Reproductive Politics in a Post-Truth America

 We know how to reduce the abortion rate, but why aren’t we doing anything about it?

Originally published February 21, 2017 on Medium

On January 27th, swarms of people descended upon Washington to attend the 43rd annual March for Life. Defined as a “peaceful demonstration to share the truth concerning the greatest human rights violation of our time, legalized abortion on demand,” the march aimed to organize individuals who share a belief that abortion access should be abolished in America. This position is deeply bound to religious beliefs concerning the beginning of personhood, which is obvious when reviewing the March for Life’s roster which included prayer led by Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, a Christian rock band, Bishop Vincent Mathews Jr., president at Church of God In Christ World Missions, and Vice President Mike Pence.

“Life is winning,” Pence announced, speaking at the Washington Monument, “I believe a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable. The aged. The infirm. The disabled. And the unborn.” These remarks highlight a view of the “most vulnerable” that seems, at best, selective, and more realistically, grossly deficient. Of course, ending abortion has been a platform issue for the Republican Party from the moment they realized they could use the issue as a catalyst for the Catholic vote. Extreme legislation has continued to pour in with eager sponsors waiting for their Conservative stamp of approval. One radical bill, H.R. 490, was introduced two weeks prior to the march and would prohibit abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically around six weeks after conception.

“We think this bill properly applied does eliminate a large, large share of the abortions — 90% or better — of the abortions in America,” said Steve King, the Iowa congressman who introduced the bill.

King’s proposed bill is indicative of deep untruths fueling the anti-abortion movement. “There is no scientific basis for prohibiting a woman from obtaining an abortion whether there is or isn’t a heartbeat present,” Dr. David Eisenberg, a board-certified OB-GYN explained to The Huffington Post. In fact, at six weeks, there’s no such thing as a “fetal heartbeat,” we’re still talking about an embryo, and an embryonic heart is nowhere near a fully developed organ. However, science matters very little to the party that defines a fetus as an “unborn child” within their official platform.

The presumption, made by King and Pence, is that the implementation of anti-abortion legislation will decrease the number of abortions in America, thus protecting the most “vulnerable” in our society. However, this too is misleading. A 2012 analysis of global trends conducted by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute found that, criminalizing abortion does not reduce the number of terminations women have. For example, in countries where abortion is legal, 34 women in every 1,000 terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In countries where abortions are always illegal or legal only if a woman’s life is in danger, 37 women in every 1,000 have the procedure. In short, abortion restrictions do not have a significant impact on reducing abortion. Restrictions do, however, make the procedure more dangerous. So dangerous that on average 47,000 women die each yeardue to unsafe abortions; these lives, nevertheless, do not seem to qualify for room under Pence’s moral umbrella.

The policy appears to have very little to do with research, or with facts. “This administration will work with Congress to end taxpayer funding for abortion and abortion providers, and we will devote those resources to health care services for women across America,” Pence declared to the crowd gathered for the anti-abortion march.

In reality, using taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions has been illegal since 1976 with the passage of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid from paying for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, or if the mother’s health is endangered. In fact, The Hyde Amendment funding restrictions apply to abortion services both in the United States, and overseas, which is why White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s justification of President Donald Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Mexico City policy (which requires non-governmental organizations to “agree as a condition of their receipt of federal funds” that they would “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations”) as “respecting taxpayer funding” makes little sense. That justification falls apart even more when we consider the fact that, while taxpayers do not provide funding for abortions, they do fund pregnancy related care for medicaid recipients. In 2010, this cost totalled $21 billion; investing in family planning programs, and providers such as Planned Parenthood, actually resulted in a savings of $13.6 billion. The truth is, defunding successful family planning services is a burden on taxpayers (especially poor taxpayers), rather than a relief.

If the intention is, truly, to reduce unwanted pregnancies in order to put an end to abortion in America, there are some quantifiable solutions: improve contraceptive accesseducation and economic prospects. In fact, abortion in America is currently at its lowest quantifiable point since Roe. v. Wade, and while the anti-choice movement often attributes this to the effectiveness of anti-abortion legislation, data shows that this is not the case. The way to “save our most vulnerable,” is to provide people with birth control and teach them how to use it; this is why the abortion rate has declined in tandem with better access to birth control while the birth rate hasn’t increased. Even more telling is the disproportionate amount of unintended pregnancies among minority communities. An African-American woman is nearly five times more likely to have an abortion than a white woman, and the Hispanic rate is double that of whites. According to a 2011 study of “Disparities in Family Planning” from the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, minority and low-income women are less likely to use contraception and have higher rates of contraceptive failure. While low income and lack of education are associated with increased risk of unintended pregnancies. The study proves that disparate access to reproductive education, economic opportunity, and medical care has a profound impact on the rate of unintended pregnancies and abortion.

