As I was giving a speech at a Virginia college recently, there was a visibly annoyed young man in the audience. He shifted around in his seat and scowled. During the Q&A, his hand was one of the first that shot up.
He asked why I kept talking about abortion as a women’s rights and health issue. How could I possibly argue this, he wondered, when abortion was clearly an issue of “children’s rights.” In his mind, women were beside the point. Ancillary, really.
His frustration that I would talk about abortion as an issue of bodily rights and integrity reminded me of why Republicans will never truly win women over. Anti-choicers cannot escape the truth of their movement: despite rhetorical efforts to the contrary, the foundation of fighting against abortion accessibility is the idea that women are less important than the pregnancies they can carry.
Anti-choice politicians can name legislation that mandates unnecessary ultrasounds a “Woman’s Right to Know,” and protestors can carry placards that say “women deserve better” than abortion. But the strategic shift from calling women murders to labeling them victims of abortion will never work, because we understand that in either case our health and rights are beside the point.
The bill in Iowa that would have allowed patients to sue abortion providers for up to ten years after the procedure for “pain and suffering” was not about protecting women—it was about punishing providers. Pushing misinformation about links between abortion and breast cancer (that have been widely debunked) isn’t meant to preserve women’s health, but to scare them. And insisting that “pregnancy is not a disease” is not a tactic meant to help women who want to be parents, but to force all of us to be.
But perhaps the most misogynist sticking point in anti-choice ideology is the veneration of women who die for their pregnancies. Last month, conservative writer Brent Boznell wrote a piece at Newsbusters in memoriam of a woman who died after the birth of her third child.
Thirty-six-year-old Caroline Weiner had been diagnosed with HELLP syndrome—a deadly disease that I also had when pregnant with my daughter—and was advised by doctors that another pregnancy could kill her:
They feared her body might not withstand a third pregnancy. But this was a woman who loved children, and even more, loved her faith. “If God grants me a child, I will bear that child.” It was as simple as that. She rejected the advice. She became pregnant. The childbirth was almost catastrophic. It almost killed her.
She died a few weeks later.
Rejecting medical advice to risk dying and leaving behind your existing children is not the choice I made when I became pregnant again after HELLP, but I’m glad Weiner was able to make her own medical and family decisions. What is galling, however, is how her death positions her as the perfect selfless mother in Boznell’s eyes. The ideal woman is as willing to place her pregnancy above her own life through medical decisions as anti-choicers are through policy.
I don’t believe everyone against abortion expects women to die for their pregnancies, but the way women who do are placed on pedestals should give us great pause—and remind us just how expendable we are in their world view.
Republicans can continue their desperate move to convince Americans that being anti-choice is actually pro-woman. But we are not stupid, and they are not fooling anyone. The more anti-choice politicians, pundits and activists underestimate women by continuing with their rhetorical sleight-of-hand, the more they reveal themselves. The anti-choice movement cannot erase us from our own lives by insisting that abortion isn’t necessary. The more they try, the stronger we’ll get.