Republicans Are Not the Defenders of Women They Say They Are

The new and false rhetoric on abortion

Since 1973, when the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, the rhetoric of the abortion debate has only escalated in fervor, and the animosity between the two political parties has become explosive. However, up until the 1950’s, the American abortion debate was fairly uncomplicated because it was framed primarily as a public health issue. Every year, countless women would resort to back-alley abortions, risking their lives in the process. The beginnings of the legalization movement aimed to relieve this suffering by allowing women to have the procedure performed legally and therefore safely. It wasn’t even until the ’60s that the leadership in the Catholic Church began to organize pro-life opposition to the movement in the US and abroad, motivated by growing calls to legalize abortion. However, the movement to legalize abortion was not popularized until it became a segment of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

Today, it seems that abortion is perpetually tangled in the hyperpoliticized debate that surrounds it. The commonplace procedure has become intrinsically linked to partisan rhetoric, and Americans and politicians of all stripes freely express their opinions on what is primarily a medical subject. This issue is especially pressing because abortion is a procedure that will affect approximately 1 in 3 American women. In recent years the Republican Party has lowered the bar on informational standards when discussing abortion. It is unethical and frankly dangerous that the GOP has simply retreated to half-truths and convenient narratives when discussing abortion. The flippant dismissal of facts in the abortion debate simply says that many Americans and politicians see abortion as emotionally charged political football rather than as a mainstream medical procedure. The only way to reconcile the two parties engrossed in the debate is to return the arguments to facts instead of feelings.

However, one side of the political spectrum seems to have no inclination to acknowledge these facts. In pushing their anti-abortion agenda, Republicans have increasingly painted abortion as a dangerous procedure, moving away from religious arguments and the idea that life begins at conception. Since about 2010 Republican rhetoric concerning abortion has focused incessantly on the safety of women in an attempt to remove a strong Democratic counterargument to Republican anti-abortion laws, which argues that keeping abortion legal will protect women’s health. Republicans have adopted the notion of protecting women’s health and safety into their own anti-abortion rhetoric, except they cast abortion itself as the threat. They are essentially trying to rebrand themselves as courageous protectors of women, instead of as religious devotees attempting to impose their beliefs on a secular country.

Republicans now have full control of 33 state legislatures, the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, and they have shown no signs of moderating their stated position: between 2011–2015 they passed more abortion restrictions than in the previous 15 years combined.

Yet, these restrictions that have been enacted actually have little to do with public health and women’s safety, as many of them are medically unsubstantiated or unnecessary laws that have been dismissed by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. For example, in 2015, Arizona and Arkansas passed a law requiring women receiving a drug-induced abortion to be told that taking a high dose of progesterone can reverse the procedure, a claim supported by no evidence whatsoever. In Mississippi, part of the “Informed Consent” law requires physicians to tell their patients that there is an increased risk of breast cancer associated with an abortion, an assertion that can only be described as a bold-face lie. The danger of this Republican legislation is not just in the policy itself, but in the fallacious language they use to justify their views. Across the country there have been cries to ban “partial birth abortion,” a phrase that was created by politicians, not doctors. “Partial birth abortion” is used to describe an abortion procedure known as “dilation and extraction,” which is performed in only .2% of all abortions, during late term pregnancies and generally in circumstances when the fetus is not viable or the health of the mother is threatened.

But even within the GOP there is debate on how far they are willing to rhetorically cast themselves as being protectors of women. Major figures in the party have split between allowing exceptions for incest, rape and life of the mother, like John McCain, and banning abortion in all cases, like Ted Cruz. President-elect Trump recently caused waves within his own party, stating that “I would leave [exceptions] for the life of the mother… I would absolutely have the three exceptions.” By “the three exceptions,” Trump is referring to rape, incest, and life of the mother. On the one hand, in order to corroborate their position on women’s safety, Republicans must argue that they would never want a woman to die from pregnancy complications. But on the other hand, some Republicans claim they could never subject a woman to the psychical and emotional pain caused by an abortion. Yet, despite the rift between those fighting for exceptions and those fighting against, throughout the party these politicians have remained steadfast in their desire to frame their argument as the obvious way to protect the health and safety of women.

While many Republican lawmakers often try and justify making laws that limit abortion by referencing the deep emotional scars left by the procedure, a 2014 study published by PLOS ONE found that 95% of women who had had an abortion did not regret their decision. However, in 2014, Republican Missouri state assembly representative, Kevin Elmer, justified his support of a mandatory waiting period (which required a woman to wait 72 hours between her first visit to a clinic and her abortion) by stating:

This bill is a way to give a potential mother some additional time to think about this life-altering decision and to talk to family and friends who can help provide support during what is undoubtedly a difficult and emotional time. This bill is really an effort to balance the rights of the mother with the rights of the unborn child. We are not denying the mother her rights, but simply asking her to give more thought before making a decision that she may later regret.

As of June 2016, 28 states had enacted mandatory waiting periods before an abortion, and 35 states require that a woman receive counseling before an abortion. These laws are all framed as efforts by the legislatures to protect women by ensuring that they understand the decision they are making. It is a clever rhetorical strategy that allows Republicans to garner more support for their cause, by framing their side as the only side that cares about both the mother and the fetus. These laws act as a special protection for women’s health and safety, when in reality they only work to invalidate a woman’s power in deciding her own reproductive future by implying that women are not capable of making these decisions for themselves. While it may appear honorable to create legislation that protects women, these laws are designed to talk women out of having the procedure by peddling false information about the psychological and physical risks to scare women or guilt women out of having an abortion.

These restrictive laws and the factually incorrect rhetoric that reinforces them beg an important question: if a majority of Americans favor keeping abortion legal, why have Republican politicians been able to motivate such powerful anti-abortion sentiment across the country?

Distinguishing between the Republican rhetoric surrounding abortion and the policies they enact can be difficult as their language vehemently claims they are protecting women, while their actions tell a different story. However, the distinction becomes more convoluted for the average American because most Americans do not understand what an abortion entails. In a Vox survey, 90% polled falsely believed getting an abortion was less safe or about as safe as getting a wisdom tooth extracted, and 80% thought getting an abortion was less safe or about as safe as giving birth. Another University of Cincinnati study revealed that only 13% of those polled had a high level of knowledge regarding abortion (meaning they answered 4 of 5 questions correctly).

If these Republican lawmakers continue to inspire support across the country, the divide between the Republican party’s zealousness about abortion policy and the general public’s lack of knowledge about abortion will continue to widen. It is natural to assume that any politicians or political party will devise whatever rhetoric they believe captures the most support for their position. However, an abortion, unlike taxes, terrorism, or defense, is a medical procedure, meaning legislation directly involving the intricacies of the procedure is either medically accurate or erroneous; there is no gray area. The most troubling factor in the recent GOP rhetoric surrounding abortion is that it takes this common procedure and completely twists the realities and facts regarding this procedure to fit with their position. When the Republican Party’s arguments on abortion rested on religious ideologies, they were expressing a belief about when they believed life began, not peddling dangerous falsities about a medical procedure.

The only way to return the abortion debate back to its less convoluted and less volatile form is to ensure that Americans understand abortion within the context of a medical procedure, not in terms of a legislative agenda. When Americans can ground abortion within the confines of a common procedure instead of some conjectured policy debate, they will no longer be exploited by the falsehoods spread by the Republican Party.