One might get the impression from recent headlines that, in the wake of the evisceration of Roe v. Wade, and faced with overwhelming political opposition from voters who support an unimpeded right to abortion, Republicans have undergone some sort of “conversion” in their views. It might seem that, after facing a broad public backlash, GOP candidates and elected officials are now hastily backpedaling on prior positions about forcing people to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
But that’s simply not the case. What Republicans have done in most circumstances, is engage in a cynical bit of sleight of hand, counting on a sleepy media to play along. In many cases, they’ve succeeded. Every day, as the 2022 midterms approach, we see another story trumpeting the fact that in light of political headwinds, Republicans are kindly “backing” off on forcing victims of rape and incest to give birth to their rapist’s or relative’s offspring. They’re magnanimously agreeing to reinstate exceptions where ”the life of the mother” is at risk. “See,” they seem to be saying, “we can be compassionate.”
The reality is that Republicans made their positions so extreme and draconian that these “exceptions” now being characterized as “concessions” actually concede virtually nothing. In South Carolina, for example, we’re told that the Republican-dominated state Senate tied itself into knots on whether to impose a total ban on abortion or to include a few of these “exceptions” as some kind of a sop to people incensed by their actions. What they ultimately agreed on (in a bill now headed to the state House) is a law that, in practical effect, is nearly as draconian. It contains some tiny exceptions in rare cases while prohibiting the procedure for everyone else after six weeks (well before many people even realize they’re pregnant).
As reported by The Washington Post:
That measure—a version of one already on the books but blocked by the courts — bans abortion after six weeks and limits rape and incest exceptions to the first trimester, requires a second doctor’s opinion in cases where a fetus is diagnosed with a lethal anomaly, and mandates that doctors who perform abortions in instances of rape or incest send a fetal DNA sample to police.
Of course, wholly absent from the debate was any question of whether the legislature would agree to allow abortions for anyone not “qualifying” for these rare categories (According to the CDC, in South Carolina, only 20.8 % of reported abortions in 2019 occurred prior to six weeks’ gestation). The conversation, as far as Republicans are concerned, is over. Their newfound “compassion,” it seems, has strict limits.
The reality is that over 98% of abortions in this country are not due to rape, nor are they resultant of incest. They are voluntary actions by people who, because of a hundred other good reasons, have made the decision that they do not wish to bear a child.
As reported in 2019 by Alia E. Dastagir, writing for USA Today:
Just 1% of women obtain an abortion because they became pregnant through rape, and less than 0.5% do so because of incest, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Yet the battle over exceptions for both has garnered outsized attention in the national abortion debate.
Interviewed for Dastagir’s article, law professor Mary Ziegler put it bluntly:
Debate over the exceptions has dominated headlines and ignited Twitter wars. But Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law who specializes in the legal history of reproduction, says exceptions for rape and incest are much more "symbolic than they are relevant," given that they don't apply to the majority of women having abortions.
The most zealous forced-birth advocates have supported total bans, which is why, before Roe was summarily overruled by John Roberts’ radical Supreme Court, many Republican-dominated states incorporated comprehensive bans on any abortions, regardless of the cause of the pregnancy. These laws were passed entirely by Republicans who believed they’d never actually go into effect. But now that abortion can be effectively banned outright, many of those actually responsible for introducing those laws have, after experiencing the prevailing political winds, suddenly determined that showing some type of deference in such horrific cases is now palatable.
Still, as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, writing for FiveThirtyEight, observes, ”Republicans are not fighting, for the most part, about whether abortion should be legal—they’re arguing over how to handle the tiny subset of cases that force an unpleasant choice between ideological purity and political reality.”
As explained by Fabiola Cineas, writing in July for Vox, the debate over “exceptions” to the right to abortion is ultimately little more than political theater and posturing:
The exceptions have been more useful as a political fig leaf, one that makes draconian bans seem less punitive, than as a way of meaningfully guaranteeing access to abortion for anyone. The vast majority of people who seek abortions in states with restrictions won’t be eligible under these exceptions. Abortion rights advocates are leery of the exceptions’ implication that there are “good” and “bad” reasons for receiving an abortion. And as carveouts meant to protect “the life of the mother” have shown, the existence of an exemption doesn’t make it easy or uncomplicated to get an abortion, even for those who theoretically qualify.
The passage of abortion “exceptions” purporting to protect “the life of the mother,” in fact, have proven to be a textbook example of just how little these laws are grounded in reality. Michelle Goldberg, writing in July for The New York Times, provides an account of what these supposedly “compassionate” measures actually entail:
The Washington Post reported on a woman who had to travel to Michigan after a doctor in her home state refused to end an ectopic pregnancy because of the presence of fetal cardiac activity. (Ectopic pregnancies, in which an embryo implants outside the uterus, never lead to a live birth and are the leading cause of first-trimester maternal death.)
In an interview with The Associated Press, a doctor described a patient who was miscarrying in Texas and had developed a uterine infection. She couldn’t get the necessary treatment — an immediate abortion — as long as the fetus displayed signs of life. “The patient developed complications, required surgery, lost multiple liters of blood and had to be put on a breathing machine,” The A.P. reported, all because, as the doctor said, “we were essentially 24 hours behind.”
A doctor in Wisconsin, Carley Zeal, told The New York Times about caring for a woman having a miscarriage who had been denied treatment at a hospital. By the time she found Dr. Zeal, The Times reported, “the woman had been bleeding intermittently for days,” which the doctor said put her at “increased risk of hemorrhage or infection.”
So much for Republican compassion.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that these so-called “exceptions” reflect a sanctimonious ethic of blaming and punishing people for getting pregnant in the first place. Presumably, victims of rape and incest do not intentionally choose to become pregnant by their rapist or the family relative; nor does anyone “choose” to have their life threatened by their pregnancy, so under these laws (as Republicans’ thinking goes), they are the only ones deemed “deserving” of such exceptions.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of patients who do not fit into these neat categories are forced to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term. As even the most die-hard in the forced-birth lobby are quick to point out, that’s where the ideological justification for prohibiting abortion collapses, and the so-called “sanctity of life” that supposedly informs these laws is revealed as nothing more than thinly-disguised misogyny.
Republicans allied themselves with the forced-birth zealots out of political expediency. The fact that they’re finding out now just how costly a decision that was doesn’t entitle them to any consideration as they try to navigate the tightrope they’ve created for themselves. As long as they continue to force their regressive political views on the personal decisions of others, they should be forced to face the consequences.
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