Is it possible to talk about abortion without talking about the people who have abortions? Increasingly, abortion rights opponents, including several Republican presidential candidates, are trying to find out.
As the New York Times reported Monday, many in the GOP—in an effort to shake the “war on women” label that gained renewed traction after Todd Akin claimed that the female body has magic, sperm-destroying properties—are retooling how they talk about abortion with the help of “a well-funded, well-researched and invigorated anti-abortion movement.”
And a whole lot of consultants. Kellyanne Conway, a strategist who has worked with the Republican National Committee to develop messaging around abortion, has advised candidates (particularly men) to focus on ultrasounds, fetuses, and graphic details of the procedures when framing their opposition to abortion rights. “The out-of-sight, out-of-mind mantra that propelled the pro-choice movement for decades is forever gone,” Conway told the Times.
She also recommended steering clear of discussions about rape, though Republicans have had a mixed go of it. Earlier this year, the House GOP split over a measure to ban abortion at 20 weeks even though an identical bill passed with strong backing in 2013. But this time around, a group of Republican women took issue with the bill’s narrow rape exception—a provision that required rape victims to report the assault to the police in order to have an abortion.
Wary of the optics of involved in forcing victims of an assault go to the cops in exchange for healthcare—but apparently not the provision itself, based on previous votes for the measure—North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers and others pulled their support. “We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we’re moving forward,” Ellmers said in an interview with National Journal after she reversed course on the measure.
While avoiding discussions of rape has been a challenge for the GOP, the shift to talking about ultrasounds, fetal pain, and viability—instead of the circumstances that women may find themselves in when they choose to terminate a pregnancy—seems to have taken hold, particularly among 2016’s Republican contenders.
But in this new framing, pregnancy is often treated as a condition absent a body. Abortion is a medical procedure performed on no one at all.
There are fetuses, and those fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks, according to Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham. (Medical evidence disputes this claim and medical associations like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose 20-week bans, but consensus among every major medical group hasn’t slowed the talking point.) And last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who recently ordered an investigation into Planned Parenthood, said during a radio interview that the “patient” in an abortion is the “unborn baby.”
There are ultrasounds, and those ultrasounds should be mandatory because they are “just a cool thing,” as Scott Walker recently said. They are also a prompt for Rick Perry to talk about looking at a “20-week picture of my first grandbaby” or for Marco Rubio to recall how, after seeing an ultrasound during his wife’s pregnancy, he knew it showed that “they were children—and they were our children.”
And there is the question of viability, also abstracted beyond the body. Last week, a federal appeals court struck down a North Dakota law banning abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy with a ruling asking the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade, because the question of viability—when a fetus can survive outside the womb—”is better left to the states.”
Listen closely and you’ll find that there are very few women to be found here. Instead, there are just fetuses. Just praise for technological advancements that offer increasingly detailed ultrasound images. Just floating questions about finding, according to the 8th Circuit, “a more consistent and certain marker than viability” to dictate when abortion should be legal.
By focusing on the fetus instead of women who want and need the procedure, anti-abortion politicians and activists are attempting to sidestep the personal and moral dimensions of the decision. But the realities of abortion—the one in three women who will have the procedure in their lifetime and the millions of reasons why—are always looming just outside the frame. You can try to take women out of the picture, but they’re never actually gone.
An ultrasound—”really cool” thing though it may be—is also how parents may learn, at 18 weeks, about a severe fetal anomaly that will change the course of their pregnancy. But in states like Wisconsin, where Scott Walker recently signed a 20-week abortion ban into law, the decision about what to do next is no longer left to the parents.
While Rick Perry talks about the images of his grandchildren at 20 weeks gestation, the staggering number of Texans who have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic, overcome financial barriers, and often wait days before accessing basic healthcare, including abortion, remains unspoken.
And while candidates from Rand Paul to Ted Cruz call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the women who would lose access to cancer screenings, STI tests, and other essential preventative care are noticeably absent from the picture.
“Rape,” according to another consultant who spoke to the Times, is a word best avoided by the GOP. But as Republicans attempt to focus their attention on fetuses and ultrasounds in the lead up to 2016, it’s clear that “women” may soon become one, too.