The State of the Union address Donald Trump gave on Tuesday night was full of forced, awkward transitions. The weirdest had to do with babies. Trump boasted of being the first president to propose a national paid family leave plan in his budget, “so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child.” Then, speaking of newborns: “There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days.”
Trump was referring to a recently passed New York law that removed restrictions on certain second- and third-trimester abortions and a similar Virginia bill that blew up in right-wing media last week. In Tuesday’s speech, Trump said these pieces of legislation would “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”
This isn’t the first time the president has used these words to conjure up this nonexistent medical procedure. In the final debate before the 2016 election, Trump said Hillary Clinton wanted abortion providers to be able to “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day.” This is not an accurate rendering of any abortion procedure; what Trump is describing is a cesarean section. The fiction that a woman would carry a fetus for 40 weeks only to decide “moments before birth” to terminate her pregnancy has persisted because it’s a narrative that features conservatives’ favorite anti-abortion talking points: fetuses that look like newborn babies, irresponsible women making rash decisions, and scary, violent surgeries that are worlds away from the nearly half of all abortions that are performed via oral medication.
On Tuesday night, Trump used this vivid imagery to ask Congress to “pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.” Watching the address on television, I saw the camera pan over congressional Republicans, who were all standing and clapping, a sea of men applauding another man for making women out to be unworthy stewards of their own bodies. The Handmaid’s Tale analogies have become trite in this era of sexual assault apologia and eroding protections for women’s rights. But in this instance, the government Republicans want—an authoritarian white man leading a tribunal of other white men in the diminishment of female autonomy—was made visible on the House floor, and it was straight out of Atwood.
Compare that to the vision presented by Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, the first black woman nominated by a major party for governor, who gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union. In her speech, Abrams centered her talk of reproductive justice issues on women. She decried the despicable maternal mortality rate of a nation where “mothers, especially black mothers, risk death to give birth.” And she framed abortion rights as a moral issue with progressives on the right side of history. “America achieved a measure of reproductive justice in Roe v. Wade, but we must never forget it is immoral to allow politicians to harm women and families to advance a political agenda,” Abrams said.
Though reproductive rights got just a few lines in Abrams’ speech, she cut to the heart of the issue with a winning argument. It is unethical to deprive women of the freedom and access to make informed decisions about their bodies. It is cruel to force women to carry to term a fetus that will only live a brief, painful life or perish upon birth. (As I wrote last week in response to the hubbub around the Virginia bill, third-trimester abortions are performed most often in cases of severe fetal deformities undetectable until later in pregnancy.) And it is a moral disgrace that the party that calls itself “pro-life” looks the other way as black mothers and infants die from a toxic brew of inadequate health care and racism-related stress. To win on abortion rights, Democrats would do well to follow the Abrams playbook: Don’t take the Republican bait on imaginary “moments before birth” abortions. Keep the focus on women’s lives.