What pro-choice advocates learned from the pro-life movement
Virgina’s proposed requirement of an ultrasound prior to abortion has been the subject of everything from Saturday Night Live parodies to sizable protests in Richmond. The backlash has been so strong that Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell looks to be walking back his support on the issue. Until this week, the governor had been firm in his commitment to signing the bill. But just this afternoon, McDonnell has put out a statement asking his legislature to rework the measure.
What makes this all slightly surprising is that the Virginia law is not new. Twenty states have ultrasound-related abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, six of which closely resemble the one Virginia is debating. Virginia’s proposal is by no means the most restrictive, either: Texas passed a law last year that goes much further, requiring the doctor to read a verbal description of the ultrasound image to the pregnant woman.
So why is an old abortion restriction suddenly coming under fierce protest this time around? Analysts say that a new political landscape, coupled with a shift in abortion rights rhetoric, have allowed opponents to successfully push back against an abortion restriction that has passed with much less protest in a half-dozen other states.
Many saw 2011 as a perfect storm for a wave of abortion restrictions to sweep through the states. A heated battle during health reform over federal funding of abortion raised the issue nationally. When Republicans gained control of many more state houses in 2010, they were ready to act. States passed 92 abortion restrictions in 2011, more than double any other year in the past three decades.
But heading into early 2012, the political landscape is different. The national reproductive health debate has broadened to one about contraceptives and family planning, issues that abortion rights advocates tend to have better success mobilizing voters around. Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health groups have seen their ranks of supporters increase over the past year.
The rhetoric has shifted, too, with abortion rights advocates focusing on more emotionally charged issues of privacy and intrusion rather than the choice arguments that can often define this debate. Much of the focus has been on an invasive, transvaginal ultrasound that would probably be required to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. The phrase “transvaginal ultrasound” does not show up anywhere in the bill; you won’t find it combing the legislative text. But after Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and others speculated that it could be necessary, the intrusive nature of the procedure became a lynchpin issue in the debate.
“In any of these contests, you need to get people passionate,” says Anna Esacove, a sociologist at Muhlenberg College who studies abortion politics. “Framing this as rape creates a passionate response for people who are against the laws. Even if people don’t think it’s rape, it gets people talking about it.”
The messaging reminds some who have followed reproductive health politics of the antiabortion movement’s successful rhetoric in pursuing a ban on “Partial-Birth Abortion.” The procedure it refers to, dilation and extraction, is used in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all abortions. But when the National Right to Life Committee crafted the term in 1995, many states moved to ban the procedure. The debate went national, with Congress passing the Federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003.
“Partial-birth abortion was really a watershed in terms of rhetoric,” says Deana Rohlinger, a sociologist at Florida State University whose research focuses on social movements. “When the National Right to Life tested it, it just tested through the roof, and now it’s history.”
Now, on the Virginia legislation, abortion rights advocates are seeing similar success with messaging that shifts the debate away from concepts of choice and more towards privacy and intrusion.
“Choice has always been a terrible idea: The concept of choice is one from consumer products, from shopping,” says the University of California’s George Lakoff. “Whereas the concept of life is morality. You can’t fight morality with shopping. ... to be fighting morality with morality, you need to be focused on a woman’s right to her own physical integrity.”
It’s still unclear what will happen to the Virginia legislation, and whether similar protests will gain traction elsewhere in the country. The composition of state legislatures is, after all, the same as it was last year when a wave of abortion restrictions passed. The contraceptives debate in Washington may cool down, altering the national dynamic. But the Virginia backlash does suggest that abortion rights advocates have found a way to rally their base in a way that, last year, seemed to elude them.