The Sunday Times: Slowly and stealthily, Republicans are making abortion legal but impossible

Photo: Verne Ho

Photo: Verne Ho

What would you do if you lived in a country where in order to obtain an abortion you, or a woman you know, had to consent to being raped by a stranger before the procedure could take place? Where this year the majority party tried to pass a bill that would force women to carry a dead foetus to term. Where four months ago a woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for charges including “foeticide”.

Where your access to birth control is subject to the whim of local politicians and your chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth is at least three times higher than in any “civilised” country.

I suspect you would look longingly at the West and wish there was some way of getting there. You might even end up as one of the thousands of illegal immigrants who risk their lives to enter America. In which case you would have wasted a great deal of money and effort, since the country I’m describing is America.

Did your brain just do a flip? It seems hard to credit, doesn’t it, when most countries that have draconian sexual reproduction laws also tend to lack indoor plumbing or women drivers. When people think of sexual perverts who use religious ideology as a smokescreen for abusing women they usually have the Taliban in mind. It turns out Americans don’t need to go so far afield; we have our own version right here at home.

The Republican “war on women”, as it’s been dubbed, has been waxing and waning since 2011, when state legislatures across the country added more than 1,100 restrictions and anti-abortion provisions to the statute books. But the issue reignited in Washington recently because of a “sting” by an anti-abortion group called the Centre for Medical Progress.

The well-funded operation secretly videoed conversations with officials at Planned Parenthood, a reproductive healthcare service. The tapes were then edited in such a way as to suggest Planned Parenthood harvests the organs of aborted foetuses in order to sell them for profit. The claim is false. Planned Parenthood delivers them to medical research facilities and charges a fee to cover the cost of preparation and distribution.

The full video reveals nothing more than an overly blasé conversation about methods, organs and fee scales — but of course none of that matters. Republicans are trumpeting their outrage and horror at the revelation of organ trafficking (a lie) and profiteering (another lie) at these federally funded “death camps” (oh yes).

The edited video was merely the cue for a fresh Republican campaign to halt funding for Planned Parenthood, which is nearly a century old and provides free and low-cost obstetrics and gynaecology services to more than 3m women a year.

The government currently gives Planned Parenthood just over 40% of its annual $1.3bn (£840m) budget, though no federal money goes towards funding abortions. The Republicans are confident they now have sufficient public support to hold hostage every bill that comes to the floor until the Democrats give in and allow one to pass with an amendment to halt funding tacked on.

You are probably asking where the rape claim fits in. It all goes back to 2011, when Republican politicians realised the only way to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalise abortion was by proxy rather than upfront attacks. Someone worked out that pro-lifers could achieve their goal by slowly but surely adding more and more legal burdens and restrictions until abortion remained technically available but actually impossible.

The trick was to cloak the restrictions in language that was anything but related to abortion. One very successful ruse, for example, is the “admitting privileges” law. It requires an abortion provider to be attached to a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. A combination of geographic paucity and intimidation of hospitals has succeeded in leaving four states with only one clinic each. More states are heading in that direction.

It was the legislature of Virginia and former governor Bob McDonnell (now in prison for corruption) who added rape to the anti-abortion arsenal. By early 2012 seven states had already passed laws that forced women to undergo an unnecessary ultrasound before they had an abortion.

McDonnell and his friends decided that the potential to make women emotionally uncomfortable wasn’t enough; they had to be humiliated and physically assaulted, too. Their version of the ultrasound law mandated the use of a transvaginal probe instead of the jelly-on-the-stomach method.

The outcry was so intense McDonnell changed his mind at the last minute and asked for the “usual” ultrasound language to be used instead. But that climbdown was by no means the last of medical rape as an anti-abortion tool. Four other states have since adopted ultrasound laws that are worded so that the use of a transvaginal probe is all but impossible to avoid.

I don’t know why so many Republicans have this rape fetish going. As critics have pointed out, over the past couple of years in connection with the abortion debate we’ve heard about “legitimate rape”, “forcible rape”, “honest rape”, “easy rape”, “emergency rape” . . . But when they aren’t talking about rape, it turns out a lot of them are thinking about fornication — especially ones sponsoring anti-abortion bills.

Since the beginning of the new Republican-dominated Congress there have been at least 29 attempts to limit abortion, with more bills in the pipeline. The Republicans leading the charge include representatives Dr Scott DesJarlais, who slept with at least two of his patients and pressured one to have an abortion; David Vitter, who was outed by a prominent Washington madam; and Senator Trent Franks, who insists that it’s almost impossible to become pregnant through rape.

What’s happened to the Republican party echoes the problems of Labour in the 1980s when it was infiltrated by Militant Tendency. Only this lot aren’t interested in getting their hands on the money supply; they want to stick their fingers somewhere else entirely.

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