Scott Walker may not be a governor anymore, but Wisconsin’s former chief executive still knows how to make headlines. In an appearance at CPAC on Thursday, Walker reportedly made a bizarre claim about abortion:
It should go without saying, but in case anyone’s confused — nobody is taking babies home from the hospital to “abort” them at home. But as strange as Walker’s statement is, it’s not without precedent. Abortion opponents have made hyperbolic, often inaccurate claims about the procedure for years, sometimes with violent consequences. And Walker is probably following his president’s example. Trump made similar claims on Twitter and in his State of the Union address:
Trump and Walker appear to be responding to the recent demise of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. Introduced by Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, the bill would enforce criminal penalties for any abortion provider that failed to give medical care to an infant born during an abortion procedure. On Monday, Democrats blocked the bill from making it to the floor for a vote. Since then, Republicans have made the media rounds to accuse Democrats of being would-be infant killers. They reacted similarly to recent abortion bills proposed in the New York and Virginia legislatures. New York’s Reproductive Health Act, which Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law back in January, allows abortion after the 24th week of pregnancy if the fetus isn’t viable or the pregnancy risks a woman’s health. In Virginia, companion bills introduced in both chambers of the state legislature would have allowed a single physician to sign off on a second- or third-term abortion if a woman’s physical or mental health is at risk. Under current law, three physicians have to agree that a second- or third-term abortion is necessary before a patient can receive one. It would not, as some Republicans in state and national offices suggested at the time, have allowed physicians to abort a baby just before it crowned. Nor did Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, really suggest the killing of babies after birth when he spoke in defense of the bill.
Second- or third-term abortion procedures do not typically result in live birth — and even if that does happen, it’s still illegal to “execute” infants. When an abortion is performed late in pregnancy, it’s overwhelmingly because a woman’s health or life is at risk or because the fetus has severe deformities, like anencephaly, that are incompatible with life. Northam referred to cases where a woman chooses to give birth knowing that the baby will be terminally ill. It’s palliative care, not an execution. (Northam’s real problems, it turns out, have nothing to do with his abortion politics.)
Different factions within the anti-abortion movement prefer different rhetorical approaches, but hyperbole isn’t a new tactic. It’s relatively common for pro-life activists or groups to link abortion to infanticide, or to refer to the procedure itself as infanticide in all cases. Some activists go even further, and speak of an abortion “holocaust.” Walker and Trump have taken the infanticide claim to new extremes, but their words are rooted, still, in the movement’s central premise: that abortion murders a human being.
And that language has consequences. Abortion providers are frequently targeted by domestic terrorists who have become convinced that America has an infant murder problem. Robert Dear, who murdered three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2016, directly cited right-wing, anti-abortion material online and on radio shows as an influence. By the time Kansas abortion provider George Tiller was murdered in 2010, anti-abortion extremists had already bombed his clinic and shot him in both arms. In court, his killer complained of babies “torn limb from limb,” a common claim in the pro-life movement.
It’s not yet clear if the Trump administration’s hostile posture toward abortion rights has emboldened anti-abortion extremists the way it appears to have emboldened violent white nationalists. But there are recent examples of threats or actual attempts of violence directed at abortion providers. In 2018, a West Virginia man was arrested for threatening to kill Planned Parenthood employees in Pittsburgh, whom he blamed for “murdering” his child. The same year, an Indiana man pleaded guilty to emailing threats to local abortion clinics. “I will do what I feel is necessary to protect the innocent and stop these atrocities you commit,” he wrote, according to the Riverfront Times. In February of this year, CNN reported that the FBI had begun investigating a fire set at a Missouri Planned Parenthood as a potential hate crime. And on Wednesday, Texas police arrested a 17-year-old for threatening “jihad” on abortion clinics.
The Republican Party may well energize its base with its false infanticide claims. They may also put abortion providers in real danger.