Echo Chambers in the Abortion Debate


There was a palpable sense of anger in my Public Policy 302 class as one student brought up the recent Senate bill regarding defunding Planned Parenthood. On Thursday, March 31, the controversial piece of legislation passed in the Senate only after Vice President Pence broke a 50-50 tie, and it permits states to fully pull all federal funding from Planned Parenthood at their discretion. Framed within the context of our unit dedicated to women’s issues and gender politics, this decisive strike against abortion rights felt just as uncomfortably timely as it did reprehensible. In what seemed like a therapeutic attempt to contextualize this law within a larger frame of anti-abortion legislation, many of us in the class started listing off some of the similar regressive policies currently in place:

TRAP laws place unnecessary regulations on medical centers providing abortive-services, forcing many to shut down.

In Texas, terminated fetuses have to be buried or cremated.

38 states require minors to have parental consent to get an abortion.

In Indiana, abortions are banned in the case of a fetal anomaly.

With almost all the vocal students in the class having reached the same conclusion that these laws were cruel and archaic, the conversation began to go in circles. Each of us held the same fundamental position on a woman’s right to choose and an anti-paternalistic governmental role in the regulation of such health procedures. This dearth of diverse perspectives led to a general confusion as to why anyone would support such, in our eyes, patently flawed policies.

The echo chamber produced in this small Public Policy classroom was a microcosm of the flawed discourse occurring in the pro-choice camp. The mainstream feminist movement has largely blocked off those with pro-life viewpoints, thus both denying them a voice in the policy conversation and alienating them from feminism as a whole. A recent example of this exclusivity is the denial of pro-life groups from participating in the Women’s March on January 21st of this year. With the March being framed as a display of solidarity among all women, these exclusionary tactics effectively typecast the pro-life camp as anti-women.

This practice has the potential to be extremely deleterious for policies that protect abortion rights. Currently, the issue has come to encompass much of the culture war, creating an increasingly-polarized political environment. A study by the Pew Research Center found that since 1995, the percentage of registered Republicans supporting legal abortions has drastically decreased, all while the percentage of Democrats supporting them has risen. Mirroring these changes are respective party platforms, which have come to define and perpetuate this ideological divide and paint the issue as a black-and-white binary of “for” or “against.”

However, this does a disservice to the majority of Americans, as a 2014 General Society survey found that 85 percent of Americans support legal abortion for the health of the mother, and 75 percent support it in the case of rape. Clearly, some aspects of the pro-choice argument have transcended party divides. Unfortunately, the increasing polarization may prevent bipartisan approaches to this issue from being taken, despite the public opinion being less evenly split.

Movements such as the Women’s March provide a powerful platform for women and men of all backgrounds and ideologies to communicate and collaborate on political stances regarding women’s issues. Rather than ignoring difficult arguments, the pro-choice movement would be strengthened by acknowledging the ethical and moral qualms many Americans have with abortions.

The debate regarding when exactly the fetus is regarded as “a life” is very popular on both sides, but it is too obscure and conjecture-based for a consensus to be reached. A more productive conversation would be to convey the distributive justice arguments for pro-choice policies. For example, laws limiting abortion coverage predominately affect poor people who are unable to commute to far away clinics or to bear the costs of the procedure without government-assistance. In Texas, women who live in Willacy County that are seeking an abortion have to drive over 120 miles to the nearest clinic. For those who have the financial means to afford taking time off work to get to these clinics, these may be nothing but a minor inconvenience. However, those without such resources may resort to dangerous self-induced methods, which can lead to lasting damage for both the fetus and the mother if unsuccessful.

Such case studies will be extremely necessary if the pro-choice movement is to gain the support of people troubled by the ethical stakes of abortion. However, if such individuals are generalized as anti-woman and excluded from the conversation altogether, this progress will be near impossible.

With echo chambers becoming increasingly prevalent in college classrooms and the halls of Congress alike, the polarization surrounding many topical political and social issues will likely become even more apparent. In order to avoid this detrimental path, inclusive discourse must be utilized in the fight for sensible pro-choice policies. Until both sides of the argument are able to acknowledge and appreciate the reasoning behind the other’s stances, the detrimental laws of the present will be here to stay.

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