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Opinion The coming reign of reproductive terror

An abortion rights demonstrator dressed in a Handmaid's Tale costume, protests outside the Supreme Court on June 24. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Having been liberated by the Supreme Court to enact whatever restrictions on abortion they like, Republicans are moving rapidly toward a reign of reproductive terror.

That may sound like hyperbole. But the conclusion is inescapable once you examine state laws already passed, ones under consideration, and the way antiabortion activists and politicians are mobilizing state power, media allies and even ordinary citizens against women and health-care providers. The clear goal is to force them to live in constant fear of harassment, intimidation, economic ruin and even jail.

It’s vital to understand that while the precise legal contours of these right-wing efforts are meaningful, just as important is the atmosphere that antiabortion politicians and advocates are attempting to create. That’s how terror works: The immediate victims, even if they’re few, are a tool used to strike fear in everyone else.

Let’s start with the high-profile case of the 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio who went to Indiana for an abortion. At first, conservatives claimed the story was a hoax. But after an arrest was made, they pivoted to targeting the doctor. “This Indiana abortion doctor has covered this up,” said Fox News host Jesse Watters, asserting that the doctor hadn’t filed the proper paperwork.

In fact she had, but Watters neither knew nor cared. The purpose was to make her a target.

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You might wonder how the right could simultaneously claim that the doctor was “covering up” the abortion and that she is an attention-seeking activist bringing too much notice to the story, but logic is irrelevant. What matters is fear.

That was the goal of Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. On Watters’ show, Rokita said of the doctor: “We’re gathering the evidence as we speak, and we’re going to fight this to the end, including looking at her licensure.”

Imagine what it feels like to do your job, follow the law, and then find the attorney general of your state saying on TV that he will “fight” you to the end and ruin your career.

To repeat, the doctor filed the required paperwork. Rokita, a far-right Republican just threw out an unfounded accusation. That sends a warning to every doctor performing abortions in the state: We might come for you too.

It doesn’t matter whether you did anything wrong. Just think of all the legal fees and online harassment and death threats you’ll get once they start repeating your name and putting your picture up on Fox.

And consider those reporting requirements: The state of Indiana demands all kinds of information about every abortion and every patient who gets one. Republican-led states already use such requirements as a tool to harass and intimidate doctors and health-care facilities, imposing burdensome bureaucratic mandates on them and threatening them with fines and even jail time if they make any paperwork mistakes.

What about exceptions to save the life of the mother? In many states, they’re already written so vaguely that doctors can never be sure if a prosecutor will second-guess their medical judgment and come after them.

Rest assured, once abortion is outlawed in every red state, legislators will come up with a new set of onerous regulations meant to enforce the bans.

For instance, it will be difficult to stop women from obtaining abortion medications, which essentially induce miscarriage. So how about complex reporting requirements that turn every woman who has a miscarriage into something like a criminal suspect, to be reported to and potentially interrogated by police? Women have already been investigated after miscarrying, and this practice may accelerate.

How about if we encourage pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for drugs that treat conditions such as arthritis and ulcers but might also be used for abortions? How about if we get those pharmacists to refuse to sell morning-after pills while we’re at it?

Create enough fear and shame, and treat every woman and health-care provider like potential criminals who should be surveilled and investigated, and you’ve gone a long way toward establishing a reign of terror.

Key to that strategy is widening the circle of fear as much as possible. The vigilante laws that began with Senate Bill 8 in Texas — which allowed anyone to sue someone who might have helped a woman get an abortion more than six weeks into a pregnancy — mean anyone you know (or even people you don’t) could come after you. Your friends and family could be targeted as well.

What about tracking your movements? The next frontier is laws that seek to prevent women from going out of state to get an abortion where it’s still legal. None of those proposals has passed yet, but within the antiabortion movement they’re being eagerly discussed.

It’s true that multiple Supreme Court cases establish that Americans have a right to travel. But the legal question is complicated enough that there’s no telling what might happen with a motivated Supreme Court majority that doesn’t care about precedent when it conflicts with something they want to do.

In fact, Democrats just introduced a bill to bar states from punishing women who travel to get a legal abortion. The bill was blocked by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who asked, “Does that child in the womb have the right to travel in their future?” The fetus apparently has rights, but women don’t.

This is how the new reality will be built. Until every woman of childbearing age and every doctor lives in fear, the right’s job is not yet done.