When the Republican Party’s platform committee adopted a provision seeking an unconditional ban on abortion this week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell lauded its members for “affirming our respect for human life.”
It was a familiar refrain from the first-term governor. He leads a new wave of state and federal legislators who have made it harder for most U.S. women to get an abortion today than at any time since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to choose in 1973.
Congressman Todd Akin’s assertion that “legitimate” rape victims can will away an unwanted pregnancy may have shocked the U.S. chattering classes. But a look at what has been going on in state legislatures and Congress shows he has plenty of company.
A more assertive and unbending breed of anti-abortion politician has entered office in recent years. These crusaders, many of them evangelical Christians, refuse to compromise in the pursuit of their ultimate goal of a constitutional ban on abortion.
For them, as Mr. Akin said this week in explaining his refusal to drop out of the Missouri Senate race, “there is a cause here.”
The Tea Party Republicans who swept state elections in 2010 largely campaigned and won on promises to rein in spending and taxes. But if they have pursued fiscal reforms with mixed results, they have shown a singular purpose on the abortion file, one that belies the national mood.
Public opinion about abortion has been relatively stable for the past two decades. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released this month showed that 55 per cent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Only 17 per cent favour an unconditional ban, while 26 per cent think it should be illegal in most instances.
By its 1973 ruling, the Supreme Court prohibited states and Congress from outlawing abortion. But Republicans and conservative Democrats have become more creative – and determined – to make it as difficult as possible for women to get access to the procedure.
“Really, when it comes to abortion, we’re moving backwards,” insisted Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights research group. “There has been a concerted effort at the state level to adopt abortion restrictions.”
In 2011, state legislatures enacted a record 92 provisions that regulate abortion, according to Guttmacher’s tally. In the first half of 2012, states passed 39 more restrictions, already making it the second-highest year on record.
The result, a Guttmacher report concludes, is that 55 per cent of U.S. women of child-bearing age now live in states that are “hostile” to abortion, compared to 31 per cent in 2000.
The new measures include forcing women to undergo an ultrasound, and view images of the fetus, before having an abortion; extending the waiting period for an abortion to 72 hours; refusing to pay for abortions under state Medicaid programs for the poor; imposing more onerous regulations on abortion clinics; and withdrawing state funding from Planned Parenthood, as a federal appeals court allowed Texas to do on Tuesday.
The cumulative impact of such restrictions is hard to ignore. Mississippi had 14 abortion clinics 30 years ago. There is now only one. And if the current Republican governor and legislature have their way, there will soon be none.
Last month, a federal judge imposed a temporary halt on a new Mississippi law that requires doctors who perform abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The bill was widely seen as an attempt to shut down the state’s remaining abortion clinic, whose physicians commute to the Jackson facility from out of state.
Virginia’s Mr. McDonnell, who came to office in 2010, was at the centre of a political firestorm earlier this year when his state’s Republican-led House of Delegates adopted a bill requiring women to have a vaginal ultrasound before undergoing an abortion. The requirement, which involves inserting a probe into the vagina, was denounced by most Democrats and abortion-rights advocates as an attempt to shame women who seek an abortion and discourage them from ending their pregnancy.
Mr. McDonnell eventually softened his stand somewhat in the face of a national uproar. The law he signed forces women seeking an abortion to get a vaginal ultrasound only if a mandatory abdominal ultrasound provides too little information about the fetus, which is typically the case during the first weeks of a pregnancy.
Once touted as a potential vice-presidential candidate, Mr. McDonnell’s anti-abortion militancy may have cost him any chance of becoming Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate. But it has made him a hero among the religious right.
Mr. Romney has doggedly attempted to steer clear of the abortion debate and focus his campaign on economic and fiscal issues. That strategy started to unravel after Mr. Akin’s remarks thrust abortion to the fore of the presidential campaign.
It fell apart after the party committee Mr. McDonnell chairs included a call for a “human life amendment” to the U.S. Constitution in the 2012 GOP platform. The amendment would render abortion illegal even in cases of rape or incest – in contradiction of Mr. Romney’s own position. He supports such exceptions.
The Republican base remains fervently opposed to abortion – a reality Mr. Romney discovered as he fought off a lengthy primary challenge from former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who owed his win in the Iowa caucuses to anti-abortion activists.
Despite representing a minority of Americans, the anti-abortion movement is arguably more powerful than ever. What it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in intensity.
A 2009 Pew Research study found that “opposition to abortion has grown more firm among conservatives, who have become less supportive of finding a middle ground on the issue and more certain of the correctness of their own views on abortion.”
Mr. Akin is representative of this breed. While he has apologized for his initial words, the controversy surrounding them has given him a renewed sense of purpose.
“I don’t apologize for being pro-life and standing up for the ones who are defenceless,” he told Good Morning America on Wednesday. “That is a deep conviction that I have.”
Mr. Akin’s own political career may soon end. Pundits do not give him much chance of winning his Senate race now. That might delight his foes. But the truth is, Congress and state legislatures are filled with many more like him.