Dear Mr. Stupak: Do You Trust Women?

The Stupak amendment has prompted our well-deserved ire. But it also presents an opportunity for serious reflection about what abortion represents and how we represent it.

We have often spoken the language of my: my child, my choice; keep your laws of my body; U.S. out of my uterus. With some laudable exceptions, a rights-based, essentially libertarian framework has formed the basis for our argument.

This appeal, while deeply resonant with the pre-Roe generation, has become less and less effective. We’ve heard the problems before. Choice is simply too weak a concept to stand up against Life. Choice conveys quick decisions made without thought, reinforcing the already negative stereotypes about why women abort. Choice is necessary but completely insufficient.

Alternative frameworks, like A Woman Knows offered by the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, present an antidote to the limitations of choice and individual rights in this debate. Critiques from the Reproductive Justice movement and others at the front lines of contemplating how we communicate deserve our attention. Now more than ever.

If any of us actually believed we could achieve our aims by staking our claim to individual rights or privacy and taking government out of the picture, the jig is up. Details aside, the public has heard that the issue now on the table is government funding for abortion. This isn’t government out of my decisions, this is government please foot the bill (and while your at it make sure doctors are trained to do it.)

This is a moment to change the debate. We must hold legislators to account and make them the protagonists in the abortion issue. They’ve inserted themselves into the process, it’s only fitting that we bring them into our frame. We propose to start by asking Stupak and his allies one thing: Do you trust women?

Abortion does not happen magically, by virtue of being funded. Abortion happens because women seek it out. Anti-abortion legislators need not fear that by allowing federal funds to cover abortion, they are renouncing their anti-abortion values. No one will be forced into having an abortion under comprehensive health care reform.  Instead, abortion will happen – safely – when and if women seek it. Abortion is a decision. If you are anti-abortion, it is always someone else’s decision. But critically, it is a decision that only ever implicates women. 

We need to ask one thing when we talk about Stupak: Do legislators trust women?

If these anti-abortion legislators do not trust women, then it is logical to make sure abortion will not be part of health care coverage. In this Stupak and Hyde world, women seeking abortion must be wrong, they must be stopped. But if legislators do trust women, then they must think again about prohibiting abortion, even if they are personally opposed to it as a moral or ethical issue.

We need to pose the following questions to the anti-abortion Democrats:

Do you agree that pregnancy implicates women’s health?

Do you think that the person primarily affected by a health care decision should make that decision?

Do you agree that pregnancy is something that happens only to women?

Do you think that sometimes pregnancies are not planned?

Do you think that sometimes a woman might want to terminate a pregnancy?

If the answer to all of the above is yes, legislators would still allow health plans to fund abortion without challenging their core values, as long as they answer yes to the next question: Do you trust women? That is, do you trust them to make their own decisions, even if you think their decisions are wrong? Another way of asking this is: Do you think that women have the right to be equal citizens with men under the law?

If the answer to this question is no, then at least we would hear this in a public forum, and we’d see the abortion debate for what it really is – a proxy for the belief that women are inferior to men.

Trusting women doesn’t necessarily mean you are “pro-abortion.” In fact, you don’t even have to sign on as “pro-choice.” You can oppose abortion. This means, at the personal level, if you are female, you will not get an abortion. If you are male, you will try to ensure that your female relatives don’t get an abortion. At the policy level, for abortion opponents of either sex, it can also mean that you will support adoption resources, you will support family-planning initiatives, you will support neonatal care and early childhood resources in your community. Disagree vocally with abortion as a bioethical issue. But when it comes to access to health care, in order to comport with the Constitution and with our shared American values of freedom and equal rights, say that you trust women. And then try actually doing it.

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  • herchoice
    That is the whole point with regards to the abortion debate: trusting women to make the right choice. After all, let’s remember that we are supposed to be living in a free society, and that means that men and women must be untrusted with their own lives.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Dear Her Choice,


    Thanks for reading, commenting and — more than anything — the incredible work you do for women’s health.

    Our point about choice is largely one about rhetoric. It has proven, in numerous rigorous studies, to be ineffective as a framework for conveying why the right to an abortion is necessary.

    But there’s a closely-related and right now equally critical point about choice. It’s necessary but insufficient. It means nothing to have the legal right to abortion if there are no doctors trained to do it nor ways to pay for it. I’m sure you know this much better than I do as a practioner in the field. Moreover, we are currently arguing about who finances that choice. It’s not just about women having options, it’s about having help from government (aka everyone who pays taxes) to exercise that choice.

    But, I completely agree, this issue is about trusting women — even when and if we don’t like what they’re deciding.




  • cmarie

    hillary, you say this presents “an opportunity for serious reflection about what abortion represents and how we represent it”. I would have to argue that it also presents an opportunity for serious reflection about what Obamacare represents.

