Pro-Life Radicalism: Is This What Democrats Ordered?

Yesterday, Dave Weigel's assessmnt of the politics behind legislative attacks on reproductive rights was on target until it went very awry. According to Weigel, House Democratic leadership sees anti-abortion extremism -- attempts to redefine rape or allow hospitals to deny women life-saving abortions -- as a political liability for Republicans, especially given that independent voters are more interested in the economy than in turning back to the culture wars. Fair enough, but Weigel’s piece takes a strange turn by protraying the pushback from women’s advocates as political theater, rather than as a serious response to attacks on women’s rights.

Weigel mentions Rep. Chris Smith’s "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion" bill. To him, this was a bill aimed to “chip away at ‘Obamacare’” until until pro-choice activists found that the bill had replaced the word "rape" with "forcible rape."

[P]icking out the least defensible pieces and using them as battering rams until the other side gives in…Pro-choice activists have had an unusually good month of finding offenses and blowing them up to Daily Show size...It is tough for abortion rights activists to get through the noise...[a]lso effective for doing this: Making the man on the street worry that Congress is about to redefine rape.

But Smith’s bill does far more than chip away at health-care reform; in fact, it poses a serious threat to abortion coverage in every insurance plan by implementing tax incentives and penalties to stop covering abortion across the board. These provisions are probably the most important part of the bill because they have the potential to take abortion coverage off the market for millions of women. The "forcible rape" provision was outrageous, but the number of women it would affect is minimal, maybe 100 per year. Contra Weigel, the fact that everyone focused on the rape aspect and ignored the rest is a win for Smith.

Weigel portrays the rash of measures endangering reproductive rights as tiny details that were overblown as part of a political strategy. However, Smith’s forcible rape provision might have made it through if it weren’t for Nick Baumann's reporting; a South Dakota bill potentially making the murder of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide” may have been approved unnoticed if not for Kate Sheppard’s exposé. Would Israel have even caught on to these outrageous attacks if the press hadn’t found them first?

The truth is, Speaker John Boehner is an anti-abortion zealot who put extremists of a similar mind in positions of power, like placing Rep. Joe Pitts at the helm of the Subcommittee on Health, while placing anti-abortion bills like Smith’s at the top of the legislative agenda. Weigel has pointed to an interesting political sideshow and made it the main event. If this does put a bitter taste in the mouths of independents who voted Republican last fall, then it’s a silver lining to a period of serious attacks on women and reproductive freedom. Republicans didn’t put in these outrageous clauses accidentally. They did it because this is what they believe.

Since Democrats often disregard pro-choice activists, for example, signing onto an abortion compromise in the health care bill just last year, pouncing on Republican’s dangerous attempts on women’s reproductive rights is the least they can do. The longer Republicans remain an extreme, anti-choice party, the longer Democrats can hold on to a massive constituency they largely take for granted. Weigel’s article gave the sense that pro-choice activists were newly empowered by digging up talking points like “redefining rape.” But I assure you, it’s the opposite.

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