Roundtable – State Abortion Laws and Roe v Wade

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on June 1, 2019.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

Hello and welcome to today’s Roundtable, our regular Torchlight staff discussion of current events. This time we’re tackling the recent spate of extreme anti-abortion laws that have passed in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, and Utah, all either dramatically or moderately restricting access to abortion, most notably in the form of so-called “heartbeat bills,” which can involve outlawing abortions after as little as six weeks of pregnancy. To start with, what is it about our current political climate that has led to such a large and consistent push for new abortion restrictions at the state level?

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

I think the most obvious catalyst are Gorsuch and Kavanaugh being elevated to the Supreme Court. They think they have the numbers to get their way, and they can hold it for a long, long time. Another consideration, I think, is that a lot of conservatives are super afraid of 2020, and this is a way to pump up the base.

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

Honestly, Christo took my answer.  It’s obvious that the GOP’s run of Supreme Court placements is central to what’s going on here.

They’re probably even looking at the possibility the Ginsburg’s seat opens before these cases make it to the Supremes.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

I agree with the others here.  There has been a steady pressure to get to this point, probably from the moment Roe v. Wade came out.  Anti-abortion stances tend to be felt passionately, often, but not always, arising from religious convictions on a conscious level, and many other issues, on an unconscious one.  I know people from immigrant populations of particular religions in my area of the country voted for Trump in droves in the hopes he would help end abortion, no doubt through the Supreme Court seats that came to pass.  They did this despite Trump’s immigration stances being most likely to harm and target them, which has also come to pass. Abortion is a powerful wedge issue, and Trump and many other political figures on the Right have successfully harnessed it for political gains.

Josh

Yeah, the abortion battle in America has been a political tool essentially since its inception, and it appears that the opportunity to potentially reverse Roe has excited activists and emboldened Republican politicians to try and achieve that end. So let’s talk about what is actually in these new anti-abortion measures and what makes them so extreme? If these laws are indeed implemented, what would be the state of abortion rights in these red states and how would that effect pregnant women who reside there? [Ed – Newsweek provides a helpful guide: These are the 11 conservative states that have passed strict anti-abortion laws this year]

Christo

Let’s not forget Missouri, which has one clinic left, and its permitting is in jeopardy. Currently the whole thing is under stay.

Josh

Yeah, it’s true that the state of abortion access in much of the country was precarious at best even before this recent wave of legislation.

David

I think the most basic issue is that under these heartbeat bills it’s very easy for women to already be past the threshold before they even know they are pregnant.

Christo

And these laws are explicitly designed to go before SCOTUS

Josh

Should we look at these laws in terms of efforts to overturn Roe, but assume abortion restrictions would take some more moderate form; or should we assume that these laws accurately reflect the restrictive framework in a post-Roe America?

David

Once Roe is gone, why would these laws be dropped?  What these legislatures want are outright bans anyway.  Many individual states would protect abortion rights to varying degrees post-Roe, but plenty will close the door as far as they can.

Ann

I assume restriction is the name of the game. It is all about getting to the point of no abortions whatsoever.  We now have on the books in these states a range of laws to allow the Supreme Court to either incrementally restrict or completely end abortion. Let’s not forget a recent Supreme Court case that signalled this Court is willing to completely ignore its own precedents.  So I assume the ultimate end game is to end all abortion.

Christo

They are basically so restrictive so that SCOTUS can pick and choose without necessarily wiping away Roe outright.

Ann

Absolutely correct.

David

I wonder how the court will do it.  Roe originally rested on the lack of detectable brain activity.  There’s not much between that and “the sperm looked at the egg funny” to serve as a dividing line

Christo

Well, that’s the thing. We don’t know how the court rules.

Ann

The current administration has already issued guidelines based on the idea that life begins at conception, and advancements in science mean those opposing abortion have found new arguments for why everything that’s gone before on the subject needs to be reconsidered and tossed out.  This Supreme Court will likely go for that to at least some degree.

Josh

Stepping away from the ideological divide for a moment; if implemented, will these laws be successful in severely reducing the number of abortions performed in these states?

