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The Power of Language Versus Data in Texas's Fiery Abortion Debate

A man in a cowboy hat holds a sign that reads "stop the war on babies"

In Texas today, 3,543 people signed up to publicly speak their mind on abortion. The capitol building crowd of reproductive rights advocates who turned out to protest Texas's major abortion-rights-restriction bill, HB2, and conservative supporters of the proposed law went head-to-head in front of the State Affairs committee until midnight. The bill finally passed the committee by an 8 to 3 vote. 

The process was an hours-long rhetorical tug-of-war, as opponents and proponents worked to frame the debate in their own linguistic terms. In many ways in this national debate, the data around abortion means far less than the story. 

The data on ways to reduce abortion rates is clear: make birth control affordable and accessible. But these numbers falls on deaf ears when the people who control the story around abortion are able to pose the debate as one that sets science at odds with moral good.  

While reproductive rights advocates in Austin today focused on issues of class and personal choice in the specific bill—which would wind up forcing many women to travel far for an abortion—supporters of the bill focused on the moral issues, reiterating the idea that abortion is never okay. This is how the conversation seems to always go in public debates over abortion; what's new here is the sheer scale and passion of the conversation, as both opponents and supporters of the bill brought thousands of Texans to the Capitol to raise a hubub over restrictions that have passed in many states with barely a sigh

One of the most interesting testimonies of the long day came from Dr. Bradley Price, who started out by noting that he'd literally delivered three babies that morning—then voiced his opposition to the bill. That quick background immediately highlighted the absurdity in the labels of "pro-life" versus "babykiller."

Dr. Price spelled out how HB2 is being pitched as a women's health bill, but it would make women's health worse in the state; he recalled when he first started practicing medicine 40 years ago, women would often come into his office with infections from botched abortions.

"There's no reason to go back to the bad old days," said Dr. Price, who used to perform abortions but no longer does. "This [bill] is not coming from doctors, this is coming from politicians."

One of the legislators asked is if there were any medical benefits from the bill's proposed ban on abortions in clinics that aren't certified as ambulatory surgical centers—an expensive requirement that would shut down all by five of the state's abortion clinics

"There is zero medical benefit," said Dr. Price.

But then Representative John Smithee raked the doctor over the coals. 

Rep Smithee launched into an evocative line of questioning about the bill's ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

"Does the baby have a heartbeat at that point?" asked Rep. Smithee, then asked if the "baby" could feel pain and if Dr. Price could explain in detail exactly what happens during an abortion. Here's the abridged version of their back-and-forth, which has some omissions because no transcript or video of the hearing is available yet (when committee members requested a transcript be made of the long public hearing, the chair said they could shell out their own money to commission one).

 

REP. SMITHEE: You've got this baby inside the womb, that's maybe eight to ten inches long, right?

DR. PRICE: I'd say more like five.

REP. SMITHEE: It's a living baby with a heartbeat in there… how do you get the baby out of the womb?

DR. PRICE: I don't do that procedure, but you use something like ring forceps…

REP. SMITHEE: The physician that's doing this procedure is going to just reach in there and grab the baby with the forceps? 

DR. PRICE: I think there's suction involved also.

REP. SMITHEE: But is the baby still alive?

DR. PRICE: Well, a lot of these are done for lesions that are incompatible with life, so a lot of times these are for stillborn—

REP. SMITHEE: Do you terminate the baby while the baby while the baby is in the womb or after you bring them out of the womb?

DR. PRICE: I'm not privy to those details.

REP. SMITHEE: I think if we're going to talk about what's going to be legal and not legal, we should know what this entails.

 

It's easy to see the impact of Smithee controlling the language in this debate. This is no longer a medical discussion over equal access to a legal medical procedure—it's a debate framed around the details of killing babies.

Eventually, Dr. Price stopped trying to respond to the questions with medical accuracy, saying, "This whole line of questioning distorts the issue."

But by that point, Smithee had already been able to readjust the frame for the conversation. As right-to-life folks said on Twitter, "Rep Smithee successfully brought the baby back into the debate." 

While reproductive rights groups can turn out astounding crowds to protest this issue, maintaining the right to safe abortions in America will mean recognizing the power of language in this discussion. The restrictive bills in Texas, Ohio, and the rest of the country have an unequal impact, making abortion a possibility only for people with money and means. But politicians who vote for these bills are not talking about equity and classism and data—those valid, practical concerns are overwhelmed by the vivid images and moral absolutes folks like Representative Smithee paint so well.

 

Read the Burnt Orange liveblog of the day, plus the best resources for by-the-minute updates on Twitter have been @scATX and @andreagrimes

Photo of an HB2 supporter today at the capitol by the Texas Tribune, via Flickr CC.


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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

excellent article and points.

excellent article and points. Evidently language is also a decisive factor in polling, as depending on the terms used, results of polls on people's stance on this issue can be skewed. It's logos versus pathos, and as long as the anti-abortion side can keep the conversation fueled by emotion, they get to sidestep all of the inconvenient medical facts, historical precedents, and logical conclusions about the link between comprehensive sex ed, access to birth control, and reduced numbers of unwanted pregnancies.

