The Power of Language Versus Data in Texas's Fiery Abortion Debate
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.
Photo of an HB2 supporter today at the capitol by the Texas Tribune, via Flickr CC.
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