Listening to Republicans over the past few months, it would be easy to get the impression that women are routinely giving birth to babies and then aborting them — with Democrats’ full political support.
Republicans are pushing legislation in both the House and Senate that purports to address such atrocities by criminalizing doctors who fail to take every step necessary to revive a child born alive after a failed abortion. President Trump tweeted in February that Democrats “don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth,” and former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker made a similar suggestion onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference that month. “It’s not live-birth abortion. It’s not infanticide. It is murder if you take the baby home and kill the baby at home, it’s murder,” Walker said. “The same thing is true at the hospital.”
It would be horrific to everyone if that scenario were happening, but it’s not. An attempted abortion late enough into a pregnancy to result in a live birth is extremely rare and happens only when the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus has a fatal condition. But we’re in a presidential election cycle, and Republicans have learned that abortion can be a winning issue for them if they find a way to keep Democrats on the defensive.
Part of the reason Republicans have been able to make some headway with this line of attack is that Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, garbled his response to a similar bill proposed in his state in January, misspeaking in a way that appeared to endorse afterbirth abortion and sparking a national firestorm. Soon afterward, New York enacted a bill that would allow abortions after 24 weeks in the absence of fetal viability, or to protect the mother’s life or health. Conservatives spun the two events as evidence that Democrats support infanticide — a massive distortion of the party’s position.
To further that narrative, the Senate Judiciary Committee — on which three Democratic presidential hopefuls sit — held a hearing Tuesday titled “Abortion Until Birth,” in which they discussed a bill by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) that would ban abortion at 20 weeks and criminalize doctors who fail to resuscitate “children born alive after attempted abortions.” Graham brought in a self-described “abortion survivor” to testify and claimed in his opening remarks that fetuses feel “excruciating pain” during abortions — a claim disputed by the medical community. Leana Wen, a physician and the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the hearing was “designed to manufacture outrage.”
That outrage playbook worked in 2016. Republican presidential candidates seized on another inflammatory, hard-to-believe narrative: that Planned Parenthood was using abortion to harvest and traffic fetal body parts for profit. This was based on undercover videos released by an antiabortion activist group that purported to show the family-planning provider negotiating the sale of fetal tissue. (Planned Parenthood maintains that it donates fetal tissue for scientific research and is only reimbursed for the costs of preservation and transport, which is legal. It stopped accepting reimbursements after the controversy in October 2015.) The controversy hardly dented the family-planning provider’s overall popularity, but it further infuriated the group’s critics: A 2015 YouGov poll found that 89 percent of people with unfavorable opinions of Planned Parenthood had seen or at least heard of the videos, and 85 percent of those people believed the organization had acted criminally. Gallup reported the same year that abortion had edged up in importance as a voting issue for many Americans, with an all-time high of 1 in 4 conservatives saying it was their top election concern.
House Republicans spent 15 months and $1.59 million to investigate the claim, and more than a dozen states launched their own probes. None of the investigations produced any evidence against Planned Parenthood, and the organization was cleared of wrongdoing. But the antiabortion movement, in conjunction with the GOP, succeeded in keeping the issue in the news for long enough that it had to be addressed on the presidential primary debate stage, giving cover to the Republican candidates’ unpopular position that the government should defund the nation’s largest family-planning provider. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called the group “an ongoing criminal enterprise,” and Carly Fiorina went so far as to describe a graphic scene at Planned Parenthood that had never actually occurred, even in the doctored videos. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,’ ” she said at one debate in September 2015.
Republicans had apparently learned from 2012’s “Year of the Woman,” when an unprecedented gender gap at the polls led President Barack Obama to a crushing victory over Mitt Romney, that playing defense on reproductive rights isn’t a winning strategy for them. Romney was the only GOP candidate that year who had refused to sign a leading antiabortion group’s “Pro-Life Pledge,” and he tried to soften his message on birth control when the Obama campaign repeatedly hit him on his opposition to Planned Parenthood funding and contraceptive coverage. He spent the entire campaign on his heels, plagued by multiple Republican gaffes on reproductive rights that year that made it easy to paint the whole party as extreme. (Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin notoriously said survivors of “legitimate rape” cannot become pregnant because the body has ways to “shut the whole thing down.”)