A fetus is not a baby, nor an

A fetus is not a baby, nor an unborn child, but for many politicians it makes a useful political football.

Same as to the person below,

Same as to the person below, I'll just paste it for you: Incorrect. The only difference between an 8 month post-conception fetus and a 10 month post-conception (i.e. one month old) infant is a change in the direction of blood flow, closure of two holes in the circulatory system, and an increase in lung oxygen. The nervous system, including the completion of the nerve sheaths that facilitate feeling pain and other senses of perception, is largely complete before birth and is not complete until a person is 25 years old. At any rate, the amount that you develop immediately before and after birth is at nearly the exact same pace as it is both 2 months before and 2 months after birth. Our definitions of "fetus", "baby," "infant," "unborn child" etc. are only words and you would be surprised to find that they do not affect the physiology. Changes occurring during birth do not increase personality, identity, or sensation, but are geared at changing your oxygen flow (a relatively minor trick, compared to the other physiologic reflexes our body undergoes throughout life). I'm not saying go to medical school or anything, but at least read a fucking Dr. Suess book on it before posting.

tl;dr: "Fetuses" and "babies" are indeed the same thing and for all practical purposes these words refer only to pre- and post-vagina transit location and lung oxygen content, sort of like "person waiting for the bus" and "person who just got off the bus." The only thing creating the illusion of difference is that the child is quite unable to make the transfer without some assistance from the mother.

To extend even further, even a 22-week old fetus can be viable (i.e. "magical liberal transformation into a baby") if taken outside the womb, and the only thing preventing that viability from being possible even earlier is the lack of lung surfactant to breathe properly. Heart, brain, etc. - they're all there; they continue growing just as fast outside the uterus as in, doesn't matter.

So as always, we on the left

So as always, we on the left fail miserably at framing the debate because no one is willing to just say "It's not a freakin baby, it's a fetus"

The people who control the story around abortion

[sorry... this was meant as a reply to the main post, not to the above comment.... ]

The article says that data on how to reduce abortion "falls on deaf ears when the people who control the story around abortion are able to pose the debate as one that sets science at odds with moral good."

This is true but it begs the question of why it is that "the story around abortion" is increasingly controlled by those who are against repro rights. Must it be that way? How could it be different? There's a feeling that comes from the article that control of the issue is being conceded.

The reason bills like this get introduced and supported isn't out of sincere belief in the "right to life" (though no doubt some who hold these positions do so sincerely, though ignorantly), but because there is little to no political cost to doing so, which is to say that those who vote for these politicians are in support of this legislation or are at best indifferent to it.

The fact that people who are against abortion rights don't listen to the data on how to reduce abortion makes perfect sense: the data points to things like contraception and sex education, which reduce the negative consequences of non-reproductive sexuality, and the suppression of modern, non-reproductive sexuality is a huge part (if not the main part) of what the anti-abortion-rights side is about. They ignore scientific data that doesn't support their position -- but data is used, and ignored, opportunistically by all sides, of all issues, so there's not much to be gained or learned in pointing that out. Issues of class and financial ability likewise mean little to those on the other side, not when they can talk about "unborn babies" and "fetal pain.".

Reproductive rights in this country are by and large determined by politicians, and political success is by and large determined by that portion of the public that's motivated to vote. Repro rights are in jeopardy not because of asshat data-ignoring politicians who naturally and understandably act in their own professional interest by catering to their constituencies, but because of the failure of repro rights advocates to, as the OP says, "pose the debate" on more favorable and popular terms, and to "control the story around abortion" and repro rights.

Repro rights groups and feminism more generally have done an outstandingly bad job in framing reproductive rights in a way that moves public opinion sufficiently in the right direction. That's why we're getting stomped from statehouse to statehouse, and why 40 years post-Roe, Roe itself hardly matters, as ways of circumventing it and rendering it irrelevant have been devised by our far more clever and inventive adversaries, no matter how ignorant and anti-scientific and data-denying we might like to paint them, or how eyerollingly idiotic we can make them appear in the pics we use to illustrate our blog posts.

Incorrect. The only

Incorrect. The only difference between an 8 month post-conception fetus and a 10 month post-conception (i.e. one month old) infant is a change in the direction of blood flow, closure of two holes in the circulatory system, and an increase in lung oxygen. The nervous system, including the completion of the nerve sheaths that facilitate feeling pain and other senses of perception, is largely complete before birth and is not complete until a person is 25 years old. At any rate, the amount that you develop immediately before and after birth is at nearly the exact same pace as it is both 2 months before and 2 months after birth. Our definitions of "fetus", "baby," "infant" etc. are only words and you would be surprised to find that they do not affect the physiology. Changes occurring during birth do not increase personality, identity, or sensation, but are geared at changing your oxygen flow (a relatively minor trick, compared to the other physiologic reflexes our body undergoes throughout life). I'm not saying go to medical school or anything, but at least read a fucking Dr. Suess book on it before posting.