Tennessee has become the next battleground in the war on women and their ability to access safe, legal abortions. In November, Tennessee voters will be asked to vote on Amendment 1, an attempt by Tennessee Right to Life to remove the “fundamental right to privacy” from Tennessee’s Constitution and to grant anti-choice, anti-abortion politicians unlimited authority to impose restrictions and regulations on abortion, including banning all abortions. Even in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or cases in which an abortion is necessary to protect a woman’s health, abortion can be banned if Amendment 1 passes this fall. The politicians and organizations behind this amendment have made it clear that they believe abortion should be made illegal in all cases.
Since summer, I’ve been working with the VoteNoOn1 campaign, a campaign with the mission to educate voters, get out the vote, and defeat Amendment 1. Working with this campaign has been interesting, and I’ve learned a lot. The most interesting aspect for me is the research they’ve conducted on voters and the most effective methods of reaching out, talking to, and educating voters. In a campaign, the way one contextualizes the debate is important, and campaigns use research in order to learn about voters and their values, with the ultimate goal of strategically framing the conversation and influencing voters’ opinions. I learned that in the Nashville area, it is important to frame the conversation around privacy issues, rather than declaring that a woman should have control and autonomy over her reproductive health. We get more support when we emphasize that Amendment 1 is about increased government intrusion in our medical decisions rather than about choice.
It’s obvious that Amendment 1, whether it passes or fails, has major legal implications for women, providers, and facilities that provide abortion. But what are the social implications? How is the way that this issue is framed, on both sides of the debate, affect our thinking and social consciousness? I want to reflect on three key terms that we’ve discussed in class—power, sexual agency, and cultural complacency—for the remainder of this post.
Power comes into play in several ways in the Amendment 1 debate, as well as in the conversation about abortion in general. To begin, this debate is fundamentally about the power to control reproduction and women’s bodies. Outside the debate, on the larger, legal scale, it is assumed that lawmakers and health providers know what is best, and they become thought of as the ultimate decision makers and authorities on the issue. However, we as citizens have the power and the right to organize, campaign, and vote. So how have the two campaigns, the one for and the one against Amendment 1, negotiated their power within this debate?
The supporters of Amendment 1 focus their discourse on morality and “protecting” the rights and lives of the unborn and their mothers. This is a strategic power play by the Right to Life organization and by people on the conservative, anti-choice side to stigmatize women who seek abortions. Their campaign is one about moral corruption and creating the image of a sexually promiscuous and sinful baby killer. A discussion about sexual morality is a discussion intended to impose values and control someone else’s sexuality, and it is ultimately a reflection of power relations.
The VoteNoOn1 campaign, on the other hand, emphasizes the fundamental right to privacy. This amendment is about the power and right to make medical decisions and undergo medical procedures without the intrusion of the government and state. When I was phone banking for the VoteNoOn1 campaign, I was hesitant to actually use the word abortion even though that is the main focus of Amendment 1. I guess I knew that it was a term that triggers thoughts and opinions on morality, stigma, and power. The campaign knew that, too, and so rather than bring up those issues, the VoteNoOn1 campaign strategically encouraged us to talk about the right to privacy.
Within both campaigns, the conversations fail to address how power and power differences affect a woman’s sexuality and sense of self. What does it say that both sides of this debate on Amendment 1, at least for the most part, neglect the lived experiences of women? In leaving women’s experiences out, women are rendered invisible and are robbed of their power and sexual agency. Making this a conversation about morality and privacy rights says something about society’s perception of women and the social and legal limits imposed on female sexuality. The right to an abortion is also about the right to be a sexual agent, and this has been left out of the Amendment 1 debate. Women should have the right to medically accurate information, the ability to act on their own behalf, and the freedom to voice their concerns and experiences.
The lack of female narratives and experiences in this debate raises the issue of cultural complacency, a cultural dynamic whereby we go along with certain cultural agendas or societal norms, sometimes without even realizing it. By not highlighting women’s experiences and opinions, we subjugate their voices. Both campaigns, even though on different sides of the Amendment 1 debate, were inadvertently culturally complacent and sent subtle messages about female sexuality, mainly the message that women should be quiet and should leave decisions to someone else. Women’s silence, shame, and subjugation cannot be something that we are culturally complacent about, as it will never allow us to reach the root of the problem—patriarchy…which is a whole other conversation.