While complicated, these data points are not debatable. The medical community has provided actionable, informed directives regarding effective solutions to reduce the abortion rate in America. Remarkably, legislators continue to propose policies contrary to this evidence. The Republican party has made defunding the nation’s largest provider of birth control a number one priority and has allocated over $1.5 billion dollars to ineffectiveabstinence-only programs. In fact, only 18 states require instructors to provide information about contraception to students and only 13 states require that sexual education courses must be medically accurate. These factors easily contribute to the United State’s teen pregnancy rate, which is the highest of any other developed country.

In 2009, Pence himself voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which aimed to protect women and minorities from wage discrimination, adding to his history of opposing minimum wage increases. Pence asserted that the bill was “anti-minority” due to the unsubstantiated claim of lost minority jobs following a wage hike. Not a single major anti-choice organization works to improve contraception access and education, in fact most are completely silent on the issue if not vocally opposed. At every turn, legislators and anti-choice organizations contradict themselves. While they claim to oppose abortion, they completely refuse to take steps proven to reduce the abortion rate, opting instead for costly, ineffective and oppressive laws that do little more than boost their credentials among religious, Conservative voters.

Those of us who support neutral, fact-based legislation have done a poor job of holding our representatives accountable for perpetuating inaccuracies to appease a radical religious sect. Abortion is the ultimate “post-truth” political issue. The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-truth politics as a state of discourse in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” For decades, the abortion debate has been framed by these appeals to raw emotion, refusing to acknowledge the realities created by anti-choice legislation. Proponents of anti-choice legislation do not deal in facts, preferring instead a pathos which drowns out any data. While we can accept and respect an individual’s right to oppose abortion on religious or moral grounds, we cannot hold everyone to that singular position. The belief that personhood begins at conception, is a philosophical viewpoint, rather than a scientific fact. Medically speaking, life is a process not an event, and a fetus is not yet a “person,” even if it is human. The value of fetal life and the life of a woman is a matter of opinion (which has varied drastically throughout history), not a scientific truth. Fortunately, America is not a theocracy and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution requires our government to remain neutral in regards to religious matters. We are to trust experts, invest in research, and implement policies based on fact, not religious opinion. If our legislators are unable to disentangle their religion from their duty and responsibility to uphold the Constitution, then they must choose a different profession.

Reproductive freedom and religious liberty are fundamental rights. However, I do not have the right to make family planning decisions for others, and the local church does not have the right to enforce their religious conceptions of the self or other ideologies of personhood on me. Our elected representatives are not surrogates for the church, despite the effectiveness of this illusion in motivating religious, or single-issue voters. Although both Democrats and Republicans employ the abortion issue to sway the electorate in one direction or the other, very little has been implemented to improve reproductive health care access, or reduce unwanted pregnancies. While abortion is certainly polarizing, in part because it is tied to individual beliefs regarding the value and meaning of life, it doesn’t hold a torch to the depth of reproductive and sexual health care that impacts every single American, every single day, and enjoys very little reform.

We can no longer tolerate post-truth rhetoric to justify harmful, economically irresponsible, healthcare legislation. It’s pointless to fall into a trap of debating the value of life, or the definition of the “unborn,” as so often happens on taxpayers’ time on the House or Senate floors. If the problem is with abortion, then we need to take steps to reduce it as proven by countless studies on a global scale by implementing policies to ensure that all women have equal access to education and medical care necessary to make informed decisions about family planning regardless of socioeconomic status, or race/ethnicity. If we are serious about family planning, and can agree that reducing unwanted pregnancy is better for our society, than nothing should stand in our way of reaching across the aisle and working together with others to reduce abortion effectively, regardless of when you believe “life begins.”

I encourage you to call your anti-abortion representative and tell them that you are concerned about the rate of unwanted pregnancy in America, especially the disproportionate number of abortions in poor and minority communities. Ask them about comprehensive sexual education reform, and urge them to ensure continued affordable contraception access under Medicaid. If you are met with a refusal to take these basic steps, on philosophical or religious grounds, you have proven the underpinnings of the national debate. Abortion serves as a powerful political smokescreen and a proxy for religious morality, as defined by a political group to manipulate vulnerable, religious constituents. If the Republican Party is championed as “defenders of morality,” than it grants them permission to behave immorally without being held accountable by those single-issue voters. If they truly wanted to invest in protecting “unborn lives,” it would be done. However, the power of polarizing the electorate over fabricated moral dilemmas is too tempting to resign. The rallies are too powerful as a political soapbox; the voting directives from pro-life organizations are too beneficial in an election; and the anti-abortion industry continues to collect donations to perpetuate the whole, pointless machine. When Mike Pence shouts “Life is winning!,” at the Washington Monument what he really means is that he is winning. This is about power, and all of us, even “the unborn,” suffer as a result.

Hold your representatives accountable, educate your community, and work with others to offer proven solutions. Your future, and the futures of those around you depend on your participation.

Find your elected officials
National Right to Life U.S. House Scorecard (2015–2016)
National Right to Live U.S. Senate Scorecard (2013–2014)