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Accepted Paper:

Fetal personhood messaging and rhetorical strategies used by supporters of "heartbeat" bans in the Southern United States  

Authors:

Subasri Narasimhan (Emory University)
Dabney Evans (Emory University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines establishes the messaging and rhetorical strategies used in establishing fetal personhood by supporters of "heartbeat" bans in state legislative debates in the Southern U.S., a process which marginalizes already vulnerable groups and co-opts the language of inclusivity.

Paper long abstract:

Introduction: Fetal 'heartbeat' bans strive to end abortions after detection of possible cardiac activity. In legislative debates of 'heartbeat' bans supporters stressed protection of fetal life. Although debates impact public discourse on abortion and considerations of personhood in US state law, they remain an understudied form of data. The purpose of this study is to elucidate the arguments and evidence used to establish fetal personhood in legislative debate and testimony of supporters of "heartbeat" bills within the southern United States.

Methods: Publicly available video archives of testimonies and debates from 2018-2020 from seven state legislatures in the South were transcribed verbatim and coded in MAXQDA 18. We conducted a narrative analysis, grouping excerpts by themes. "Thick descriptions", a memo creation technique, was used to analyze arguments, messaging, rhetorical strategies, and evidence to provide comparison between states.

Results: Supporters' preliminary themes across states included: the detection of "heartbeat" as demonstrating personhood; argument for a new class of persons -- fetuses in utero -- entitled to legal protection; and calls to expand state protections for fetuses. The misrepresentation of medical science, the appropriation of progressive legal successes were the tactics of choice. Messaging primarily served to further marginalize already vulnerable groups, drawing on historical legal successes of enslaved Africans, and contemporary victories for LGBTQ persons.

Conclusions: This first of its kind study focuses on legislative testimonies and debate as tools in shaping public discourse on abortion and provides insights towards fetal personhood arguments and their role in marginalization of vulnerable populations.

Panel P161
Rethinking margins through personhood