How the right took charge on abortion

January 22, 2015

On the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Elizabeth Schulte documents the continuing attack on abortion rights and asks: How did it get this bad?

REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS were preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade this year the only way they know how--by trying to shred women's right to abortion.

In the lead-up to January 22--42 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision lifted legislative bans on abortion--House Republicans were getting ready to vote on a bill banning all abortion procedures after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" would directly challenge Roe, which made abortion legal until the point of fetal viability, around 24 weeks. The Republicans' legislation is based on the unscientific proposition that the fetus "feels pain" before the third trimester.

Most abortions don't happen after the first trimester--just 1.2 percent of women seek the procedure after 20 weeks. But the point isn't how few they are--it's who they are. Typically, women who seek abortions later in their pregnancies don't have enough money to get an abortion earlier, or they are women who find out later in their pregnancy about serous fetal issues.

Standing up for abortion rights
Standing up for abortion rights

In other words, this law--with all its sponsors' high-minded talk about the "sanctity of life"--would victimize women who need the procedure the most.

At the last minute, Republicans delayed plans to vote on the proposal, reportedly after GOP lawmakers, many of them women, objected to a provision that would exempt rape victims from the 20-week restriction, but only if they reported the attack to police. The night before the vote was supposed to take place, House Republican leaders announced plans to vote instead on the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act, which attacks private insurance coverage of abortion.

But this isn't the last we've seen of the 20-week ban. They've multiplied in statehouses across the country--12 states so far, and more are on their way. When legislators voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks in Texas, they forced women seeking abortions into a spiral of impossible decisions--like the pregnant mother who had to travel to Arkansas and sell her wedding ring to obtain an abortion after she discovered the fetus' severe and life-threatening brain defect.

And the federal 20-week ban was just the first shot in what congressional Republicans promise will be a long year of attacks on abortion access--members of Congress introduced six anti-abortion laws in just their first week in session.

Also on January 22, outside Congress, abortion opponents are taking to the streets in what has become an annual rallying point for anti-choicers--turning a day of victory for women's reproductive rights into a creep show of intolerant and anti-women rhetoric.

IF YOU were to travel to Earth for the first time and have the misfortune of landing in Washington, D.C., on January 22, you might get the impression that there was a loud and angry majority in the U.S. who opposed abortion.

Loud, yes, and angry, usually--but majority...I really don't think so.

The experiences of real-life women paint a very different picture from the right's propaganda. The facts reveal just how many women will have an abortion--three in 10 by the age of 45. Many of these women--61 percent--already have children. Some of them identify as Protestants (37 percent) and some even as Catholics (28 percent).

If you take all the women who obtain an abortion every year--in 2011, for example, that number was over 1 million women--and then add in their families and the people they know, then the true picture of abortion becomes clearer. Abortion is an everyday, necessary health care procedure that enables women to make decisions about their futures. Its benefits touch millions of people's lives.

Despite these facts, a handful of zealots who don't speak for the majority of people's actual experiences have been able to shape the way people view abortion in the U.S.. While polls show a majority of people don't want Roe v. Wade overturned, many of those same people also support limiting abortion.

The right wing hasn't just changed the way people talk about abortion. It has succeeded in changing the law.

According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, states have enacted 231 restrictions to abortion in just the last four years. More and more women are rapidly finding themselves living in states considered hostile to abortion, according to Guttmacher. By 2014, 57 percent of women of reproductive age lived in a state with enough restrictions that it was considered either "hostile" or "extremely hostile" to abortion rights. In 2000, that number was 31 percent.

Here's a sampling of some of the most egregious laws:

In Alabama, minors who seek abortion without parental consent could face a court-appointed lawyer assigned to defend the fetus, who could call witnesses to testify on the fetus's behalf. The fetus's lawyer can also appeal the judge's decision.

In Missouri, among the eight new laws being proposed to restrict abortion is one that requires the written consent of the fetus's father before a woman can obtain an abortion.

