By Natasha Pillai
When I heard that Seahawks for Life (SfL) was tabling the morning of September 25, I expected the clichéd fetus dolls and a handwritten sign urging students to stop the ‘genocide of the pre-born’. Instead, I was confronted with glossy pop up posters, professionally printed pamphlets, and slick, well-spoken Capital Area Regional Coordinator Stephanie Schmitt from Students for Life of America. My heart sank. This wasn’t some innocuous club publicity event. This was a well-funded, agile political campaign to ban abortion in Maryland after 20 weeks, on the grounds of “fetal pain.”
My wariness is borne of experience. I lived in Texas for thirteen years and was raised in the anti-abortion movement. My father and I prayed outside clinics and went to marches. As someone who’s been on the inside, pro-choice Americans are not nearly as mistrustful of anti-abortion activists as they should be. I sat in front of the display for an hour or so. The experience left me convinced that I’ve been right to be on my guard for these years.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about the anti-abortion movement: They’ve made up their minds. You will see anti-abortion activists cite scientific data to make their case. This is purely for the benefit of the vaguely pro-choice sucker. For the most part, anti-abortion activists believe that every fetus has a soul, which imbues personhood. However, the United States is a secular society, and they know they can’t explicitly set policy based on the assumption of a God-given soul given out to every zygote at conception. But science holds an unassailable (if poorly understood) authority in our society. The trappings of scientific rigor obscure theological commitments, not scientific ones.
The result is that anti-abortion activists will distort scientific fact. This petition to ban abortion at twenty weeks does so on the basis of fetal pain. I listened to Ms. Schmitt make the case that pain receptors are formed by twenty weeks, “and perhaps earlier” (put a pin in that). It’s true that pain receptors are formed in the fetus by twenty weeks; however, pain requires receptors to receive the sensation, and a nervous system to transmit the sensation to a functioning brain. According to “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence,” a 2005 literature review by Lee, Ralston, Drey, et al, a fetus’s nervous system doesn’t begin to develop until 23 to 30 weeks, and ECG data suggests a fetus can’t feel pain until 29 to 30 weeks! Anti-abortion activists pick an arbitrary developmental benchmark, skim the literature for the earliest date regardless of accuracy, and then use rhetoric to push their benchmark back further. After all, pain receptors might form “perhaps earlier” than 20 weeks, and you can’t argue with “perhaps!” This disturbed me as a young girl passionate about science, and it disturbs me now.
The deceitfulness of the anti-abortion movement extends beyond questions of embryology. A significant quote from SfL’s posters was “Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, can’t we agree that abortion should be banned once a fetus can feel pain?”. Most Americans are pro-choice with some nebulous “restrictions.” The anti-abortion movement capitalizes on that fact to slowly restrict abortion out of existence even in the case of rape or maternal health. This may come off as a fallacious slippery slope argument. It’s not, because that’s what they said themselves. As I was observing the display, Ms. Schmitt spoke to SfL members during a lull in foot traffic. She told them that they were mainly aiming for pro-choice students to support a 20-week abortion ban, but the eventual goal was to get those pro-choice students to oppose abortion in all cases. If a student seemed willing to linger, Ms. Schmitt claimed she was “conducting a survey on college students’ attitudes towards abortion,” and skillfully drew them into a discussion with well-crafted propaganda tidbits sprinkled throughout. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never taken a survey where the interviewer continually tried to change my mind on the issue being surveyed. I wasn’t surprised at all at this lack of honesty about motives. I’ve seen it all before.
The rest of the displays’s claims are easily dispensed with. They had a poster of abortion providers who committed heinous acts. Powerful men abusing vulnerable women? Surely this is a problem exclusive to abortion providers and not a symptom of a bigger problem! Planned Parenthood making money? According to their 2016 IRS 990, Students for Life of America raked in $15,670,574 from 2012 to 2016. The anti-abortion movement’s funding is opaque, but their funders are not content making life for women in their state hellish and degrading. Blue state or not, they’re coming for you.
These disingenuous tactics work. Reactionaries know that educated liberals see politics as about “compromise” or “dialogue”, instead of a vicious battle over policies that affect real people’s lives. Ms. Schmitt played into those attitudes shrewdly. Phrases like “open to dialogue”, and “I love talking to pro-choice students, it helps me a great deal” are carefully crafted to appeal to young progressives naive enough to try and find common ground with a highly funded political operative whose livelihood is trying to get abortion banned. It’s a deeply condescending view of politics to think people can be argued out of deeply held regressive ideologies by some debate club star. I got out of a conservative controlled state, and I’m here to tell you they understand you better than you understand them.
Don’t bother trying to win over people who are vested in taking your rights away. Mobilize anyone who could be affected by losing abortion rights, talk with open and transparent motives to those who aren’t decided, and more importantly, actually gain back some political power in this country. Those are my beliefs, and unlike the anti-abortion movement, I’m honest about them.