First there was the Viagra bill. Now, in the latest attempt to invert the language of antiabortion legislation, a Texas lawmaker is proposing to fine men $100 for masturbating.
Houston Democrat Jessica Farrar introduced the satirical “A Man’s Right to Know” measure in the Texas statehouse March 10. The bill considers any masturbation that doesn’t lead to procreation “an act against an unborn child” and calls for a raft of new regulations for men seeking vasectomies, including long waiting periods and rectal exams.
Sound too far gone to become law? That’s the point. Farrar’s measure is the latest example of deliberately outrageous protest legislation, a practice with a long tradition in American politics (albeit one that’s hard to quantify: the National Conference on State Legislatures does not track these measures as a category).
“On many issues, we often see important bills that are not likely to be passed but each make important points,” says Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School who runs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.
Many recent examples have come from lawmakers calling attention to attempts to restrict access to abortion. In February, after Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill requiring a women to have a medical consultation 24 hours before an abortion, state representative Mary Lou Marzian introduced legislation requiring a man to have two doctor’s visits, be married, and swear on the Bible that he is faithful to his spouse before receiving a prescription for Viagra. Several similar bills cropped up in 2012, amid a wave of antiabortion legislation. An amendment to a “personhood” bill in Oklahoma attempted to classify any spilled semen as an “action against an unborn child.” In Georgia, as the legislature passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a lawmaker proposed a bill banning vasectomies. Ohio state senator Nina Turner also took aim at Viagra, introducing a bill that would require men to see a sex therapist and provide a signed affidavit from a sexual partner confirming erectile dysfunction in order to get a prescription. And in Virginia, one state senator proposed making a rectal exam and a stress test prerequisites for erectile-dysfunction medication.
Abortion-rights advocates say the bills help draw attention to the hundreds of restrictions enacted on the state level since 2011. “Using humor to draw attention to this trend can be really helpful,” says Kelly Baden, director of state advocacy for the Center for Reproductive Rights. The center says more than 300 new abortion restrictions have been adopted across the nation since 2011, although some of these restrictions were invalidated by the Supreme Court last year in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
In Texas, Farrar says her protest bill was spurred by similar bills, including one particularly controversial measure introduced last year by the state health department requiring all fetal tissue to be buried or cremated. It was recently struck down in federal court. Another bill, which would criminalize all abortion in Texas in an effort to present a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, was introduced last week.
Farrar says she doesn’t expect her bill, officially known as H.R. 4260, to become law, but she does hope it will start a conversation about what she sees as the double standard applied to legislation affecting women’s health.
“We have to turn the tables,” Farrar says. “Let’s look at this if it was a man on the examination table.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that more than 3,300 abortion restrictions have been passed by states since 2011. The correct figure is more than 300.