“When does life begin?” Philosophers have been asking that question for centuries, along with poets, ethicists and physicians. So do today’s politicians – and loudly. A few really are looking for answers. Most do it for votes. The grandstanding makes the lives of some women hell.
Consider the bill adopted by the House on Wednesday. Congressional Republicans had been trying for months to push a measure through Congress that places further limits on abortion. The revised version, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act passed by a vote of 242 to 184.
That it got through, with all but two House Republicans voting for it, wasn’t a surprise. (It is extremely unlikely to get anywhere in the Senate, never mind past President Barack Obama.) What was surprising was what happened in January: The bill was pulled after a number of Republican women pushed back. They let the men know that making a ban on abortions after 20 weeks the first order of business in the 114th Congress was a mistake that could outweigh any favor gained with the anti-abortion base of the party.
Reps. Renee Ellmers and Jackie Walorski were particularly alarmed that the bill wouldn’t allow abortions after 20 weeks in cases of rape unless the assault had been reported to authorities, even though a majority of rapes go unreported.
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The leadership heeded the warning and the bill was taken off the schedule. It looked like a seminal moment for the new majority in the House, with the leadership giving more weight to the interests of moderates in the party as cooler heads had counseled.
In its autopsy of the party’s 2012 losses, the Republican National Committee had advised a change of focus away from symbolic gestures and toward governing. So, too, had a report commissioned by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads that said women were deaf to Republican policies because they found the party “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion” and “stuck in the past.”
This impression is fostered by the party’s obsession with abortion. The chief sponsor of the Pain bill, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, has some strong views on the subject. When he served in his state legislature, he was known for wearing a tie pin in the shape of the feet of a fetus. He also opposed an exemption for rape victims because, he said, “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” an echo of other Republicans talk about “legitimate rape.”
To be clear: Rape is not a form of birth control. A study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that more than 30,000 pregnancies result from rape each year.
The Republican leadership’s effort to show the party isn’t in the grip of its most conservative members was short-lived. By making a small concession – a rape doesn’t have to have been reported – the Pain bill passed on the two-year anniversary of the guilty verdict in the case of Kermit Gosnell, a shady Philadelphia physician convicted for killing three babies who had been born alive in botched abortions.
And therein lay the seeds of the shift in attitudes toward abortion. There aren’t many Gosnells killing full-term babies in filthy abortion mills, but there are more abortions being performed after viability than pro-choice advocates will admit.
Democrats gloated over the Republicans’ embarrassment in January but they should be careful. Many Americans may be closer to the House Republicans’ position. A 2014 poll from Quinnipiac found that 60 percent supported legislation limiting the procedure after 20 weeks, including 56 percent of independents and 46 percent of Democrats.
There is common ground to find. Only in politics are there no grey areas. The Republican base contends that a fertilized egg has the same rights as a full, breathing human being and would impose motherhood on women through “personhood” legislation, even if that means bearing a rapist’s child. They’ve chipped away at availability so that getting an abortion in some states in the first trimester is impossible.
For their part, pro-choice Democrats, feeling under siege, removed the line in the party’s platform that said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” They believe that pregnancy is exclusively a woman’s business, always. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling concurs. But haven’t Democrats noticed that Roe’s legal framework has been riddled by loopholes – particularly those having to do with the “psychological” health of the mother – large enough for an eight-month-pregnant teenager to walk through. And how much longer can they refuse to acknowledge that Roe is on a collision course with medical science and our own eyes, as anyone who’s visited a neonatal unit knows.
Last week, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that 5.1 percent of babies born at 22 weeks were able to survive and which ones survived was dependent on medical treatment. Edward Bell, a University of Iowa professor who led the study, told The New York Times that he thinks 22 weeks – not 24 weeks – is the new point of viability. “I guess we would say that these babies deserve a chance.”
But for now the extremes on both sides, and the politicians elected with their support, control the debate. Pro-choice politicians condemn the pro-life side, which justifies killing doctors who perform abortions. Pro-lifers pointed to the mindless extremism of the pro-choice side when a Planned Parenthood lobbyist in Florida testified that when abortions fail, the decision to kill or save the newborn should be left to the “patient and the health-care provider.” Most people would be shocked to learn that a baby born alive isn’t given life-saving treatment in every case.
Probe a little and we might all agree that’s a terrible thing, no matter the circumstances. It’s also a difficult situation when a 12-year-old, with a boyfriend who has disappeared or an abusive uncle who hasn’t, is going to have a baby. But it’s worse to let her undergo an abortion after she has waited so long that the only difference between the baby being born alive or dead is what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “infanticide.”
What if today’s bill adopted the NEJM’s 22-week standard. Whatever else abortion is, it is an elective procedure and we should provide a margin of error on viability. Can’t we all get along? Most people live in the middle, if only politicians would join them.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.