Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

If you want to understand how damaging the brouhaha over the 20-week abortion ban is to the GOP’s strategy on reproductive rights, and how they might try to recover, you should actually read a column written just before that bill blew up, by Amanda Marcotte for RH Reality Check. Comparing the SOTU response by Joni Ernst to last year’s by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Marcotte noted that stealth anti-choice zealotry was becoming the GOP’s SOP:

Last year, Republicans, up in arms over the “war on women” meme, were trying to justify their attacks on Americans’ bodily autonomy. Subsequently, Rodgers really dwelled on the issue in her speech, talking about how she personally had three children, one with Down syndrome, while serving as a member of Congress. The implication was easy enough to grasp: Rodgers has had no need for reproductive choice in order to work, so why should you?

Ernst, however, mentioned abortion in the most perfunctory manner, saying, “And we’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society.” There were no other nods to the issue of restricting reproductive rights, despite Ernst’s long history of being obsessive and radical about the topic—including her support of “personhood” amendments, which could criminalize some miscarriages and potentially be used to attack legal contraception. Yet she seemed nearly indifferent to the issue in her rebuttal.

Based on this difference, it seems as if Republican tactics have shifted from trying to justify their extreme anti-choice views to trying to minimize them. That’s understandable in a country where support for legal abortion remains stable, despite a four-decade campaign draping the procedure in shame. This also appears to have been the strategy during the campaign season, where some Republicans like Scott Walker and, yes, Joni Ernst tried to imply that their “pro-life” views would not have any actual impact on your ability to get an abortion.

That last point is almost an understatement, given that Ernst argued in a Senate debate that her advocacy of a state constitutional amendment to invalidate any laws contradicting the “personhood” rights of zygotes was just a symbolic statement of her generally warm feelings towards “life.”

The general idea is to keep the discussion about abortion as a semi-private matter between Republicans and the antichoice folk who are so important to the GOP until such time as Republicans are in a position to degrade reproductive rights in a big way. That’s why yesterday’s developments were a fiasco for the GOP–but Republicans won’t hesitate to use it to add to their protective coloration on the subject. Keep in mind that these are people who perpetually try to justify reducing or eliminating reproductive rights as a matter of protecting women’s health, despite the total lack of evidence that safe, legal abortions carry any particular health risk.

So prochoice folk who relax their vigilance after the (temporary) withdrawal of the federal abortion ban legislation are making a mistake. The minute Republicans are in a position to do so, the very large balloon payment they owe on a very large mortgage to the antichoice movement will come due, and there’s no reason to assume they’ll screw it up.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.