During the last week, when he was not parrying the idea that Electoral College members might substitute his name for Donald Trump’s as a protest vote, Ohio Governor John Kasich was mulling two bills restricting abortion rights that his Republican-controlled legislature had placed on his desk.
One bill was Ohio’s version of the ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — 17 other states have passed similar legislation. The other, which got a lot more attention, would have banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — at about six weeks of pregnancy, or before some women even know they are pregnant.
Kasich, a committed anti-abortion pol, today did what most observers expected by vetoing the “heartbeat bill” (which would have almost certainly been invalidated by the first federal or state court called upon to consider its blatant violation of current constitutional law) and signing the 20-week bill.
At Vox, Emily Crockett makes an exhaustive case that the 20-week bill, precisely because it falls into a constitutional grey area and could even create a Supreme Court test favorable to anti-abortionists, is actually the more dangerous bill from the point of view of those who believe in reproductive rights.
But Crockett also makes a more general point which could explain why passing two different abortion-ban bills could be the wave of the future for crafty right-to-life advocates:
Most Americans are not only deeply ambivalent about the morality of abortion; they’re also largely ignorant about how it works and why women seek it.
That ignorance creates some wishy-washy, easily swayed opinions about abortion, polls show. Yes, Americans are much less supportive of legal abortion in the second or third trimester than in the first — but they also don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, which in practice means upholding a woman’s right to an abortion until roughly the third trimester. And Americans are much more likely to support legal abortion after 20 weeks once they understand the reasons women might need it.
But without that kind of education, the wishy-washiness helps promote support for whatever sounds “reasonable.” And in a context where a 6-week abortion ban is on the table, Kasich signing a 20-week ban seems quite reasonable, and as Crockett says, “many people might praise him for being ‘moderate’ on reproductive rights.”
It’s the Goldilocks impulse of human nature, which is forever looking for options that are not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
We see this regularly in another area of abortion politics, where Republicans who favor banning all but the tiny handful of abortions that are the result of rape, incest, or a direct threat to the life of the pregnant women are considered “moderates” or “pragmatists” as opposed to those crazy extremists who want to ban not just 99 percent of abortions, but 100 percent. Something similar is at work among Democrats who are willing to ban so-called “partial-birth abortions” as though that is some middle ground, without recognizing (a) such abortions are very rare, and (b) when they occur there is usually a serious medical reason for doing so.
Crockett is right: Now that Kasich has signed the 20-week bill while vetoing the 6-week bill he’ll be described as a “moderate” on abortion even though that is exactly what Ohio Right to Life urged him to do. And the whole Ohio scenario will become very tempting to anti-abortion advocates who want to pretend to seize the prized middle ground on the subject.
Honest advocates on both sides of the abortion issue would be better advised not to set up straw-man positions to reject, and instead make their case for or against letting women decide whether to carry pregnancies to term. Yes, there will be some abortions that continue to fall into grey areas, legally and morally. But it would be refreshing to see abortion politics begin to encourage Americans who don’t think deeply about this issue until it affects their own lives to stop looking for a middle ground that does not, in fact, exist.