Since the 2010 election, there have been a variety of bills proposed by Republicans, at both state & federal levels, that may result in restrictions on a woman’s right to an abortion. This post is not designed to evaluate the merits of these proposals, but rather how the response to these proposals, particularly a recent bill proposed in South Dakota that would classify actions taken in defense of a fetus as justifiable homicide, represent the conflict spirals discussed in the article ‘Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict’ by Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin. A brief analysis of the tone and nature of the debate over this bill shows the eagerness with which sinister motives were attributed to the opposing sides in this debate. Also worthy of note was the role of the media, which emphasized negative interpretations and furthered controversy, perhaps because it was the best narrative.
In early February, the House Judiciary Committee of South Dakota, on a party line vote, approved a bill which read that ““homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person.” There are two primary possible interpretations of this bill. One interpretation, which was quickly seized on by abortion advocates and the national media, was that the bill was designed to provide legal protection to those who murdered abortion providers. The second interpretation, provided by supporters of the bill, was that the legislation was designed to protect those who killed in defense of their unborn children. Representative Phil Jensen, the bill’s sponsor, provided the following example
“Say an ex-boyfriend who happens to be father of a baby doesn’t want to pay child support for the next 18 years, and he beats on his ex-girfriend’s abdomen in trying to abort her baby. If she did kill him, it would be justified. She is resisting an effort to murder her unborn child.”
This explanation was quickly dismissed by many opponents of the bill. These opponents pointed out that South Dakota already had existing legislation which stated that “Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.” However, Jensen’s defense of the bill may have had more legal justification than acknowledged. Although it’s somewhat counter-intuitive, a fetus is generally not considered a person for the purposes of criminal law. For instance, most state courts have held that a fetus before the process of birth has begun cannot be the victim of a homicide. In Keeler v. Superior Court of Amador County, a husband brutally beat his estranged wife, who was pregnant with her lover’s child. The beating produced a miscarriage of the fetus. Despite the clear intentions of the husband, his conviction for murder was overturned because the fetus was not considered a person under the California Homicide statute. Cases such as these are rare but can produce legislative changes. After the Keeler case, the California legislature produced a law which defined murder to include the killing of a fetus, except in cases of legal abortion or certain other special cases. Although I am not familiar with South Dakota law on this point, it is quite possible that currently, a fetus would not meet the standard of person hood required to justify an action of defense. It is a somewhat unfortunate irony that if a case such as Keeler happened in South Dakota, partisans on both sides of the current debate might unite to pass a bill much like the one being currently proposed.
Despite this potential, less nefarious explanation, many pro-choice advocates quickly seized on the more sinister explanation for the bill’s motivations. For instance, a sample explanation of the bill’s motives went:
“This bill essentially legalizes terrorism, with the intent of reducing the number of abortion providers by forcing them to operate under the threat of state-sanctioned murder. In keeping with recent efforts by Republicans to limit a woman’s ability to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, the legalized terrorism portion of the bill is merely the most sensational institutional barrier being erected. As with the national GOP’s effort to redefine rape while defunding women’s health services, devoting full attention to that particular proposal avoids all the other South Dakota bills that seek to make it more difficult for women to have abortions.”
Important to note in this rhetoric is its emphasis on the existing oppositional framework between pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Although not emphasized in Kennedy & Pronin’s article, I think the idea of fractal conflict spirals is particularly important in explicating the tendency to attribute biases to the actions of the opposite side. The basic structure of the overall abortion debate, along with its accusations about motives, is reproduced as it is applied to more localized fact patterns. The existence of this macro conflict provides a resource of hostility for advocates to draw upon, and causes them to always look at the actions of their opponents through a negative prism. Kennedy & Pronin write that “The spiral model is appealing because it describes how initially small, or even imagined, conflicts can become larger and more violent.” Conversely, the model of the larger conflict can easily be applied as a default rubric to situations in which its application may, objectively, be somewhat tenuous.
Media descriptions, rather than defusing the conflict, may inflame it by emphasizing the adversarial postures of the respective sides. By doing so, they strengthen each side’s belief in both the righteousness of their motives and the biases of their opponents. For instance, in this New York Times article, the motivations of the bill’s sponsors are expressed as designed to make the killing of abortion doctors legal. The alternative explanation, provided by the bill’s sponsors in other reports, is not mentioned.
As the New York Times article states, the bill has subsequently been shelved. Interestingly, this shelving can also be interpreted in multiple ways. One could argue that the bill has been shelved because its supporters realized that they had made an innocent but unfortunate mistake in the writing of the bill, which had implications for abortion providers that they had not intended. An alternative interpretation would argue that the bill’s supporters guiltily shelved the bill after pro-choice advocates illustrated the sinister, murderous agenda behind the bill. Whatever the true explanation, Kennedy & Pronin’s article provides a guide to which explanation is likely to be favored by many.