The Twisted Logic Behind the GOP’s Latest Assault on Abortion Rights

You can’t exercise your reproductive rights if you don’t know you are pregnant.

Michelle Chen October 31, 2017

Rep. Steve King (R-Ia.) questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, October 26, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s hard to exer­cise your right to choose when you didn’t even know you had a choice to make.

Abortion rights groups warn that lawmakers can still gain with a largely symbolic proposal, by quietly fraying the legal thread by which Roe v. Wade currently hangs.

That’s the per­verse log­ic behind the lat­est attempt to destroy abor­tion rights. Rep. Steve King’s (R‑Ia.) pro­pos­al for an abor­tion ban at the sixth week of preg­nan­cy would under­cut repro­duc­tive rights by block­ing peo­ple from get­ting an abor­tion before many are aware they are preg­nant. The dras­tic cut-off date would lead count­less peo­ple to real­ize that not only are they preg­nant, but Wash­ing­ton had already decid­ed they will car­ry the preg­nan­cy to term.

The GOP’s obses­sion with ban­ning all abor­tions in this coun­try knows no end, no bound­ary, and no com­mon sense,” said Sasha Bruce, senior vice pres­i­dent. in a state­ment fol­low­ing the announce­ment of a hear­ing in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Novem­ber 1. Their lat­est clear­ly uncon­sti­tu­tion­al idea is a ban that applies to [peo­ple] who don’t even know they’re preg­nant yet, inten­tion­al­ly pre­vent­ing them from access­ing care altogether.”

The ban has been denounced as absurd in its extreme time­line and fright­en­ing in its sud­den appear­ance at the fore­ground of the con­gres­sion­al agen­da. One of the harsh­est fed­er­al abor­tion restric­tions pro­posed so far, the mea­sure reveals the anti-choice lobby’s posi­tion that a the­o­ret­i­cal future human some­how deserves more sym­pa­thy than the sen­tient human being cur­rent­ly car­ry­ing the preg­nan­cy. Sim­i­lar­ly trou­bling pri­or­i­ties are often deployed in pro­pa­gan­da high­light­ing fetal pain” or man­dat­ing funer­als” for ter­mi­nat­ed preg­nan­cies.

Eliz­a­beth Nash of the advo­ca­cy group Guttmach­er Insti­tute told In These Times that the leg­is­la­tion’s emo­tive moniker — the heart­beat” bill — is designed to elic­it images of a want­ed preg­nan­cy and very clear­ly ignores [indi­vid­ual] circumstances.”

It’s nei­ther the first such ban to be pro­posed nor the first to fail. Repub­li­cans have repeat­ed­ly tried to impose de fac­to bans by redefin­ing the court-estab­lished time­line for fetal via­bil­i­ty of about 24 weeks. Cut­ting the win­dow to just six weeks cir­cum­vents the basic con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tion of the Fourth Amend­ment right to pri­va­cy. Sim­i­lar pro­pos­als on the state lev­el have been blocked by court chal­lenges (a six-week ban was recent­ly struck down in North Dako­ta).

Mean­while, health providers agree that six weeks falls well out­side the realm of via­bil­i­ty. The time­line reflects not med­ical sci­ence but the hard Right’s anatom­i­cal mythol­o­gy — ped­dled by the groups that vault­ed Trump into office, along with long-time abor­tion foe Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence.

Abor­tion access for poor peo­ple is already restrict­ed under fed­er­al Med­ic­aid laws, but the bill would affect state pro­grams that pro­vide for abor­tion, as well as insur­ance under the Afford­able Care Act (ACA). A blan­ket pro­hi­bi­tion after six weeks, Nash explains, would apply to all peo­ple nation­wide, not just abor­tions pro­vid­ed through Med­ic­aid or through health plans in the Afford­able Care Act Exchanges.”

Since con­ser­v­a­tives are wag­ing a par­al­lel bat­tle to repeal the ACA, the two mea­sures threat­en a dual attack on repro­duc­tive rights and health­care. Mean­while, repro­duc­tive health pro­tec­tions in the ACA are already evap­o­rat­ing: Trump recent­ly rolled back con­tra­cep­tive cov­er­age by allow­ing employ­ers to claim reli­gious” or moral” exemp­tions — poten­tial­ly block­ing access to cost-free birth con­trol for many.

The six-week ban would also pose heavy health risks. A study of the 20-week abor­tion bans cur­rent­ly imple­ment­ed in 16 states shows that the res­cued heart­beats” come at a heavy social cost. The ban is linked to increased new­born deaths and defects, as well as mas­sive addi­tion­al health­care costs and decreased qual­i­ty of life.” And because the 20-week ban would exac­er­bate the exist­ing scarci­ty of afford­able, acces­si­ble abor­tion providers, researchers found that women would have to trav­el longer dis­tances to seek out an afford­able abor­tion facility.

Now con­ser­v­a­tives seek to cut the time­line for its pro-life” agen­da from 20 to just six months.

Of course, both crit­ics and pro­po­nents of the ban know such an extreme pro­pos­al would be dead on arrival. But con­ser­v­a­tives are look­ing for an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cyn­i­cal­ly exploit the dys­func­tion of par­ti­san health­care pol­i­tics. Abor­tion rights groups warn that law­mak­ers can still gain with a large­ly sym­bol­ic pro­pos­al, by qui­et­ly fray­ing the legal thread by which Roe v. Wade cur­rent­ly hangs. Shift­ing the goal­post to six weeks would fur­ther poi­son the abor­tion debate by forc­ing Democ­rats on the defen­sive and sway­ing some cen­trist” votes to the right. As Slates Christi­na Cauteruc­ci observes, if a total­ly ludi­crous ban is anchor­ing the con­ver­sa­tion at the anti-choice extreme,” the GOP can then grease through slight­ly less egre­gious measures.

In Ohio, a sim­i­lar ban eked through the leg­is­la­ture and was blocked only by Gov­er­nor John Kasich’s reluc­tant veto — after which he quick­ly sub­sti­tut­ed a bet­ter” but incred­i­bly regres­sive 20-week abor­tion ban. Con­gress may be play­ing the same good-cop-bad-cop game, as it weighs a 20-week ban along­side King’s six-week ban. Passed by the House in ear­ly Octo­ber, the 20-week ban is like­ly aimed at push­ing some cen­trists” to sup­port the more mod­er­ate” restric­tion. The pub­lic is led to believe that these pro­pos­als are backed by rel­a­tive­ly rea­son­able” law­mak­ers. Pence’s endorse­ment of a night­mar­ish fetal bur­ial” bill back when he was Gov­er­nor some­how seems increas­ing­ly less extreme as the cen­ter drifts rightward.

Anoth­er rea­son to fear the six-week ban is that in our cur­rent polit­i­cal mael­strom, just one more scan­dal could cause enough dis­trac­tion on the Hill to allow Repub­li­cans to qui­et­ly slip the heart­beat leg­is­la­tion through with lit­tle scrutiny.

A six-week abor­tion ban may be med­ical­ly non­sen­si­cal and polit­i­cal­ly non­vi­able, but it reveals the anti-abor­tion lob­by’s clev­er­ly cru­el decep­tion. They are try­ing let the law deter­mine indi­vid­u­als’ repro­duc­tive futures before they have a chance to. In the Right’s war of attri­tion against Roe, it’s not the first attempt to deny Amer­i­cans a crit­i­cal right.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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