The North Dakota legislature approved a "personhood" measure for the ballot last week—if the governor signs off on the measure, voters will decide in 2014 if North Dakota should criminalize abortion and shut down the state's only abortion-providing clinic.
These are the most restrictive laws proposed in the United States, but a slew of lesser restrictions have passed legislatures across the country in recent years. While they'll have real, personal impact if enacted, the bills serve another purpose: media stunt.
These bills are a more effective media strategy than protesting outside clinics and waving fetus signs at every random passerby. Even if the bill doesn't pass, the discussion of them keeps right-wing opinions in the headlines. And that's a win for the anti-choice crowd.
As someone who values the freedom to control her own uterus, I have to say the strategy is smart. Introducing these bills in legislatures across the country has three positive impacts for the Christian Right.
First, the bill allows the rightwing to build legitimacy. I'd like to believe it's unlikely that North Dakota's bill will ever become law—Mississippi voters threw out a similar bill during the last election. But the current hubbub over the measure is already full of headlines like "North Dakota lawmakers define life as beginning at conception." That pushes the needle of mainstream opinion on abortion. News that a majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade surprised many of us last year. That's in part because there have been thousands of articles about specific legislators supporting cutting back the law. Headlines saying elected officials agree that life begins at conception contribute to making people think that criminalizing Roe v. Wade is actually a mainstream value.
Secondly, these bills set reproductive rights advocates up to be reactionary. Instead of being able to get behind good laws that expand access, we're constantly playing the defensive, putting out fires around the country. Though having a nasty bill to defeat every election cycle is certainly good for political fundraising, it's bad for long-term growth of a movement. It always feels like reproductive rights groups are pushing to not lose ground, while other movements for expanded rights and freedoms—like LGBT equality—have gained support and traction by building momentum behind moving forward with positive changes, like marriage equality, transgender inclusive healthcare, and discrimination protections.
So, finally, if the bills do actually get passed, it's a cherry on top of the anti-choice campaign. Now reproductive rights advocates will have to spend time and money challenging the restrictions in court and aiding women who have to travel long distances for safe and legal abortion.
Often on the progressive end of politics, we don't want to put measures to a vote unless we have solid polling numbers to show they'll pass; we don't want to spend the energy and face the backlash.
Anti-choice activists clearly aren't afraid to fail. And so far, their strategy seems to be a win-win-win, even when they lose.
Photo illustration (no, it's not real, yet!) made by Bitch Media.