Christo

Well, that’s the thing. As we said, these places are heavily restricted anyways, so most abortions are performed where there are fewer restrictions. The wealthy uteruses will be able to go out of state. It’s the already vulnerable and marginalized that get hurt.

Ann

It will be hard to tell what that kind of impact may be. As already mentioned here, access has become more and more limited in several states for some time.  If abortions are made largely illegal in those states, how does one get accurate numbers on the illegal abortions that may happen? We know worldwide that whether abortion is legal or not, abortions will continue.

Josh

What’s the downside of an illegal abortion?

Ann

The downside is huge. Health issues for both the mother and the unborn go up when a medical professional is not allowed to legally care for them.  Even if we are not talking about loss of life of the mother, permanent damage is still on the table.

David

Descriptions from Ireland and other countries with recent experience with bans are not pretty

Josh

What kind of policies would you implement if your aim was to reduce the number of abortions, legal and illegal?

Christo

Make birth control easier to purchase, especially the morning after pill and so on

Ann

That’s the thing. After Roe v. Wade, abortion numbers in this country initially spiked and then steadily decreased. With the decriminalization of abortion also came the destigmatizing of family planning in general. That helped greatly in reducing numbers. Right now, the poor and marginalized still don’t have great access to any of these things or health care. We need to make all of that accessible to everyone.

We need to also bear in mind that regardless of what we do, abortions will still happen, for medical reasons if nothing else.

Josh

What do you feel explains the gap between those policies? Republican politicians are in favor of criminalizing abortion, against birth control, against comprehensive sex education, etc. Why are they dedicated to the advancement of a policy agenda that is proven not to achieve their stated ends?

Ann

It goes back to what we talked about before. Abortion is something people feel passionately about and that passion can be harnessed for political gains. Thus GOP politicians amplify people’s fears and anger on this issue to get them riled up to vote.  They also rely heavily on the Evangelical set for funding and support, a set which strongly favors such measures in the guise of selective morality. I’m going to add to that the fact that controlling women is often an unconscious, if not a conscious, goal of GOP politics. I suspect part of that may stem from the very real voting power of some female groups, like African-American women, who, again, are some of those most impacted by these restrictive laws.

Unstated in all of this is that the GOP is not interested in policy, they are interested in maintaining power. Political point scoring matters more to them than policy.

David

Also consider there are political forces trying to block legal access to all forms of birth control.

Ann

I’d argue one of the goals of the anti-abortion push is to do just that.  Every sperm is sacred, and all that.

David

There is a definite political constituency for eliminating anything that makes recreational sex possible

Ann

I’d change that to “recreational sex for women”. Men are not being penalized or controlled here.

David

Surely you know that men only have sex outside of marriage because women are evil temptresses!

Make parenthood an unavoidable consequence of sex and all those harlots will stop putting out, you see, and men will just get married the way Christians are supposed to.  It worked great in the Fifties…

Ann

That is exactly the attitude that Western culture keeps putting out there. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the discussion could be opened up and thus the stigma against women for merely being able to have sex waned some.  This in many ways is a pendulum swing reaction back, as cultures tend to do. Western culture is fine with women as mothers, but only if it’s by virgin birth. Otherwise women, as sexual beings, are all harlots. That attitude, as part of our gestalt, is an easy one to tap into.

Christo

Also, the lack of Republican support for programs like WIC

Josh

Does the Evangelical influence also partly explain why these laws are so extreme and why they don’t have exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother, which are all fairly popular even among Republican voters? This feels like an issue where 90% of the fight is between the extremes on both sides, despite there basically being a majority consensus around Roe and somewhere in the middle of a pregnancy as the cut-off line, excepting exceptions.

David

If it were not for the Supreme Court lineup I would absolutely place this at the foot of Evangelical politics. However, as Christo I think noted, this is now about getting a case before the Court.  In that case extreme is good because it places the greatest possible range of restrictions before the justices, maximizing the potential payoff. I have no doubt that many legislatures want a complete ban on all abortions, but even if they don’t the main issue is getting the Federal government out of restricting the states from picking whatever policies they want, so going for the whole enchilada is still a good tactic.

