During the Republican primary in 2012, one of Mitt Romney’s most damaging gaffes was saying that he would “get rid of” Planned Parenthood. If only that were the Republican Party’s biggest problem with women today.
Leading in the early polls, billionaire blowhard Donald Trump ignited a firestorm of controversy when he said that Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who moderated last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland, had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump was angry that Kelly had the gall to ask, among other things, how Trump justified his lengthy record of misogynist attacks on women. (“The big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he answered, ridiculously conflating political correctness with common decency.)
However, Trump’s ugly bombast is a distraction from a far more serious problem for the GOP. Three years after Romney lost the women’s vote by a double-digit margin, in part because of his support for defunding Planned Parenthood, the presidential debates last week made clear Republicans have only become more disrespectful toward women’s bodies, more deranged in their hatred of Planned Parenthood and more dismissive of female voters.
The rhetorical assault on women began in Thursday’s “undercard debate,” where seven Republican also-rans tried to breathe life into their listless campaigns. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reflected the party’s disdainful attitude when he promised to investigate Planned Parenthood with “the Department of Justice and the IRS and everybody else that we can send from the federal government.” Carly Fiorina, who was crowned the “winner” of the debate by many observers, likewise attacked Hillary Clinton for “defending Planned Parenthood.” And despite being the only candidate who identifies as pro-choice, former New York governor George Pataki called for defunding Planned Parenthood, which he accused of showing a “hideous disrespect for life.”
But the most deplorable statements came when the top-tier candidates — all men, of course — took the stage in prime time. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio denied that he believes rape and incest victims should be legally permitted to have abortions, adding that future generations will “call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies.” And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker went a step further by defending his opposition to abortion even when the woman’s life is in danger, while criticizing Clinton’s “radical position” of supporting Planned Parenthood.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee delivered the most grotesque line of the night. “It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick,” he said. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) echoed Jindal, pledging that he would order the Justice Department to investigate Planned Parenthood on his first day in office.
Finally, there was former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the supposed “moderate” in the race. “As governor of Florida, I defunded Planned Parenthood,” he boasted, adding, “We were the first state to do a ‘choose life’ license plate.” For Bush, the debate came just a few days after he got himself in hot water for saying, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.” And while Bush later said he “misspoke,” insisting that he merely wants to divert funds from Planned Parenthood into community health centers, his record suggests otherwise: In Florida, Bush redirected money from Planned Parenthood into abstinence education and funded “crisis pregnancy centers” that discourage women from having abortions.
Regardless, what Bush meant to say is irrelevant. Women’s health is clearly not a priority for the GOP. Neither are women, in general. On the contrary, the gleeful cheering by the debate audience showed that disrespect for women’s bodies is baked into the party’s DNA. That’s why Republicans are attacking Planned Parenthood — an organization that has provided cancer screenings, birth control and other health-care services to millions of women in the United States — with increasing hostility, and it’s why the position that was once a liability for Romney has now become a litmus test for GOP contenders.
In the short term, GOP primary candidates may benefit from staking out such extremist positions, but they are undoubtedly alienating female voters and making it even more difficult to ever win a national election. As the party gets smaller and more conservative, GOP leaders’ anti-woman vitriol is getting worse and their stances on women’s health issues are getting more dangerous. Unless they change course soon, the party will only continue to shrink, and the cycle will continue. Indeed, with their distorted view of “life,” Republicans may be trapped in a death spiral from which they cannot escape.