When the 112th Congress convenes in January it will have at least fifty-three additional antichoice Republicans in the House and five in the Senate. Some of the newcomers are particularly extreme: Senator-elect Rand Paul and incoming Representatives Mike Fitzpatrick and Tim Walberg oppose most common methods of birth control, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research, and join Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey in opposing abortion even for rape or incest; Toomey supports jailing doctors who perform abortions. Supporters of reproductive rights are looking at the most hostile Congress since abortion was legalized in 1973.
For years pundits have been reassuring prochoicers that conservatives don’t really want to get rid of abortion. Like fulminations against "the gay agenda," porn and Hollywood, vows to ban abortion are just theater, according to this view, meant to distract gullible rubes from the right-wing economic agenda. As Thomas Frank put it in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, "The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes." To overturn abortion rights would be to turn off the golden faucet of donations, volunteers and votes and also shift the passion to now-complacent prochoice voters.
I’ve never believed this theory. For one thing, it’s too rational. It assumes that elections give voters a clear shot at each issue, that true believers can be controlled once elected, that political debts need never be paid and that promises can be forever postponed with no one the wiser. For another, it sets the bar too high: the overturn of Roe v. Wade, federal restrictions, a national ban. Most antiabortion activity is focused on smaller measures and takes place in the states, where some 600 antichoice bills were introduced last year, and where Republicans will now hold twenty-nine governorships and both houses of nineteen state legislatures. Add up enough small victories and eventually you’ve changed the reproductive rights landscape, both as a matter of law and on the ground, without ever engaging in the kind of wholesale ban or fertilized-egg-as-a-person legislation that energizes the opposition and that voters, like those in Colorado this year, have consistently rejected.
Here are some of the antichoice efforts we’re likely to see in Congress in the coming months:
§ Reinstate the global gag rule, lifted by President Obama on his first day in office, which bars recipients of US foreign aid from so much as mentioning abortion in their work, and make it permanent.
§ Pass the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, a k a Stupak on Steroids. This bill would make the Hyde Amendment permanent and reinterpret it to prevent any government department from funding any program that touches on abortion in any way, however notional. For example, if your insurance plan covered abortion, you could not get an income tax deduction for your premiums or co-pays—nor could your employer take deductions for an employer-based plan that included abortion care. (This would mean that employers would choose plans without abortion coverage, in order to get the tax advantage.) The bill would also make permanent current bans like the one on abortion coverage in insurance for federal workers.
§ Pass the Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act, which would ban federal funds for any organization that performs abortions or funds organizations that do so. The aim is to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest network of clinics for family planning and women’s health, and in many regions the only provider within reach. This is the brainchild of Representative Mike Pence, who clearly doesn’t accept the conventional wisdom that taking away reproductive healthcare for women is unwise for a would-be presidential candidate.
§ Beef up so-called conscience protections for healthcare personnel and hospitals.
§ Ban Washington, DC, from using its own money to pay for abortions for poor women.
§ Revisit healthcare reform to tighten provisions barring coverage for abortion care.
§ Preserve the ban on abortions in military hospitals.
Note that the official theme here is not the banning of abortion but freeing the taxpayer from having to pay for it, however tenuous the connection. (Never mind why supporters of realistic sex ed have to pay for abstinence ed schemes, which studies have shown to be ineffective and ridden with sexism and falsehoods—or, for that matter, why pacifists have to pay for the military, vegans pay for government subsidies for animal products and atheists pay for social programs in churches.)
"This election was not about choice," Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards told me by phone. "The bottom line was jobs and the economy. But if you look at close races where the prochoice candidate won, and where women knew the difference between the candidates on reproductive rights, they voted prochoice and arguably made the difference." As Richards points out, Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal and Patty Murray all won by double digits among women.
Richards thinks Democrats will realize they need prochoice women’s support to win. "Especially where everyone says they’re for jobs and against taxes, choice is an issue that clearly defines for women who’s on their side. No one ran ads proudly proclaiming they were antichoice." She also noted that the Senate still has a prochoice majority.
If that’s too optimistic for you, try this: only one of the new Republican senators thinks man-made global warming is real. So by the time they’ve taken control of your womb, you’ll probably be dead.