Now Republicans Are Trying To Redefine Abortion Itself
Conservatives are even considering moving away from the term “pro-life,” fearing that voters have newly negative associations with the label.
With post-Roe outrage showing no sign of waning, strategists are pushing a new lexicon on abortion — medically, legally and culturally. Some Republicans have abandoned the term “ban” when speaking about anti-abortion legislation, for example. Now they’re pushing for a 15-week “standard” on abortion — which, to be clear, would be a ban. Americans overwhelmingly oppose strict abortion bans, so Republicans are moving away from the term.
Republicans hope that by changing the way Americans talk about abortion, it might help change the way they feel about abortion — which is, right now, very pro-choice. A record 69 percent of American adults say abortion should generally be legal in the first trimester, and anger over bans has Republicans losing election after election, from ballot measure initiatives in Kansas and Kentucky to the State Supreme Court in Wisconsin.
It makes sense. After all, Americans have now seen a woman vomit before testifying about watching her newborn take pained last gasps for air — the result of being forced to carry a doomed pregnancy to term in Texas. The cruelty of abortion bans is revealed with every new story of a woman being allowed to slip into sepsis or a raped child being denied care.
But rather than change the policies that are causing so much suffering, conservatives seem to believe they can talk their way out of the problem not just with political messaging but also by manipulating medical and legal language.
This summer, for example, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a “Glossary of Medical Terms” instructing doctors on what “life affirming” language to use. Under their guidance, a woman whose fetus has a fatal anomaly would be told not that the condition is terminal but that it’s “life limiting.” Similarly, if someone’s water breaks months before her due date, she would be informed not that the pregnancy is nonviable but that it’s “pre-viable.” The goal is in part to persuade women to carry doomed pregnancies, which can be emotionally and physically catastrophic.
Republicans are even trying to redefine abortion itself, claiming that they are doing so to clarify matters for doctors and patients. In truth, these are deliberate efforts to ensure that fetuses’ rights trump women’s rights, no matter the cost to women. And increasingly, that cost is very high.
If a woman in Idaho has a life-threatening pregnancy, state law dictates that the doctor must end the pregnancy in a way that provides “the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive,” which the State Supreme Court has interpreted to include performing a cesarean or vaginal delivery. Similarly, a bill proposed in Wisconsin this summer stated that a procedure performed during a medical emergency isn’t an abortion if a doctor “makes reasonable medical efforts” to preserve “both the life of the woman and the life of her unborn child”; legislators mentioned using a C-section and early labor, specifically.
In Idaho, the only exception to the trauma of unnecessary labor and delivery or C-section is if the woman’s life would be more at risk that way. In other words, instead of having minutes-long abortions, women will be forced by the state to endure major surgeries or traumatic vaginal deliveries, even if that seriously affects their physical and mental health.
That’s what happened last year to a Louisiana woman whose water broke 16 weeks into her pregnancy, long before a fetus is viable. Because the hospital was concerned about violating the state’s laws, which ban abortion at all stages of pregnancy, the patient was denied a dilation and evacuation, a standard abortion procedure. Instead she was forced to spend hours delivering a nonviable fetus. Her doctor reported in an affidavit, “She was screaming — not from pain but from the emotional trauma she was experiencing.” When it also took hours to deliver the placenta, the woman hemorrhaged and lost close to a liter of blood.
To anti-abortion groups, mandates like this aren’t just acceptable; it’s what they lobbied for. The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists even recommends that in cases of dangerous pregnancy complications, like a massive placental abruption, women should be made to labor for up to 24 hours — even if they must be treated with blood transfusions in intensive care — in lieu of being given an abortion, in order to deliver “an intact fetal body.” In situations like this, women’s health and lives are endangered the longer they remain pregnant. To groups that seem to value a fetus’s survival above all else, that’s a risk they’re willing to take.
But anti-abortion organizations like the Charlotte Lozier Institute have long claimed that few, if any, pregnancies — no matter how ill fated — require abortions. Instead, the group says, patients with life-threatening pregnancies should be treated with a “separation procedure,” or what the association calls a “medically indicated maternal-fetal separation.” These nonsensical terms, which have made their way into Republican-backed legislation, seek to decouple abortion from its medical context.
After a group of women whose lives were upended or endangered by Texas’ abortion ban sued the state, Gov. Greg Abbott signed narrow health exceptions referring to “the provision of certain medical treatment to a pregnant woman” — in other words, an abortion.
Of course, politicians’ using deceptive talking points isn’t new, but when it comes to an issue like abortion, even just a handful of words can have dire consequences.
Consider the expression “postbirth abortion” — the idea is that abortion involves killing newborns. This is, to be clear, a lie, but that hasn’t stopped candidates like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis from repeating it.
The phrase “abortion tourism” has also made its way into Republican talking points. This makes it sound as if women traveling to get abortions were taking vacations rather than fleeing their home states for health care, sometimes emptying their bank accounts or staying in shelters in the process.
The goal is to paint Democrats and pro-choice groups as the extremists. The G.O.P. wants to trick Americans into believing they’re somehow softening on abortion, even as they pass ever more dangerous laws. Every new word and phrase was created in service of that goal.
[Jessica Valenti publishes a newsletter in which she writes about abortion every day.]