If Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address was a lucid pitch for comity offset by predictably xenophobic and misleading claims about border security with a welcome sprinkling of random, often compelling guests to be applauded, the lingering question is this: What will average Americans take away from President Donald Trump’s 2019 speech to a joint session of Congress? It would be tempting to point to the sea of women-in-white demonstrating that times are changing in Congress or perhaps the bizarre moment when the president went full megalomaniac, immodestly (and laughably in a Dr. Strangelove sort of way) claiming the United States would now be at war with North Korea had he not been elected. But, unfortunately, it was something much worse.
No, what is going to linger in the public square — if only because right-wing zealots were only too happy to lay the groundwork for it and now clearly plan to build a 2020 political campaign around it — is President Trump’s attack on women’s reproductive rights. Specifically, he tore into recent efforts in New York and Virginia to shore up abortion rights as an attack on “beautiful babies” using despicable language like “ripped from the mother’s womb.” He then endorsed as a potential federal law one of the most severe anti-abortion efforts seen at the state level in recent years — “legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb,” a prohibition designed to kick in as early as 20 weeks.
“Late-term abortion” isn’t medical language, it’s used exclusively by those who want to make sure that women put in the uncommon but extremely difficult position of needing to terminate a pregnancy after 21 weeks are denied that right. This is not about infanticide. It isn’t about some casual decision to terminate a healthy fetus moments before birth — or after, for that matter. Most commonly, this is about a pregnancy in which the fetus is no longer viable (usually because of abnormalities that went undetected earlier in pregnancy) or in which the mother’s life and health are in grave danger. These are not decisions reached lightly. These are not decisions that require some new form of government intervention.
We have already seen in the attacks against the New York and Virginia laws a great deal of misinformation bandied about by anti-choice extremists. This is hardly unusual from a movement given to calling women who elect to have a legal abortion, one that seeks to defund Planned Parenthood and whose most rabid followers have gone so far as to bomb abortion clinics and kill providers. But it makes it no less shameful. Third trimester abortions are easily stigmatized by people who have never confronted the most impossible of circumstances — finding out, for example, that a fetus lacks multiple vital organs and will only suffer if brought to term. It’s a rarity, but it happens. One landmark study found only 1.3 percent of abortions take place after 21 weeks.
Of course, the irony of President Trump’s attack is that he set Democrats on this course of action by appointing men to the Supreme Court who are likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. The anticipated shift has helped fuel a two-pronged movement — by socially conservative states to stretch abortion restrictions as far as possible and by progressives to try to back-stop longstanding Roe protections. In the case of the Virginia bill (that Gov. Ralph Northam so miserably represented during an interview), the measure under consideration would reduce from three to one the number of doctors who would need to certify the “woman’s health” exception — that an abortion was allowed in the final three months of pregnancy if continuing to term would “impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
That Governor Northam can’t explain the bill or that the New York legislature “cheers” when it assures women’s rights is immaterial. At the heart of this is a despicable effort to reap political gain by mistreating women already put in one of the most awful positions imaginable. And it’s really worse than that because various efforts to restrict access to abortion are pushing more women into delayed decisions. The day conservatives endorse health care for all including readily available contraception is the day they can claim to be “pro-life,” but we won’t count on it. President Trump didn’t just attack women in his State of the Union, he cynically used the reality that few of us ever have to contemplate of abortion in the second or third trimester (and that few of us know much about the complexities of state law) to once again scare Americans toward theocratic acquiescence.
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