September 13, 2023

LIVSHITS | The “A Word”: What’s at Stake?

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Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Texas’s trigger law went into effect, prohibiting most abortions. Its name, “Human Life Protection Act,” has perpetuated a pattern of Republicans misconstruing abortion laws. 

During Donald Trump’s presidency, the Republican attack on abortion included “infanticide” claims: The “execution” of newborn babies with “birth day abortions.” 

“Democrats are also pushing extreme late-term abortion, allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth,” said Trump at his campaign rally in El Paso, Texas in 2019. 

His message has riled the conservative base of the Republican Party long past his time in office, as they become core slogans during rallies and Facebook ads. This focus on abortions that occur in the second and third trimesters is a phenomenon designed to make pro-choice Americans uncomfortable, despite terminations after 24 weeks making up less than 1 percent of all abortions

The opposite tactic of using euphemisms to deny abortions has been just as prevalent, with bills “recognizing the rights, powers, and privileges of all unborn children at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth.” Their slogans include “As a former fetus, I oppose abortion” and “Life, the greatest gift a mother can give,” sweetening the blow of a pregnant person being forced to carry a fetus — and later care for a child — they don’t want. Pro-life supporters become saviors, protecting fetuses from the antiseptics of doctor’s offices, the Constitution from the indecent “private sphere” of reproduction and women from unknowingly committing atrocities. They name and rename the control of women’s bodies.

Yet, avoiding the word “abortion” plays the biggest role in passing legislation. 

Texas’ House Bill (HB) 2690, which was inconspicuously named the “Women and Child Safety Act,” conceals its purpose of forcing internet service providers to “make every reasonable and technologically feasible effort to block Internet access to information or material intended to assist or facilitate efforts to obtain an elective abortion or an abortion-inducing drug.” Internet safety is reduced to the infringement of data privacy and free speech with attempts to block access to Aid Access, Hey Jane, Plan C, Choix Health, Just the Pill and Carafem. The uncertainty around what is and isn’t an abortion law grows.

The blurriness of the term “abortion” causes doctors and politicians who oppose abortion to talk around one another, silencing the opposing arguments. For doctors, abortion is any termination of a pregnancy, including miscarriages or medically-induced terminations due to pregnancy complications or fetal anomalies. For pro-life advocates, abortion is an “elective procedure on a completely healthy fetus,” as Ann Johnson, a Democrat from Houston, puts it. For pro-choice advocates, the option of having an abortion is reproductive justice, defined by SisterSong as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

The result of this disconnect is quiet changes to Texas’ abortion laws. An interesting dynamic arises. 

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) simultaneously promises that he “will always protect the unborn” and signs a law giving doctors leeway to provide abortions in situations with serious pregnancy complications.  

The amendment does not once use the word “abortion.” “Because of that, it did not become a political football,” explains Johnson, who wrote the bill and got it passed, in an interview with NPR. “Nobody noticed it, which was by design.” Many of her Republican colleagues voted for the law without realizing the wide-ranging impact it would have on medical care. This first step of loosening abortion laws took effect last week on Sept. 1.

Abortion is healthcare in its most basic sense, but misinformation and pervasive stigma around it are continuously weaponized to build barriers to abortion and hurt psychological well-being. From bans after 15 weeks to 24-hour waiting periods and ultrasound requirements, barriers to abortion invariably expose the stigma and shame associated with abortion in public discourse. Individuals are denied full bodily autonomy and moral agency.

At Cornell, we need to revisit our definition of abortion. How do we respond not only to abortion stories based on trauma, but also to the experiences of parents who don’t want another child, students who aren’t ready to be pregnant or just anyone who woke up in the morning, took a pregnancy test and knew that wasn’t what they wanted? 

As the fight over abortion deteriorates into semantics, it is our turn to determine how the “A word” is used.

Ilana Livshits is a first year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column Live Laugh Livshits focuses on politics, social issues and culture at Cornell. She can be reached at [email protected].

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