Republicans Find Their Next Anti-Choice Innovation

(Photo: AP/Tony Dejak)

A woman walks past an abortion clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich has overseen some of the strictest anti-abortion measures in the U.S.

If you're looking for true Republican policy innovations, don't bother with tax policy or national security; the place where the GOP is really exercising its creativity is in coming up with new ways to restrict abortion rights. In the latest inspired move, Republican state legislators in Ohio have introduced a bill to make it illegal for a woman to terminate her pregnancy because she has discovered that the baby would have Down syndrome. The bill is expected to pass, and though he hasn't yet taken a position on it, it would be a shock if Governor John Kasich—who is both an opponent of abortion rights and currently in search of votes in the Republican presidential primary—didn't sign it.

After it passes in Ohio (and even if by some strange turn of events it doesn't), look for identical bills to come up in state after Republican-controlled state. Anyone who objects will of course be accused of wanting to kill children with disabilities.

As the New York Times article about the Ohio bill notes, this isn't entirely unprecedented; there are a few states that have outlawed abortion for sex selection, and North Dakota has a similar law passed in 2013 forbidding abortions because of fetal genetic anomaly, though "advocates are not aware of enforcement of any such laws in the states that have them." But this one lands not only in during a presidential primary, but also amid Republicans' latest offensive against Planned Parenthood, driven by secretly recorded videos in which Planned Parenthood officials discuss the transfer of fetal tissue for research.

That effort may not accomplish all that much; while many conservatives (and a few presidential candidates) would like to shut down the government in order to "defund" the group, that probably won't happen, and efforts by states to discover that Planned Parenthood is doing something illegal have come up empty. But it still creates a context in which Republicans are aggressive on the issue of abortion—particularly when it may be the only "culture war" issue on which they aren't in full retreat.

This is one of those issues where there's an emotionally freighted case for one side, a case that can seem compelling as long as you don't think about it too deeply. Conservatives will argue that the law is necessary because so often when women learn that a fetus they're carrying has the genetic anomaly that causes Down's, she winds up having an abortion. And they'll note that people with Down's can have happy, fulfilling lives, which they can. They'll no doubt tell stories of wonderful individuals they know who have the condition.

But if the question is only, "If this woman carried her pregnancy to term, would it be possible for the baby that would ultimately result to have a happy, fulfilling life?" then no abortion would be allowed. Some women have abortions because they got pregnant accidentally and are too young to raise a child. Is it possible for a child born to a young woman to grow up to have a happy, fulfilling life? Of course. Some women have abortions because they don't want to raise a child with the biological father. Is it possible for a child raised by a single mother to grow up to have a happy, fulfilling life? Of course. Some women have abortions because they already have all the children they want. Is it possible for a child born to a family that already has plenty of children to grow up to have a happy, fulfilling life? Of course.

But if we're going to say that a woman who wants to end her pregnancy because of Down syndrome will be legally barred from doing so, we're saying that it will now be the government's job to evaluate whether her reasons are good enough, and if the government thinks they aren't, then she will be forced against her will to carry the pregnancy to term. For all the restrictions Republicans have successfully placed on abortion rights throughout the country, it isn't yet the case that women have to explain to the government why they want the abortion and prove that they're doing it for what the government considers the right reason.

Perhaps to expedite things, every women's health clinic could come equipped with a special hotline to the state legislature, where any woman who wants to end her pregnancy would have to justify it to a Republican state representative, who would have the final say. Maybe that will be the next bright policy idea from the party that says it's committed to getting government off your back.

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