by Terry Bellamak

So, I’ve been commenting on an abortion related post on Facebook. I know, I know.

It’s interesting how no matter what the original post is about, anti-abortion activists (calling them ‘antis’ from here on for brevity’s sake, no shade intended) always trot out the same non sequitur arguments, like abortion up to birth (not an actual thing) or ‘loving them both’ (also not really true). It’s like they’re all singing from the same media strategy.

But what’s got me fascinated today is how antis try so hard to frame abortion as something that is harmful to women.

Allow me to digress for a moment to acknowledge my trans and non-binary friends – who also sometimes need abortion care if they can get pregnant. I see you, and I stand with you. This article talks further about women specifically, for two reasons. First, I’m indirectly quoting the antis, and that’s the word they use. And second, my subject today is ‘women’ as a social construct, which includes trans women and anyone who presents as female, by the way, because prejudice against women applies to them.

Like so much of global abortion discourse, the trend to frame abortion, something women actively seek out, as harmful to them seems to have originated in the US. Antis there, however, have given up pretending to care about women’s welfare. The trend’s survival here seems to be a New Zealand thing.

And like so much anti discourse, the framing is false.

  • As a medical procedure, both medical and surgical abortions are extremely safe. You are statistically more likely to have serious complications getting your wisdom teeth extracted.
  • Abortion looks even safer when compared to childbirth – it is 14 times safer than carrying a pregnancy and giving birth.

Specifically, antis frame abortion as something that is forced on women. To be clear, coercion is terrible and wrong and no one should ever be coerced into doing anything with their body they don’t want (see what I did there?).

But coercion thrives in the shadows, and abortion requires the knowledge and participation of medical professionals. Here in New Zealand it is set out in the Standards for Abortion Services that a patient gets ample opportunity to speak with medical staff alone, away from her support people, so they can ask her about coercion.

Sadly, it is logistically much easier to coerce someone into remaining pregnant against their will by keeping them away from medical practitioners until it’s too late to receive abortion care, because Parliament doesn’t trust women enough to omit the time limits.

But the way the antis frame it, it’s not the abusive partner who is coercing the women, but the abortion provider.

This is all kinds of wrong – abortion providers have no interest or incentive to provide an abortion for someone who does not want one.

  • Abortions in New Zealand are provided under the health system, so abortion providers have no financial incentive to provide abortion or not. Time not spent on abortion is spent delivering other kinds of health care.
  • The Standards for Abortion Services allow for people to be conflicted, go home and think some more, and come back to the abortion service or enrol with a lead maternity carer if they change their mind.
  • The implication that abortion providers have a stake in the outcome clearly shows the stateside origin of the frame. Although most abortion providers in the states are not-for-profit, so it’s a false attack on them too.

Why do they do it?

It allows them to pretend they are not anti-woman.

This is important when you are demanding that half the population be required to surrender control over their own bodies and gestate every pregnancy whether they like it or not.

It plays into patriarchal stereotypes about women, portraying them as foolish, childish, emotional, easily swayed, and unable to discern what is good for them, rather than rational beings with excellent reasons not to want to be pregnant. This further allows antis to pretend to defend the poor, victimised creatures.

It also plays into a gender essentialist ideology adhered to by some folks who try to pass themselves off as feminists. The argument goes, motherhood is women’s natural calling and any other inclination must be the result of brainwashing. The ersatz ‘feminist’ argument continues that this means women should have a higher position in society because producing the next generation makes them morally superior. That didn’t work out so well for the ‘angel in the house’ of the 19th century either.

And it relieves them of the necessity to attack women, which doesn’t go over as well as it used to. Slut-shaming and other forms of contempt have become less respectable in recent times.

If the antis accepted that abortion only exists because sometimes people really don’t want to be pregnant, then their ‘abortion = murder’ stance would require them to make women their prime targets along with abortion providers. Acknowledging women’s agency requires acknowledging their ‘complicity.’ In the states, attacking women in the past has caused the antis to lose support, leading to the change in rhetoric.

Treating women as though they are fools, however, actually is anti-woman. Their framing doesn’t fool anyone who recognises women as people.

It also doesn’t actually convince anyone – not even the antis who use it, to judge by some of the vile things they also say about women in various comment sections. Perhaps they need to circulate the media strategy more widely.