  • kate-ranieri

    Trust women to make the right choice for themselves! That’s my motto. Yet when I’ve asked antichoicers if they trust or respect women, I get the whole question turned on its head, to the point that they begin to froth at the mouth as if rabid. In other words, there’s no trust or respect for women at the individual level or, as demonstrated in Washington, DC, at the systemic, governmental level.

  • ahunt

    I cannot help but chuckle sadly…I’ve asked the same questions of fervent relatives…and the conversation inevitably degenerates into embarrassed, incoherent sputtering.

    No/yes…women can/cannot be trusted….bu, bu, but…we do not know why.

    I guess you have to be there. Funny and sad.

  • anat-shenkerosorio


    Nice to know we’re in good company in espousing something much like your motto! I’d love to hear what it sounds like when this question gets turned on its head — does that mean they ask you whether you trust fetusus/babies? Or is that just a figure of speech for the conversation generally devolving? I’m really curious.

    An interesting (and vaguely hope-inspiring) finding from research into public opinion on abortion: people are far more likely to support abortion when asked about A WOMAN then when the message is about WOMEN. Use of the singular plus indefinite article evokes for people an actual known woman (a sister, a cousin, a coworker) and people are much more likely to believe she is making a justifiable choice. Alyssa Wulf of Real Reason has done stellar, breakthrough work on this topic. 


  • anat-shenkerosorio


    It’s sad enough to hear this coming from relatives. (I’m sure your Thanksgiving dinner conversation is a fun one.) But hearing this from our elected representatives — especially Democrats for whom women are 60% of their constituency — is inexcusable. I can’t be represented by someone who doesn’t trust my decision-making. After all, isn’t selecting a representative evidence of decision-making.

    Still, I would rather hear it — straight out — from these folks so we could know what we’re dealing with.


  • emma

    What does Obamacare represent, cmarie?

  • mechashiva

    I’ve met a lot of people who claim to be against abortion, but in the same breath these people usually say that the decision to have an abortion should lie with the woman. Many of my patients at the abortion clinic where I worked held this view… it is a "bad" thing to do, but it is something they should be able to do and come to terms with in their own way.


    This is why I don’t trust polls that claim more people identify as "pro-life" to acurately measure the population’s feelings about abortion legality or access.


    Most of these "pro-lifers" trust women to make these decisions for themselves, but they don’t want to call themselves "pro-choice" due to the stigma conservatives place on that term. When you get rid of the rhetoric and just talk about the issue itself, most people support abortion being legal and accessible because they do trust women to make the decision to bring (or not bring) a life into the world. They might prefer women to have the baby, but they wouldn’t go so far as to support forcing them to by denying them access outright. That’s why pro-life legislation gets in through the avenue of pork-barelling. It would never get through on its own.

  • nickm

    One of your list of questions for anti-abortion legislators is, I think, really where all the contention lies. "Do you think that the person primarily affected by a health care decision should make that decision?" People opposed to abortion, many of them, would argue that the "person primarily affected" by the decision is the fetus. Others might take issue with the assertion that any decision that addresses an issue that implicates a person’s health should be automatically categorized primarily as a "health care decision." Even if so, this might not be enough force a "yes" answer; it might be reasonable to respond, "it depends on what the decision is."
    What do you think?

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Dear NickM,

    You cut straight to a critical fault line in this issue.  I’ll start with your second point, automatically labeling something health-related a health care decision. While I can imagine (and have seen) people argue that reproductive issues are ALSO moral, ethical, religious, even environmental issues, it seems hard to imagine someone arguing with any credibility that they ARE NOT health related at all. Perhaps folks would say it isn’t ONLY a health issue.

    On your first point, this is indeed more difficult. You’re essentially naming the "fetal personhood" argument. If you think the fetus is a person of equal stature and rights under the law as a full-grown woman, I think it’s just going to be impossible to have any dialogue about abortion. The only appeal that might work in this crowd (and it usually doesn’t) is the pragmatic one: women will do this legal or not so it’s really about one life or two.

    On the other hand, while people will argue about fetal rights, it’s hard to contradict that only one of the entities involved is capable of making decisions and executing them. Obviously, the woman. She gets to make the decision because she’s the only decider (couldn’t resist.)

    Here’s the critical point — she gets to decide even if we think she’s making a terrible mistake. This, essentially, is the definition of "trust." Trust means we cannot say "it depends on what the decision is."


    Thanks for reading,


  • harry834
  • catseye71352

    It would absolutely serve you right if you found yourself with a serious medical condition and utterly unable to get coverage.


    Or you one of those Medicare recipients that are saying , "Screw the rest of you; I’ve got mine"?


    Catseye  ( (|) )