Mitt Romney is blanketing swing states with commercials embracing a more moderate stance on reproductive health issues than we’ve come to expect from the governor in the months since his Republican primary campaign. His central argument for “moderation” is that he would not support banning all abortions—instead, he would make an exception for cases of rape, incest or abortions necessary to save the life of the woman. He has also floated the idea of permitting abortions in the case of a threat to the health of the woman, but has since walked this back.
If Todd Akin and Rick Santorum set the standards for Republican discourse, then indeed Romney holds a more moderate and civil stance. But the contrast here merely indicates how far the legal and culture-war goalposts have moved. Romney does not hold a moderate position based on the history of reproductive rights in America, nor is his position moderate based on what is actually happening across America when women confront unintended or medically challenged pregnancies.
Under the Hyde Amendment, the federal government restricts Medicaid funding of abortion to cases of life endangerment, rape and incest. In fiscal year 2010, only 331 abortions across the nation were financed through this mechanism. Moreover, pregnancies involving difficult challenges to the physical health of pregnant women or to fetal health—though wrenching and important to consider for so many reasons—account for a small fraction of abortions performed in the United States.
In 2004, a group of reproductive health researchers surveyed women patients at eleven large abortion providers. These numbers are hardly perfect. The sampling methodology didn’t capture important groups such as pregnant women in distress who present for emergency care. There are also questions about how candid women actually are in reporting the non-voluntary circumstances of sexual acts that result in unintended pregnancies. Still, these data provide a solid basis for public debate.
Only about 7 percent of interviewed women identified maternal or fetal physical health problems as the most important reason to terminate their pregnancies. Less than one percent reported pregnancy as the result of rape or incest.
Based on these data, more than 90 percent of abortions—possibly many more—would be illegal under the standard Governor Romney sets forth for federal and state policy.
And take into account that Romney has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade. His party platform supports state laws that impose mandatory waiting periods, restrictive clinic regulations, a human life amendment, and other measures designed to hinder abortion access and to hinder providers’ efforts to dispense these services.
It’s also important to consider how Governor Romney’s approach would alter the legal and medical process through which abortions are performed. The basic logic of Roe is that women have the right to make their own choice, in consultation with their own loved ones, clergy, and doctors as they see fit. But suppose Roe no longer applies, and states were to outlaw abortion with specific exceptions. These states would also institute some administrative process to scrutinize a particular woman’s case, and to verify that an exception should be made. This process may require a second medical opinion, or maybe an appearance before a judge. Pregnant women would be forced to justify their most intimate decisions.
Ironically, Governor Romney supports measures that would restrict access to effective contraception, which would thus probably increase unintended pregnancies. He supports the Blunt Amendment, which would allow employers to drop contraceptive coverage. He also proposes to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which contains many provisions designed to guarantee women’s access to effective contraception through both public and private insurance coverage. In fact, the Affordable Care Act’s generous contraceptive coverage is likely to reduce both the incidence of unintended pregnancy and the number of abortions. One-third of US women who use reversible contraception (such as the Pill) would switch to even more reliable methods if they did not have to worry about cost. Another recent study found that the provision of no-cost contraceptives, with an emphasis on long-acting methods like IUDs, was associated with large reductions in abortion rates, repeat abortions, and teen births.
Whatever moderate rhetorical gloss Governor Romney employs, his preferred policies would effectively end women’s right to choose. Allowing states to outlaw more than ninety percent of abortions in America is not a moderate stance.
Liberals such as myself should respect the moral depth and sincerity of the pro-life position (and they should extend us the same courtesy). We should also recognize some basic realities. We’re one presidential election away—one 79-year-old Supreme Court justice away—from a very serious infringement of individual liberty for women in America.