The Pro-Life Movement, Erasing Women Edition

Yesterday I posted an image of a postcard distributed by abortion opponents as an argument against having a rape exemption. I used the postcard as a chance to discuss the rape exemption, but several of you readers pointed out that the image completely erases the woman, and her body, from the equation.

It’s true. The anti-abortion group that put together this postcard completely erased the woman from the picture both literally and figuratively. Her feelings, needs, hopes, and dreams do not matter. The postcard makes this erasure only more effective by using images of babies rather than images of fetuses, embryos, or zygotes. Babies don’t reside inside women’s bodies. Fetuses, embryos, and zygotes, in contrast, do.

The thing is, this image isn’t an aberration. Next time you come in contact with anti-abortion literature or images, take a moment to ask yourself where the woman is in the picture. Ninety-five times out of a hundred, she isn’t. I live in a college down surrounded by hours of very rural and very conservative countryside. When I travel out of town, I always pass anti-abortion billboards and anti-abortion signs posted in people’s yards. Most of them carry pictures of babies, and those that carry images of fetuses simply erase the woman’s body from the picture. So I thought I’d take a moment to offer a few more examples. I’ll provide brief commentary after each.

No, that’s not a parody. And I really don’t think I need to explain how fully this anti-abortion advertisement erases women.

At only 30 hours old, Elena the zygote is only a clump of cells yet to implant in the womb where she will grow, but it seems that neither that womb nor its owner are worth mentioning.

Remember what I said about using images of babies instead of images of fetuses, embryos, or zygotes? You can see here just how clearly and completely doing that erases the woman from the picture. The image may say “Interview with an unborn child,” but the child in the picture is not unborn. If it were, it would be in the body of a woman. And that kind of matters.

This sort of image, and variants of it, crops up all over. Abortion opponents attempt to manipulate people’s emotions and frame the issue by using pictures of cute smiling babies, pictures that allow them to fully and completely remove women from the issue. And you can see why such a tactic might be powerful. I mean really, who is for murdering babies? But by seeking to equate a baby with a fetus, embryo, or zygote, this image invites those who view it to completely forget the fact that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses reside within the bodies of women.

While this picture is of a fetus, note that anything that might be a hint of the woman’s body within which it resides has been erased. Further, the image combined with the text suggests that fetuses should have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, but completely ignores the idea that anyone else’s rights might be involved in the question at all.

Woman? What woman? This T-shirt – which is not a parody – erases women perhaps more entirely than any image I have ever seen. It makes it look as though, especially on an emotional level, women and their bodies literally play no role in the abortion issue at all.

Forcing your beliefs on a fetus = bad. Forcing your beliefs on a woman = irrelevant, apparently. I mean, do you see a woman in that picture? No, me neither.

Once again, the woman is completely erased from the picture. This fetus is apparently growing itself in a glowing orb.

This advertisement somehow manages to mention wombs without mentioning women. That’s kind of impressive, if you think about it. Further, the accompanying image is neither a fetus nor a baby, but rather a child who looks to be seven or eight. In other words, this advertisement makes a first trimester abortion the equivalent of murdering an elementary school student. And by making this equivocation, the advertisement completely and entirely erases women, and their bodies, from the picture.

And this doesn’t just happen in the images the anti-abortion movement uses on signs and in advertising. It also happens in the rhetoric the yse. There’s this statement from Tim Dalrymple, for example:

I’m sure evangelical youngsters everywhere would rejoice if their elders decided that they should have sex with great frequency because “if a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.”  But alas, there is a key distinction between a sperm and a zygote.  A zygote, left to develop naturally, will tend to develop into a human being.  You can have a tank of millions of sperm, but without an egg not a single one will develop into a human being.

See, actually, the reality is that you can have a tank of zygotes, but without a woman’s body not a single one will develop into a human being. But Dalrymple leaves that out.

Here’s another from this week. When Emily Magner of Social Work Advocacy Coalition of Michigan spoke to Michigan senator Howard Walker about about the implications a new anti-choice bill would have for women, he responded with this:

This isn’t about women! This is about protecting fetuses!

It seems this anti-abortion state legislator literally thinks laws for “protecting fetuses” have no impact on women, as though women aren’t involved in the issue at all. Again and again and again and again this happens. The thing is, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses don’t live in voids. They live in women. Imaging and advertising and rhetoric that ignores or erases the fact is an attempt to frame the debate in a way that completely erases women.

I grew up in the pro-life movement. For me, it was all about equating zygotes, embryos, and fetuses with babies, and I didn’t really consider the woman’s perspective at all. Part of the reason I didn’t think about the woman’s perspective is that the anti-abortion literature that surrounded me, like the above images and rhetoric, completely erased those women from the debate. Part of it, though, is that I was a child. But now I am a woman, and as a woman I very much value my ability to control my fertility and am very much aware of the wrenching lack of control over one’s own body pregnancy brings.

We need to do something to counter this sort of messaging. We need to put women back in the picture. We need to counter the anti-abortion movement’s equivocation of babies with fetuses, embryos, and zygotes and we need to refuse to allow abortion opponents to give the impression that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses live in some sort of void. We need to make it clear that any attempt to grant “prenatal rights,” as they are now increasingly being called, involves removing rights from women. We need to move the debate away from its narrow focus on fetuses and work to zoom it out to view the bigger picture, taking in women and their lives, needs, and choices. We need to change the conversation.

Finally, when the anti-abortion movement does bring women into the picture, it generally portrays them as either hateful selfish murderers or helpless exploited victims.

We need to counter this messaging as well. We need to show that women’s lives are stronger, wider, and more complex and vibrant than this sort of two-dimensional stereotyping. Once again, we need to counter the anti-abortion movement’s rhetoric and change the conversation.

I only wish I knew how to do that.

Patriarchy and the Gender of God
Any Time I Hear Someone Say "Traditional Marriage"
Do Male Voices Have a Place in the Abortion Debate?
The Real Travesty of the "Hero Mom" Story
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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