Lawmakers who are passionate about legislation that makes it nearly impossible for women to obtain a legal abortion, it turns out, are not interested in discussing their own experiences with contraception and ending a pregnancy. They want to legislate the most personal choice a woman can make and yet, despite asking, we know little to nothing about their own decisions.
Last week, 77 Ohio legislators voted to ban abortion upon the detection of fetal cardiac activity, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, with no exception for rape or incest.
We contacted every single one of those 77 lawmakers, to see if they’d answer three questions:
1. What’s your preferred method of preventing pregnancy?
2. If you or your partner have been pregnant, at what week did you learn of the pregnancy?
3. Have you or your partner ever sought an abortion?
It was a genuine effort to determine whether these politicians would be willing to publicly take stock of their intimate lives and choices as they sought to drastically limit their own constituents’ options and constitutionally-protected rights.
“I like you all very much but I would never ask any one of you to come into a doctors office with me and make any decision for me.”
Like the average state legislature, Ohio’s general assembly is 75 percent male.
By our count, of the 77 yes votes recorded:
66 of the “yes” votes were cast by men.
11 women, all Republicans, voted for the bill.
22 women, mostly Democrats and many of them women of color, opposed the bill.
A few days later, the legislature passed an additional 20-week abortion ban.
On Tuesday, Republican Gov. John Kasich signed that legislation into law and vetoed the more restrictive bill.
Unsurprisingly, none of the lawmakers who voted for the “Heartbeat Bill” would answer our questions.
Only a few of the politicians and their aides returned phone and email inquiries. Four of them officially declined to comment.
Surely, to some, the effort seemed like “gotcha” journalismthe questions likely felt invasive, if not downright inappropriate. Most people, including lawmakers, believe they are entitled to discretion and dignity when it comes to their intimate lives.
Yet the legislators who voted for what amounts to a six-week abortion ban seek to deny millions of women that discretion and dignity without ever needing to learn their names or considering the individual circumstances they face. From the comfort of the statehouse, they can pass draconian laws that don’t reflect public support for legal abortion.
Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes, a Democrat who represents Akron, summed up this disconnect kindly and directly, telling her colleagues: “I like you all very much but I would never ask any one of you to come into a doctors office with me and make any decision for me,” she said, an hour into debate over the bill, embedded above. “I think youre smart. Many of you are brilliant … But none of you have the capacity to make a decision about my body. And I dont have the capacity to make one about yours.”
This ban would have created arguably insurmountable obstacles for anyone who sought an abortion, but the legislators who passed it don’t personally worry about having to explain or defend their own choices. And the truth is that abortion is so common21 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion in 2011that there’s a strong chance some of the lawmakers and their partners have at least grappled with the question, or even taken advantage of the right to an abortion, at least once in their lives.
Those who oppose abortion often lecture about personal responsibility without any pressure to account for their own decisions, unless doing so is favorable to their cause. Think, for example, of the public figure who talks about keeping an unplanned pregnancy or mentions how they waited until marriage to have sex. Those are important experiences but certainly don’t capture the complexity of human sexuality even for anti-abortion Republicans. In fact, people who hold religious beliefs actually do have abortions; recent research from the Guttmacher Institute shows that more than half of abortion patients claim a religious affiliation, including evangelical Protestant.
“Im thinking now if Im a woman why would I want to get [an abortion] Its a question Ive never even thought about.”
When members of the Ohio House of Representatives discussed the “Heartbeat Bill” last week, 76-year-old Rep. Jim Buchy fondly recalled the days of his youth when “we accepted responsibility for our actions.” (At the 42-minute mark, above.) He blamed Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, for helping to create a culture in which Americans depend on the government to clean up after their mistakes. Never mind that more than half of women who have an abortion are already mothers and know intimately the responsibility of parenthood.
“We are trying to save lives from unwanted pregnancies because people did not accept responsibility for their actions,” said Buchy, who is retiring. “Thats what were all about here in this legislation.”
It’s worth noting, however, that Buchy and his wife of 50 years have two grown children, according to local news reports. Families that small do not happen by accident. They are instead the result of factors like natural family planning, hormonal contraceptives, sterilization, infertility and loss, and yes, abortion.
