62 percent of links with the most Facebook interactions came from right-leaning websites, and 72 percent of Facebook page posts with the most interactions came from right-leaning pages. The study also found that two anti-abortion websites, LifeNews.com and Life Action, made up almost 30 percent of all viral interactions, and the two main Facebook pages affiliated with these sites made up more than a quarter of the most popular Facebook posts.
According to Natalie Martinez, a researcher at Media Matters with a specialization on misinformation on Facebook, abortion-related content intersects with two of the most successful misinformation campaigns on the web: right wing propaganda and health-related misinformation. “The anti-abortion misinformation uses the same tactics, pseudo-science, debunked studies, sensationalized imagery, to fear monger about these medical procedures and about people’s health care, that ends up having real world impact on health care policy and law," Martinez told Mic on a phone call.
And it's not just Facebook where misinformation is spread with impunity, but cable news networks, like Fox News, and conservative online publications, like The Daily Caller. “We saw that Fox News spent hours talking about [abortions that happen later in pregnancy], saying things like Democrats support infanticide, we saw it get picked up by The Daily Caller in an exclusive interview with Trump before the State of the Union, and then we obviously saw Trump repeat a lot of these tropes not just in The State of the Union, but in a bunch of speeches since then,” Sharon Kann, the Abortions Rights and Reproductive Health Program Director at Media Matters, tells Mic via phone. “And it’s a pipeline directly from right wing media.”
And that pipeline is directly impacting, and in many cases shaping, legislation. Ohio Rep. John Becker (R) introduced HB 182 in April, an anti-abortion bill that would ban all insurances from covering abortion procedures unless the pregnant person's life is in danger. The bill would, however, allow insurance companies to cover the "reimplantation" of an ectopic pregnancy — a medical impossibility. An ectopic pregnancy, per the Mayo Clinic, occurs when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside of the uterus. They're nonviable, and potentially dangerous pregnancies that, if not aborted, can kill the pregnant person.
Becker, according to Rewire News, says he received documents from Right To Life lobbyists "proving" it's possible to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy — removing a fertilized ovum and inserting it into a person's uterus; again, a medical impossibility — relying on a 1917 case report from a doctor who claims he successfully transplanted an ectopic pregnancy, and a letter to an editor from a doctor who claims to have seen a successful reimplantation in 1980. The inclusion of this fictitious medical procedure proves how powerful anti-abortion rhetoric and pseudo-science truly is, and how it can, if left unchecked, put pregnant people in mortal danger.
The inclusion of anti-abortion talking points in anti-abortion legislation is, sadly, nothing new. Currently, 26 states require abortion providers to share medically inaccurate information about the procedure to their patients, including 22 states that mandate a doctor tell his or her patient that abortion will negatively impact their future fertility (it won't), five states that force a doctor to claim abortion can cause breast cancer (it can't), and eight states that require doctors to share information on the so-called negative psychological responses to abortion (the majority of people who have abortions feel relieved, and 95 percent do not regret their abortions).
Combating these narratives means facing them head on, and with clear and concise rhetoric that's rooted in science and centers on those who have abortions. "I don’t think where media is spending enough time is focusing on the actual material impact on who is impacted by these policies, either in the status quo or in a world where abortion access becomes even more inaccessible," Kann says. "The people who aren’t being centered on enough in that conversation are folks working on the ground who are advocating for abortion access or have had abortions who are being impacted by these laws."
That can change, though, beginning with those in positions of power. After Alabama passed its total-abortion ban, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, "When I was growing up, people got abortions," going on to say that access to safe, legal abortion is a "constitutional RIGHT. Full stop." Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, meanwhile, said during an MSBNC interview, "I'm telling you, this is something that is so harmful to women's ability to get basic, safe access to legal abortion. And it's something women may need in their lifetime. And it's something we should actually protect." And on May 22, Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, "Republican's attempts to end Roe v Wade won't end abortion; it will just end safe and legal abortions," before urging her followers to read a woman's pre-Roe v Wade abortion story.
These candidates are using their platforms to help shape how voters discuss abortion, and others should follow their leads. Whether it's answering questions from potential supporters, attending town halls, or stating their policies via social media, how politicians discuss and react to the conversations surrounding abortion matters. For example, at a recent Fox News Town Hall, Sen. Sanders fielded a question about "abortions that happen right up to the moment of birth" — a thing that doesn't happen. Instead of rejecting the premise of the question as sensationalized and incorrect, the presidential hopeful said those abortion are rare and should be between "a woman and her physician, not the government." Sanders was given the chance to call out pseudo-science for exactly what it is, but instead, he dropped the ball.
"When somebody is being asked, verbatim, in a Fox News Town Hall, or whether it’s in a totally different context like a voter is coming up to them to ask and they’re using Fox News language, they need to be unafraid to see the premise of this question comes with right wing media," Kann says. "It’s inaccurate, it’s sensationalized, and lead with a vision of what abortion access actually looks like."
Here's what abortion actually looks like: a common medical procedure that's safer than giving birth or having a colonoscopy. "Late-term" abortion is not a medical term. Pregnant people who have abortions later in pregnancy do so because a non-viable fetal abnormality has been detected, or because they weren't able to receive abortion care earlier and as a direct result of anti-abortion laws that create unnecessary barriers to care. Abortion doesn't cause depression or infertility or breast cancer. The majority of Americans support unfettered access to abortion. The majority of people who have abortions have at least one child at home. You know, love, or work with someone who has had an abortion.
Abortion also looks like Missouri losing the last clinic to provide abortion care, making it the first state in the United States to "go dark." It looks like an increase in anti-abortion online hate speech, obstruction, vandalism, and trespassing at clinics that provide abortion. It looks like the president of the United State demonizing people who have second- and third-trimester abortions, and for the sole purpose of maintaining political power. It looks like The Supreme Court upholding an Indiana anti-abortion law requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated. It looks like anti-abortion laws disproportionately impacting black women, women of color, and poor women. It looks like GOP and so-called "pro-life" pundits always being able to help their wives, mistresses, and daughters access the abortion care they need.
But it also can look like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's call to codify Roe v Wade into national law, and her promise to end the Hyde Amendment, a law that bans taxes from funding abortion care. It can look like Laverne Cox's affirmation that abortion rights aren't just a woman's right, but a trans man's right. It can look like Cecile Richards' saying of the word abortion, three times, two nights into the 2016 Democratic National Convention — making her the first politician to say the word on-stage during the event.
Pregnant people aren't just endowed with just the inalienable right to reproductive rights. We're not granted just the constitutional freedom to be "pro choice." We are owed the constitutional right to abortion care. To be "pro-abortion" is to be pro-any other common, safe, legal medical procedure people are free to have. Being "pro-abortion" is being pro-science, pro-fact, and pro-pregnant people.
But if we're going to continue to be afraid to say any of the following, we will continue to watch access to abortion dwindle.