The XX Factor

Fighting the Popular Pro-Choice Fights

Double X ‘s own Emily Bazelon published an op-ed this weekend at the New York Times praising reproductive rights organizations for focusing their legal resources on fighting the anti-choice assault on first trimester abortion and contraception, and largely avoiding legal challenges to bans on abortion after 20 weeks. Emily argues that later-term abortions are wildly unpopular with the public while contraception and first term abortion rights enjoy widespread popularity, which demonstrates the anti-choice movement’s success in arguing (incorrectly) that women get later-term abortions because they’re flightly bumbleheads who “forget” to take care of that unwanted pregnancy problem until they realize that they better do it or they’ll have to get new clothes.

By fighting to make sure that access to early-term abortion is accessible and affordable, the pro-choice movement is doing more to limit the number of later-term abortions than any number of, as Emily calls them, “largely symbolic” state bans on post-20-week abortions. Later-term abortions tend to fall into three general categories: women whose pregnancies have gone wrong and who need therapeutic abortions (the later in the pregnancy, the more likely this is to be the cause), girls who are often the victims of rape who were in denial or maybe even too young to understand what was happening to them, and women who wanted early-term abortions but couldn’t raise the money in time to get them. As I documented at Slate on Thursday , the more waiting periods and clinic closures you have on the state level, the more women you have pushing off their abortions into the second trimester. There may not be anything we can do prevent the existence of women who develop preeclampsia at 20 weeks and need an abortion, or 12-year-old rape victims who are too afraid to tell their mothers until they start showing, but if we want to reduce the number of women who abort at 20 weeks because they couldn’t get the resources together any sooner than that, we should be demanding that as many women as possible be able to go through all the steps to get an abortion in the space of a single morning.

Most of the media attention paid to the immediate and throaty backlash to Republicans overstepping their bounds has been based around Republican attacks on organized labor and on Medicare. But I would argue that the third tier of riling people up has been the Republican assault on reproductive rights. As Emily notes, the public does not like the Republican attacks on federal funding of contraception and STD treatment for low-income women, and while many Americans will gladly tell a pollster they’re “pro-life,” they don’t particularly appreciate not having access to first-trimester abortions should they or someone they love need one. Emily’s right that the legal defense of reproductive rights works best if it sticks to these areas where pro-choicers have wide popular support. But I would add that the pro-choice movement should work to educate the public about why women get later-term abortions, so that keeping them legal can enjoy that kind of support in the future.

Photograph of pro-choice advocates courtesy of Mark Wilson/Getty Images.