Politics and “Personhood”
April 15, 2012 | by Michelle Goldberg
When American politics was engulfed by a furious debate over contraception earlier this year, many onlookers were puzzled. The 2010 election, which saw sweeping conservative victories at both the state and national level, was fought over economic, not social issues. How did the Tea Party’s triumph turn into a war on women?
Partly, it was a bait and switch. Much of the Tea Party was always the Christian right rebranded; according to the Public Religion Research Institute, three quarters of Tea Partiers consider themselves Christian conservatives. Among those who made their way to Congress with Tea Party support were Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY), a former spokesperson for the militant Operation Rescue, and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), who once backed legislation authorizing murder charges against women who had late-term abortions.
In state legislatures, anti-abortion lobbyists pushed for onerous regulations that dictated everything down to the landscaping of clinic grounds. These laws were meant to drive clinics out of business, but they could be defended as attempts to improve women’s healthcare rather than undermine it, and they rarely made headlines.
Established anti-abortion groups once disdained the impracticality of the “personhood” movement, which sought to legally define fertilized eggs as human beings. Besides banning abortion, personhood would outlaw some types of birth control, like the pill and IUD, that can prevent fertilized eggs from implanting, as well as standard in vitro fertilization techniques. In 2011, the personhood movement lost a referendum in Mississippi, an embarrassing defeat given the state’s conservatism.
And yet Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich have participated in several personhood forums; Perry used the opportunity to repent for supporting legal abortion for rape victims. Even Mitt Romney has voiced support for personhood laws. In Oklahoma, a personhood bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Personhood helped turn the war on abortion into a broader war on women’s healthcare. So did the demonization of Planned Parenthood, spearheaded by the anti-abortion activist Lila Rose. Her group, Live Action, sent a man posing as a pimp into Planned Parenthood clinics, ostensibly seeking services for underage girls under his control. The resulting videos suggest that clinic staffers cooperated with him.
What they don’t show is Planned Parenthood then notifying the FBI of a potential sex-trafficking ring. It didn’t matter. The notion that Planned Parenthood abets sex slavery has become a truism on the right, and a rationale for a broad attack on the organization.
Thus, in early 2011, the House of Representatives voted to cut off all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, despite the fact that none of it pays for abortion. Pushing for the legislation, Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) cited Rose’s video. That effort failed, so in April, House anti-abortion leaders tried to tie the defunding of Planned Parenthood to a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Then Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) announced an investigation into the organization. Meanwhile, the states saw a maelstrom of anti-abortion, anti–family planning laws. In 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, states enacted 92 abortion restrictions, more than double the 2005 record of 34. Several states voted to defund Planned Parenthood. South Dakota passed a law requiring women seeking abortions to first submit to a lecture at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. (It was enjoined pending a court decision.)
In Texas, Governor Rick Perry declared a mandatory sonogram bill an “emergency” measure. The law requires most women seeking abortions to submit to transvaginal ultrasounds. Texas also refused a $35 million federal grant for poor women’s reproductive health services, lest any of it go to Planned Parenthood.
There may be a political price for these attacks. In March, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted for an amendment allowing employers to refuse insurance-plan holders birth control coverage. A week later, after hearing from enraged female voters, she publicly regretted it. “I have never had a vote I’ve taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me,” she told the Anchorage Daily News.
Similarly, a public outcry led Virginia to strip the Texas-style transvaginal probe provision from its mandatory ultrasound law. “We’re seeing other states scale back or at least pause on what they’re doing around ultrasounds,” says Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher Institute policy analyst.
But if the barrage of anti-choice laws is slowing down, it’s far from stopping. According to Nash, 2012 is poised to see about two-thirds as many state abortion restrictions as 2011, which would still make it the second worst year on record. “I don’t think it’s quite time to pop any champagne corks,” she says.
Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for The Daily Beast/Newsweek and the author of two books. Her website is michellegoldberg.net.