Ann

I’d say that the Supreme Court lineup is what it is, in part, because of the Evangelical support. The nominees were meant to appease them and ensure there continued voting block.

David

True

Ann

At the risk of repeating what Dave and others have already said here though, while the Evangelical influence is a big part of it, that’s not the whole story. This goes back to what we were discussing before. The goal is to end Roe v. Wade and ultimately end abortion. Hence, the multiple state laws, all with varying levels of restrictiveness, all designed to be sent up to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe v. Wade and make new law on access to abortion.  The idea is to present the conservatives on the Supreme Court with a buffet of options, and they get to pick and choose what works to get the job done.

Josh

As we draw this discussion to a close, let’s speculate. Do we think SCOTUS will take up one or more of the challenges to these laws? Will they overturn Roe? Are we really headed for a Handmaid’s Tale situation?

David

I expect some of the cases will be heard if only because there are so many of them.  I don’t assume that the end of Roe is a slam dunk. Stare decisis is still a living principle in the court, and depending on exactly how arguments proceed and who is on the court when they finally are heard, we could see a pretty wide range of outcomes.  I think it’s a definite negative that the cases will even be heard, but the future is still in motion.

Ann

I don’t know that I want to say we are headed to something as extreme as the Handmaid’s Tale.  However, I think that Roe v. Wade being torn down incrementally is very possible. as is the erosion of access to family planning concepts and birth control. The overturn of Roe v. Wade may even be all at once, although I think that less likely.  However, if something like Alabama’s recent law gets considered and rejected, that too serves a purpose, because the conservatives on the Supreme Court can, through their decision, instruct anti-abortion forces how to do things going forward.

Josh

We’re about out of time for today’s discussion. Any final thoughts on these anti-abortion measures?

David

I’m going to just state the basic truth:  by our current scientific understanding, there is no human life inside a body that does not have brain activity; it’s the same threshold for taking organs from a human body for donation.  All of these efforts at blocking early abortions should be viewed as violations of the First amendment establishment clause, as there is no basis for arguing to protect cell tissues except religious faith.

Ann

I have two comments, if I may. I want to reiterate that the main basis for this argument against abortion really rests in the idea that women just go around using it as an alternative form of birth control and to murder children. From my own anecdotal knowledge, that just is not the case. Every woman I have known who has had an abortion has only done so after serious consideration, consultation with the father and medical professionals, and for very compelling reasons, none of which were to end an unexpected pregnancy. Every decision was agonizing. In contrast, every woman I have known who became pregnant unexpectedly went on to carry the child to term, even when doing so was not something they could afford, or it affected their career or whatever. The framing of this argument angers me because it totally mischaracterizes what I know and understand of the situation.

Second, these abortion laws are not really about the personhood of zygotes, but about restricting the personhood of women. The retrograde action on that ground is deeply disturbing. How is it that people who make up approximately one-half of any population still count as a marginalized group? That should not be a goal of a society supposedly dedicated to freedom and equality.

Christo

I think that Roe v Wade is not in danger of being struck down per se. The danger is, as Ann notes, the continued undermining (and incredibly successful undermining) of women’s rights to personhood. Missouri has literally 1 clinic that provides abortions, and it is under severe threat. Some states are trying to make sure women are required to record miscarriage in detail. The long and short of it is that it is yet another example of our side simply assuming because the battle had been won just once, the fight was over. I am hoping this generation learns that we can’t ever stop fighting for a better tomorrow, because if we don’t it could very well be worse.

Josh

I agree with all of that, and I think more than anything these laws demonstrate quite starkly the importance of state and local elections. Just look at Nevada, where the country’s only majority-female legislature is actually expanding abortion access. Elections have consequences, and if we want to protect the rights of women to be healthy and free to choose for their bodies and their lives, we have to focus on overturning Republican control in as many of these states as possible. In a way, the movement has been complacent under Roe. If there’s a silver lining to this renewed push to threaten abortion rights, I hope it’s that people see this as a wake up call to get involved.

For now, thanks everyone for participating, and thank for reading. This concludes another excellent edition of the Torchlight Roundtable.

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