Formerly fringe views seeking to upend Roe v Wade are now mainstream talking points for prominent conservative politicians
Roe v Wade wasn’t overruled in the 1992 US supreme court case Planned Parenthood v Casey, but the justices did give states the power to regulate and restrict the procedure. In the years since, many states did make abortion much harder to obtain without officially outlawing it. But the pro-life movement means to push until restrictions turn into bans. And as the electoral primaries heat up, it’s becoming clear that that radicalism has moved into the mainstream in the Republican Party.
The most obvious example of this was from the candidate debate on Thursday. Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, “You recently signed an abortion law in Wisconsin that does have an exception for the mother’s life,” she queried , “but you’re on the record as having objected to it. Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83% of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?”
Walker was given a chance to evade or repudiate his extreme position, perhaps by merely expressing support for the law he signed. In what is a credit to his integrity (although not his humanity), Walker held firm to his extremist position: “I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother.”
It’s is almost impossible to overstate how radical and indefensible Walker’s position is. His argument that there are “alternatives” to abortion when a pregnancy is life-threatening is pure gibberish . The draconian bans common in the period before the supreme court’s 1973 decision in Roe v Wade almost always included an exemption for the life of the mother. (The Texas statute at issue in the case did.) Even Catholic doctrine makes an exception for the life of the mother. And as Kelly observed, Walker’s position is massively unpopular, and for good reason: the idea that a woman should be coerced by the state to carry a pregnancy to term even at the risk of her life is the purest barbarism.
The law Walker signed was radical enough, banning abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape and incest, although second trimester abortions remain constitutionally protected under Planned Parenthood v Casey. And Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell views the Wisconsin statute as a national model.
Nor it Walker an outlier. Consider Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. In his 2008 bid for the presidency – which peaked with winning the Iowa caucus before flaming out – Huckabee ran as a relatively affable social conservative. That approach having failed, Huckabee’s approach this time seems to be to appeal to voters who consider Donald Trump excessively tactful and cool-tempered. His over-the-top-all-the-time approach has definitely extended to reproductive rights – in late July, he mused about sending federal troops to stop women from having abortions.
Huckabee was true to form in the first debate. Scoffing at the idea of merely defunding Planned Parenthood, Huckabee advocated a truly “bold” idea: “I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”
If taken seriously, the idea that the fetus is a “person” under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments would mean that a woman who obtained an abortion and a doctor who performed one would be guilty of first-degree murder in all 50 states and under federal law. If Huckabee doesn’t mean this, it’s not clear what he does mean, but it would certainly be nothing good for American women.
Granted, Mike Huckabee is not going to be the Republican candidate for president. But Marco Rubio might be, and he denied last week that he had ever supported a rape or incest exception to abortion laws. “What I have advocated is that we pass law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection,” he told the audience. “In fact, I think that law already exists. It is called the Constitution of the United States.”
It’s not news that Rubio disagrees with reproductive freedom – he opposed Obama supreme court nominee Sonia Sotomayor because of his opposition not only to Roe v Wade but to any constitutional right to privacy. Indeed, Rubio introduced a 20-week abortion ban while asserting that while science doesn’t prove that the climate is warming, it does prove that “life begins at conception.” It’s worth noting that this position puts him far to the right of justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have held that while the Constitution does not protect a woman’s right to choose, it does not make a fetus a legal person. This theory also repudiates the classic Republican evasion , the argument that they wish to overrule Roe v Wade merely to “send the issue back to the states.”
Followers of policy at the state level could see all this coming. Opponents of reproductive freedom, especially in the reddest states, are no longer satisfied with merely making abortion less accessible (especially for poor and rural women). They want it all. And those awful ideas from the state level are floating to the top. Some of the frontrunner Republicans are explicit about wanting women to have even fewer reproductive rights than 19th-century American women did.
American women, then, face a stark choice. Two of the frontrunners would seek to extinguish a woman’s right to choose entirely. If Scott Walker had his way, women who get pregnant would potentially face a state-imposed death sentence. Given that the next president could be in a position to replace Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer – two of the members of the razor-thin five-vote majority supporting Roe v Wade – Americans who don’t want to return women to the reproductive dark ages should vote accordingly come November.
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