The XX Factor

The Latest Anti-Abortion Bills Double as Devilishly Good P.R.

Mary Fallin, then Oklahoma’s governor-elect, with then–House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Republican governors-elect at the U.S. Capitol December 1, 2010 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Abortion’s opponents are skilled wielders of symbolism, if not of subtlety. That’s one takeaway from the latest slew of legislation that stomps all over women’s reproductive rights. The other takeaway is that the list of states where abortion is legal in name only is rapidly growing.

In Alabama, Republicans used the final hours of their legislative session to pass two bills that would constrict abortion access while dramatically expressing the lawmakers’ feelings about the procedure. If signed by the governor, the first bill, SB 205, would shut down any clinic within 2,000 feet of a K-8 public school. Two birds, one stone: On a figurative level, the bill suggests that abortion clinics emanate a moral taint so strong that it palpably endangers children; on a practical level, it would force either one or two of the state’s five clinics to close. The other people commonly barred from a 1,000- or 2,000-foot radius around schools are convicted sex offenders.

Similarly, the other Alabama bill was written with a public audience in mind. It forbids something that the authors call “Dismemberment Abortion”—a ghastly sounding term gifted to Alabama by national anti-abortion strategists. As Tara Culp-Ressler explained in an excellent deep dive at ThinkProgress, nearly identical “dismemberment” bills started popping up in state legislatures in 2014. They forbid a method of abortion called dilation and evacuation, which has been endorsed by the World Health Organization and is broadly considered the safest and simplest way to terminate a pregnancy after 12 weeks. Abortion providers told Culp-Ressler in interviews that a ban on “D&E,” as the procedure is known, would impact their ability to serve women in both the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. “This is a familiar tactic, similar to the other types of bans we’ve seen,” said Anne Davis, an OB-GYN and the consulting medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Health. “It seems the strategy is to take language that provokes emotional responses and then to argue that, because there’s an emotional reaction to something, it should be illegal.” The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to fight both bills if they become law.

Alabama is by no means the only state where lawmakers are staging morality plays with the potential to re-plot women’s lives. In Oklahoma, a new bill would make performing an abortion a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison and the revocation of the doctor’s medical license. The only legal abortions would be those required to save a woman’s life. “Give Oklahoma lawmakers points, at least, for honesty,” the New York Times editorial board said. “They wanted to ban abortion, so they voted effectively to do just that—without offering any pretense of trying to protect women’s health, as supporters of other virulent anti-choice laws in states like Texas have done.” The bill awaits Governor Mary Fallin’s signature. It may be relevant context that Fallin is one of the only Republicans reportedly “intrigued” by the idea of being Donald Trump’s running mate. 

In Utah, a law that is about to take effect will force doctors to administer anesthesia to women seeking an abortion at or after 20 weeks—not for the patient’s sake, but for the fetus’s. As my colleague Christina Cauterucci has written, this law broadcasts the medically discredited notion that a 20-week-old fetus can feel pain. While abortion is extremely safe, adverse reactions to anesthesia can be catastrophic. In other words, the law unabashedly subordinates women’s health to the relaying of its medically unfounded point.

Anti-abortion legislation has a nasty habit of doubling as finely honed P.R., and that’s exactly why viral social media campaigns such as “Shout Your Abortion” are pushing the idea that the best defense for women’s rights is a loud and proud offense. In Washington, D.C., a doctor filed a civil rights complaint on Monday against a hospital where she performs abortions, which she says forbade her from speaking publicly in defense of the procedure. (The hospital says its concern was for her safety.) “The dialogue is dominated by those who have demonized this totally normal part of health care,” the doctor, Diane Horvath-Cosper, a vocal advocate as well as a registered OB-GYN, told the New York Times. “I don’t think the way to deal with bullies is to cower and pull back.” Horvath-Cosper has a point—especially now that the biggest bully of them all, who has said that women who seek abortion deserve “some form of punishment,” has a clear shot at the American presidency. Fighting the content of anti-abortion bills is no more important than fighting the sensational story they tell.