In Tennessee, a proposed law would require a woman to view an ultrasound of the fetus 24 to 72 hours before she gets an abortion. If the woman doesn't want to see the ultrasound, the technician or doctor must verbally describe the image, noting "the dimensions of the embryo or fetus...and the presence of arms, legs, external members and internal organs," provide the woman with a copy of the ultrasound, and have her sign a form to confirm that this took place.

The restrictions on abortion aren't the only aspect of women's reproductive health on the Republican hit list. Last year, the Religious Right tried to make headway against birth control--yes, birth control--when the Christian-owned Hobby Lobby erroneously claimed that some forms of contraception were "abortifacients," and they could therefore deny their employees coverage required under the Affordable Care Act.

THESE ARE just a few examples of the craven initiatives that the anti-choice side is backing. But beneath the outlandish restrictions they want to place on women's right to choose is a message that is less outlandish--and unfortunately, it is becoming a message that more and more people--even those who consider themselves pro-choice--agree with: That abortion should be restricted.

While many people don't agree with and are appalled by anti-choice measures, even if they don't pass, they help to shift the public debate further and further to the anti-abortion right. The message is that women cannot be allowed to make choices about their bodies, and that's why someone else needs to impose restrictions. There are "worthy" abortions--victims of rape or incest who get an abortion in the first trimester--and the "unworthy" ones--late-term abortions requested by teenagers without their parents' consent.

Even if you accept that these restrictions are necessary--which they aren't--imposing these limits isn't about making abortions "better" or "safer," but about making them more and more difficult to obtain. Each restriction adds greater red tape, greater expense and greater delay.

In the case of mandatory ultrasound laws, a 2011 study found that of the 42 percent of women who chose to view the ultrasound image, 98.8 percent still chose to terminate their pregnancies. And for the women who didn't terminate, viewing the image wasn't the reason for continuing with the pregnancy.

In other words, the restriction doesn't even do what it claims to do, which is make women re-think their abortion choice. But it succeeds in adding red tape, time and expense to the abortion procedure.

With each restriction chipping away at abortion access, people's support for women's right to choose is also chipped away. Gallup illustrated this connection describing a shift in support for abortion rights during 1990s debates over late-term abortion:

In July 1996, a relatively abrupt shift occurred: the percentage saying abortion should be legal in all cases dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent. This coincided with a then-new national debate over partial-birth abortion playing out in Congress. The percentage of Americans in favor of making abortion illegal didn't increase at that time, but more people took the middle position--saying it should be legal under certain circumstances (peaking at 61 percent in 1997).

So what happened to make so many people agree that late-term abortion--what the right called "partial-birth" abortions--should be banned? Rather, it's what didn't happen.

When the Republicans went on the attack against late-term abortion, the Democrats didn't push back. While President Bill Clinton vetoed a federal ban on "partial-birth" abortions, his administration stood by as similar laws passed in state after state, and the Democratic Party took up the position that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." This sentiment was echoed by the mainstream women's organizations, as they helped rally support behind Democrats.

So while the Democrats used their status as the "pro-choice" party, compared to the ruthlessly anti-choice Republicans, to extort the allegiance of pro-choice voters, they paid very little for this support. In fact, assuming that pro-choice voters had nowhere else to go, they catered more and more to the right, accepting restriction after restriction.

Take Sen. Wendy Davis, who made her political reputation standing up to a raft of anti-abortion legislation in the Texas legislature and then quickly announced that she would support a 20-week ban just months later.

Today, without a political party that is unapologetically and uncompromisingly in support of women's right to choose, women--real-life women who have real-life abortions--do not have the voice they deserve.

Recent examples show the potential to organize opposition to the right's assault on choice--like the thousands of Texans who packed the Capitol to oppose anti-choice legislation or the people of Colorado and North Dakota who defeated crackpot fetal "personhood" legislation at the polls in November. These are glimpses at what we know is true, but seldom hear: There is support for abortion rights, but it has to be organized.

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