The GOP had lost its way on abortion. In previous years, the party found success in its strategy of highlighting the particular scenarios that put Democrats in an uncomfortable spot, forcing them to explain at length the nuanced reasons they would oppose something like a ban on medically necessary late-term abortions. Republicans deceptively branded those as “partial-birth” abortions in 1997, and 70 House Democrats voted against their party to ban them. President Bill Clinton vetoed the legislation, but his successor, George W. Bush, signed it into law in 2003.
With Trump, the GOP has revived its old strategy of playing offense. Trump, like Romney, didn’t seem to have any strongly held opinions about abortion before running for office. He once called himself “very pro-choice.” But instead of running as a moderate on the issue, he capitalized on the inflammatory “Planned Parenthood is selling baby parts” narrative, also promising to defund the family-planning provider, to “punish” women who have abortions once they’re made illegal, and to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with a justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal until viability.
The strategy appears to have helped: Strong support from evangelical voters was integral to Trump’s win, despite his otherwise apparent lack of religiosity or Christian morals. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for him — a margin higher than for previous Republican nominees. They were also an outsize part of the electorate in 2016, making up 26 percent of all voters while only 17 percent of the population.
Their enthusiasm paid off in a big way, with two new antiabortion justices on the Supreme Court. Trump and Republicans have failed, so far, to defund Planned Parenthood, despite many conservative congressmen listing it as their top legislative priority and Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress for two years. Trump did reinstate the “global gag rule” on abortion and allowed states to defund Planned Parenthood, but then lost control of the House by a landslide in 2018.
Now that the Planned Parenthood controversy has died down, and Trump has safely tipped the Supreme Court against abortion rights, Republicans need a new way to ratchet up the base’s energy on the issue and paint Democrats as extreme. It’s not easy to do: Polls consistently show that roughly two-thirds of Americans support Roe v Wade. The Democratic Party’s stance on abortion is squarely within the mainstream.
The GOP, meanwhile, is moving further and further out to the margins on abortion, passing hundreds of laws that chip away at abortion rights and that are designed to pick legal battles. Legislators in 41 states have introduced more than 250 abortion restrictions in 2019 so far — a 65 percent increase over last year. Three states have passed legislation that, if allowed to go into effect, would ban abortion at just six weeks gestation, before many women even realize they’re pregnant. John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, vetoed a similar bill in 2016 for being too extreme.
Brazenly gunning to overturn Roe, a broadly popular legal precedent that prevented women from dying in unsafe procedures, is not going to win an election for Republicans. But if they can refocus national attention on the image of a baby born alive in a failed abortion, they could change the debate from being about a woman’s body, her health and her rights to being about an infant. The woman disappears entirely.
Democrats already blocked the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act in the Senate this year, united on the message that it’s a disingenuous political ploy. But expect Republicans to continue to find ways, until November 2020, to keep the issue alive and topical. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) used a procedural move to try to force a vote on the bill in the House last week, making a lot of noise about the issue on Twitter and trotting out a woman at a news conference who claims to be an abortion survivor.
Senate Republicans can keep holding votes and scheduling hearings on the issue as many times as they want. This will force vulnerable Democrats and all of the senators running for president to talk about why they won’t outlaw late-term abortion. A conservative PAC is airing attack ads against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for voting against the Born-Alive bill, claiming that she “opposed medical care for babies.” Trump will do the same on a debate stage.
Democrats should refuse to play along. Allowing Republicans to set the conversation around abortion, and then getting caught up in overly technical explanations about third-trimester procedures, as Northam did, is a political trap. They should stick to the point that women and their doctors, not clueless politicians, should be making personal medical decisions, and that increased access to contraception and sex education is the only proven way to reduce abortions. The U.S. abortion rate hit an all-time low, after all, when Obama was president.
Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist and commentator on politics, gender and culture.