Men should talk about these new abortion laws. And everyone — regardless of gender — needs to stop derailing the discussion on them.
On May 9th, when feminist journalist Jessica Valenti wondered aloud on Twitter where the lefty male columnists were on the abortion situation in 2019, she was met with the following response:
An incredibly tedious debate between myself and this gentleman ensued, where I repeatedly pressed him to explain what, exactly, he felt the law should do about this, to which he repeatedly rebutted with ever-more fanciful philosophical musings, including this:
This panel, according to him, needed to be comprised of people with “no vested interest” in abortion. He did agree in one of his tweets abortion should remain legal, but we still needed to read his important thoughts on how troubling certain abortions are to him and, of course, agree to a “societal decision” about that.
Believe me when I say (and as this example demonstrates) that I fully stipulate to men mansplaining abortion to women being some hot annoying bullshit. However, and this is not a #NotAll thing but a #NotOnly one: men can correctly point to the fact this country is also full of women who do not support full equality for women, including our bodily and medical autonomy, or who do, but only to an extent, or who are pro-choice but not reliable allies to other women, for whatever reason (looking straight at you, Susan Sarandon).
Of course the problem is sexism, and people not trusting women but it’s not going to be fixed by saying “shut up, men”. We need men to speak up. We need the voices of everyone shouting down anti-choice laws and dishonest rhetoric, whether or not you, personally, will be or are affected by proposed or existing abortion laws.
The problem with much of the discussion on abortion is not that men have opinions on it; it’s that people of all genders have a derailing problem.
Derailing is a term popularized on the internet a few years ago to describe people (usually with privilege) attempting to get other people (usually without the same privilege) to discuss something else besides how they feel about or understand ways they are being marginalized. “Derailing For Dummies” is what many consider the urtext of this particular tactic. And with abortion, unfortunately, it’s not just concern-trolling antis doing it, it’s everyone. There are multiple ways it’s done but they seem to occur under the following categories:
Changing The Topic To Something Else
People of all genders, and across the ideological spectrum on abortion rights, love to do this. One of the most common ways is by talking about their feelings on abortion rather than concrete policies. When the topic is the horrific law in Alabama banning abortion at all stages with 99 year jail sentences and no rape or health exceptions, they want to talk about when life begins, or how they’re personally against abortion. Or too many women using it as birth control. But what about those late term abortions, those “born alive” ones? They just think the father should have a say. They just think if girls and women were more responsible…it goes on and on.
Another really common way to do this the “it’s a distraction!” gambit, where the derailer insists if we talk about other, “more important” issues, somehow abortion restrictions will disappear. It’s a self-delusion even more insidious than focusing on feelings because people who do this actually seem to believe it will work. As if the people screaming outside clinics for decades just needed to be redirected to talking about Social Security or infrastructure.
When you’re dealing with a chronic subject-changer, keep them on topic. If they refuse to stay on it, end the discussion promptly. There is no point.
This is what’s going on when people derail discussions of the new Alabama law and other states’ restrictions on abortion. Planned Parenthood will sue! The courts will save us! Roberts won’t overturn Roe! It is certainly true abortion bans are often stopped in court, by heroic people devoting enormous amounts of time and resources to those legal efforts. Know what else is true? The anti-choice movement never stops trying. They will keep passing laws, keep sending test cases to the courts, and keep denying people reproductive health care whenever possible.
A particularly pernicious form of this denial, which I do seem to see more often from men, is scolding us to calm down about these laws until women are actually being prosecuted. Once again, Exhibit A of this:
As with the subject-changers, denial peddlers need to be reminded what the actual topic is. Remind them women are already being prosecuted under abortion bans and other restrictions passed in states. Show them this Jessica Valenti piece from right here on Medium! If they continue to deny the brutal intentions and actions of the anti-choice movement (whether or not the movement succeeds at them) there is no point in continuing a discussion with them. They’re either not paying attention and don’t want to, or don’t care.
Demands on pro-choice people
People who want to derail about abortion laws never, ever run out of inventive suggestions for us pro-choice folks! These helpful tips include but are not limited to: Suggesting we compromise with pro-lifers. Advising us to say this or that thing instead of another, a/k/a “messaging!” Telling us we ought to focus on prevention, you know, birth control and sex ed (like we never thought of it and also anti-choicers don’t constantly attack those things).
Proposals for sex strikes and boycotts fall under this too. A sex strike simply won’t work on people who already hate you for having sex and, despite the fact boycotts do work to stop bad laws from going into effect (as we saw here in Arizona when an anti-LGBTQ “religious conscience” bill was vetoed by our GOP governor in 2014), there simply isn’t the groundswell to launch boycotts on anti-choice laws.
One reason is multiple states are now passing them but also the fact it’s poor people being targeted the most with these laws. Also, don’t count out sexism and good old slut-shaming as a reason for the lack of energy for boycotts. Plays a big role in all the derailing of this topic too. Plain fact is many people who would blanch at being considered anti-choice don’t want to be seen as defending female “promiscuity” .
So what do we do?
I wish I had the magic answer to this. I don’t. One thing I have stopped doing is entertaining and accommodating derailing. I’m happy to discuss abortion with anyone, but here’s what I will discuss: the law. Not your feelings, assumptions, denials, philosophical musings, or anything else. If you want to help, stop derailing. Because all that ever does is help the anti-abortion movement hide in plain sight.