The size of Buchy’s family is no doubt deeply personal to him and his wife. That’s precisely why abortion rights advocates believe people’s intimate lives are no place for government meddling. But given Buchy’s emphasis on personal responsibility for his constituents and all Ohioans, the public has a right to at least ask Buchy about his choices and challenge him to empathize with those who choose abortion.
That line of questioning is particularly relevant given Buchy’s 2012 comments that he’d never contemplated why women might have an abortion.
“Well, theres probably a lot of Im not a woman,” he told Al Jazeera. “Im thinking now if Im a woman why would I want to get some of it has to do with economics. A lot of it has to do with economics. I dont know. Its a question Ive never even thought about.”
Buchy didn’t reply to any email and voice messages left for him.
The women who supported the legislation did invoke personal experience, but not in a way that suggested they’d taken seriously their power to choose a woman’s fate for her.
“The legislators dont see themselves as the people theyre creating these barriers for.”
Rep. Christina Hagan, 28, spoke joyfully of hearing her first child’s heartbeat and then cried as she discussed a recent miscarriage a pregnancy during which she never got the chance to hear a heartbeat.
Hagan, who has championed the legislation for several years, said in a 2011 discussion of the bill that if she became pregnant as a result of rape or incest, she would make the “right choice” of continuing that pregnancy. There was no empathy for survivors who feel and choose differently.
An aide for Hagan said she might be open to an interview, but did not respond to phone and email follow-ups.
Asking anti-abortion politicians to account for their own reproductive health choices with candor may be a slippery slope. Some could choose to tell stories with a righteousness that only reinforces their position; surely a few would insist they only have sex to procreate. One or two might even share how they or a partner birthed a baby with a fatal anomaly because of their opposition to abortion. People are entitled to those decisions without judgment, but we can only say that and mean it if it also applies to those who have legal abortions.
The other challenge of this approach is that it demands people share their personal experiences when the pro-abortion rights movement is clear that should never happen under duress. In this case, lawmakers are free to ignore or decline to comment on such inquiries and their silence shouldn’t be viewed as an admission.
However, when an anti-abortion lawmaker refuses to answer questions about their own choices, it reflects how easily they enjoy the legal and political privilege of inflicting their extreme positions on other people’s bodies without feeling that threat personally. Holding them responsible for the bills they pass may mean asking them to figuratively put their bodies on the line even for a moment.
“The legislators dont see themselves as the people theyre creating these barriers for,” Jasmine Burnett, director of community organizing for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, told Mashable.
Burnett, who is based in Cleveland, said that reproductive health clinics and nonprofits in Ohio are already receiving panicked calls from people who are worried they can no longer obtain birth control or an abortion in the state.
The same thing happened in North Dakota three years ago when the state passed a similar ban. Tammi Kromenaker, director of Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, said she still occasionally receives calls from women surprised it remains open despite the fact that a federal court struck down the state’s law last year.
“Whenever its in the news people dont digest any of it except ‘restriction,'” said Kromenaker. “For women in this state, they assumed abortion was no longer available.”
“I constantly think, What about the women? What about their choices? What about their lives?”
Even though Kasich vetoed the legislation, its mere passage has created the impression that abortion in Ohio may be impossible to access. The bill’s supporters, who say they were emboldened by Donald J. Trump’s election, likely count that as its own victory. Last week, Hagan hailed the legislation as a historic moment akin to the most important victories of the Civil Rights Movement.
Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat who represents an area of northeastern Ohio that includes Kent State University, said she was horrified by this framing. Clyde was also curious to know how her colleagues might respond to the questions Mashable posed and said that learning more about the experiences of mostly older, conservative white men could help explain why they’re set on passing legislation designed to curtail a woman’s right to exercise control over her body.
Clyde, who voted against the bill, was crestfallen by its passage.
“I constantly think, ‘What about the women?'” she said. “What about their choices? What about their lives? How can those be cast aside in this supposed march that theyre on?”
As Clyde’s colleague Rep. Buchy once suggested, those don’t seem to be questions worth asking or answering.