For many years, the chief political strategy of the anti-abortion movement has been to gradually chip away at reproductive rights by focusing on rare but lurid-sounding late-term abortions. It made sense, given the unpopularity of such procedures (particularly when presented without the context of the tragic circumstances involved) and the overwhelming popularity of legalized early-term abortions, whose criminalization is the movement’s ultimate goal. Once the regime set up by the Supreme Court in
Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey is unraveled, anti-abortion proponents thought, it might be time to stop the charade and go public with a more radical agenda.
But as my colleague Irin Carmon recently explained, as pro-lifers have gained power in state legislatures via the Republican Party they now completely dominate, the temptation to go for the anti-choice gold has been too strong for many to resist, as evidenced by the sudden rush to enact “heartbeat” bills that ban abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy:
Heartbeat bans are suddenly in place, if not in effect, in Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, and Kentucky …
For nearly a half century, the Supreme Court has said that states can’t ban abortion before a fetus is viable — no earlier than 24 weeks, not six, before many women even know they’re pregnant. That’s why the focus-grouped, gray-suited architects of the anti-abortion movement believe total bans hurt their cause. They’ve read the polls that say Americans broadly support abortion in the first trimester, that they don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and that they squirm when they hear about the later abortions allowed under it: after 20 weeks, or later for reasons of health or life.
Yet states’ early-term abortion bans are becoming more radical every day, culminating in this week’s passage of legislation in Alabama that would ban all abortions from the moment of conception other than those necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman. There aren’t even exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
As a matter of constitutional law, it’s unlikely that even today’s 5-4 majority of presumed abortion foes on the Supreme Court would choose so extreme a law as the lever to reverse or modify its reproductive-rights precedents. If they do want to go in that direction, laws regulating later-term abortions — such as the 20-week bans popular among Republican legislators in many states and in Washington, too — are a more likely vehicle.
But beyond that, such laws uncloak the ultimate goals of the GOP and the RTL movement at a time when Republicans are trying to brand Democrats as an extremist party that supports abortions so late in pregnancy that they can be labeled “infanticide.” As National Journal reports, this is a big deal for Donald Trump’s party heading toward 2020:
President Trump has laced it into his rally repertoire, calling Democrats “the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late-term abortion, witch hunts, and delusions.” And as campaigns continue to ramp up for 2019 and 2020, there is little expectation among Republicans that the abortion message will fizzle …
The issue was sparked in January, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act, which expanded limited abortion rights beyond the 24th week of pregnancy, and days later when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made comments about a bill in his state loosening restrictions on late-term abortions …
Critics call the infanticide claims manufactured outrage, pointing to the existing laws that criminalize action taken to end a newborn’s life. As it stands, late-term abortion — generally referring to those after 20 weeks of gestation — is a rare procedure typically done in the interest of protecting the mother’s health, according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report.
But it’s kind of hard to pose as the party in the firm mainstream of public opinion on abortion, fighting those baby-killing Democrats, when one’s own Republicans are trying to ban the bulk of abortions that occur early in pregnancy. It’s not just a mixed message but arguably an honest statement of principles stepping all over a calculated lie.
Some observers suggest the infanticide talk may be “cover” for the early-abortion prohibition measures beginning to sweep through Republican legislatures. If so, it may not be loud enough to drown out the howls of triumph from extremist lawmakers in places like Alabama or the cries of dismay from those who previously thought basic reproductive rights were safe. It’s hard to look at all this state-level activity and not quickly discern who the real “extremists” are: It’s not those belonging to the party defending the 46-year precedent of women’s right to choose.