When it comes to abortion, Republicans are peeking out from behind their masks.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say they aren’t still spreading lots of lies about abortion, about women’s health, and about their own supposedly deep concern for the welfare of children. There is no topic on which either party’s rhetoric is as consistently disingenuous, misleading, and outright false as when Republicans talk abortion.
But if nothing else, Republicans are making their hostility toward women and their hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal painfully clear.
Their latest instrument is what is known as a “heartbeat bill,” which would outlaw abortion as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, usually around 6 weeks. At that point a fetus is the size of a pea, and many women aren’t even aware they’re pregnant.
On Tuesday, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed a heartbeat bill into law, the sixth state to do so (though others have been struck down by the courts).
The Georgia bill doesn’t just outlaw abortions after 6 weeks. It also defines a fetus as a person, meaning that anyone who participates in an abortion past that time would be considered a murderer by the state. So a woman who was two months pregnant and obtained misoprostol to self-administer a medication abortion would be guilty of murder and could be imprisoned for life. And as Mark Joseph Stern points out, “If a Georgia resident plans to travel elsewhere to obtain an abortion, she may be charged with conspiracy to commit murder, punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment.”
The anti-abortion activists who push these bills and the legislators who write them always say that they aren’t interested in punishing women for having abortions; I’m reminded of the time in 2016 when the recently pro-life Donald Trump said “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions and was then quickly silenced by Republicans whispering “ixnay on the unishment-pay!” out of the corners of their mouths, since this is a truth you’re not supposed to mention.
But the Georgia bill quite purposely didn’t include any language saying women couldn’t be prosecuted.
That brings us to Alabama, where on Thursday the all-white-male Republican contingent in the state senate tried to sneak through an amendment to their own even more radical bill, which would outlaw all abortions, heartbeat or no, and make abortion a felony punishable by 99 years in prison.
When they tried to pass an amendment to remove exceptions for rape and incest from the bill, Democrats erupted in anger and demanded a voice vote, and the bill was tabled until next week. Its author in the Alabama House, Rep. Terri Collins, makes no bones about the fact that she hopes it will be the vehicle for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. “This bill is simply about Roe v. Wade," she says.
And in Ohio, where Republicans passed a heartbeat bill last month, they’re now pushing a bill that would ban private insurance companies from offering coverage that includes not only abortion but also any forms of birth control that can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills and IUDs.
The bill’s author, Rep. John Becker, is so knowledgeable about how women’s bodies work that he included a provision saying insurance would still be allowed to cover a “procedure for an ectopic pregnancy, that is intended to re-implant the fertilized ovum into the pregnant woman’s uterus.” As one physician patiently explained, “Unfortunately, an ectopic pregnancy cannot be ‘reimplanted’ into the uterus. We just don’t have the technology. So I would suggest removing this from your bill, since it’s pure science fiction.”
Why the sudden wave of plainly unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation? The answer is that even though public opinion has not shifted — around 60-65 percent of Americans in polls consistently say Roe should remain and abortion should be legal — Republicans realize they now have a chance they didn’t have before Mitch McConnell refused to allow Barack Obama to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat and Anthony Kennedy retired. There are now five justices on the court who are almost certainly opposed to Roe, so state Republicans are hoping to force their hand.
As I’ve noted before, if they wanted to be sneaky about it, the Supreme Court could make Roe meaningless without overturning it, by narrowing the notion of an “undue burden” on the right to an abortion (a standard established in another abortion case) so far that states would be free to impose even the most draconian restrictions, like mandating that all abortion clinics be built of solid gold, use medical instruments that have been to space, and communicate with their patients only in cuneiform. The outlawing of abortion wouldn’t be in the language of the bill, but it would be the inevitable effect.
But heartbeat bills wage a more direct assault on the right to abortion, by simply making most of them illegal. They don’t pretend to be about women’s health. They don’t pretend to hold women and their rights in anything but contempt. In that sense, they’re at least a little more honest about what Republicans want to do.