Note to Women: Don’t Think! Ross Douthat Is Here to Do It For You

Jodi Jacobson

Women, take off your shoes, get knocked up, and go back to the kitchen, 'cause Ross Douthat will tell us everything we need to know and the world will be a better place.

How is it that people who traffic in discredited data and information get a regular column on the op-ed page of the New York Times?

I don’t know, but Ross Douthat does.
And apparently he also knows better than women, doctors, judges, juries and a range of other people what the real evidence is about abortion and what Dr. Tiller really did. Moreover, he is here to tell us what is morally right and wrong.

Women, take off your shoes, get knocked up, and go back to the kitchen, ’cause Ross will tell us everything we need to know and the world will be a better place.  Remember when the Bush Administration told us that “they would create the reality and we would just report on it?”  Well the far right is there to continue the job, compliments of Douthat and the others in the male pontificator commentariat.

Take today’s piece in the New York Times regarding abortion.

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Douthat first concedes that maybe (just maybe) some of Dr. Tiller’s work was morally ok according to Douthat’s standards.  Then, he basically reverts to the “Tiller was a secret monster” myth by recycling old and completely discredited rumors that Tiller performed late-term abortions for no reason circulated by completely discredited sources, thereby ensuring he maintains his street cred with the right-wing mythmakers.

Finally, he does exactly what the current cult of male pontificators have been doing all week.  First suggesting now that it is undeniable that some abortions are “acceptable” because, as they now must concede, sometimes a woman’s life or health might actually be at risk and some fetuses actually will die at birth or are already dead in the womb.  But….underscoring they still think–in their infinite wisdom–that really some of these late-term abortions must still actually be purely elective (never mind the overwhelming evidence), and all “elective” abortions (read all abortions) should now be called into question and subject to “reasonable regulation.” In other words: the only acceptable abortions are those done for the real reasons according to Douthat and friends.

Over the past week, as women (and their partners) across the country have broken their silence on the heart-rending tragedies of their own late-term abortions–stories of catastrophic fetal anomalies and profound disability among them–most of the male pontificators–the Saletans, Waldmans, and Sullivans among them–have finally had to acknowledge what any real objective journalistic investigation would have revealed long ago: that, hey, maybe in fact real women (with their partners or husbands, families, and clergy in cases where that applies) actually face these circumstances.  Maybe they haven’t been lying after all!

But then, Douthat, who apparently can’t totally accept that many, many people see Dr. Tiller as a moral, ethical and courageous hero, goes on to try to discredit him through innuendo.

Douthat writes:

Tiller did abortions in third trimester, when almost no one else
would do them – which meant, inevitably, that he handled the hardest of
hard cases. He performed abortions on women facing life-threatening
complications, on women whose children would be born dead or dying, on
women who had been raped, on “women” who were really girls of 10. His
Wichita, Kan., office, barricaded against protesters, was reportedly
lined with thank-you notes.

Over the last week, there’s been an outpouring of testimonials,
across the Internet, from women (and some men) who lived through these
hard cases. They help explain why Tiller thought he was doing the
Lord’s work, even though that work involved destroying something that
we wouldn’t hesitate to call a baby if we saw it struggling for life in
a hospital bed. They help explain why so many Americans defend his
right to do it.

But then comes the caveat of innuendo and disproven rumor.   Douthat writes:

But such narratives are not the only story about George Tiller’s
clinic. He was a target of protests — and, tragically, of terrorist
violence — because he performed late-term abortions, period. But his
critics were convinced that he performed them not only in truly
desperate situations, but in many other cases as well. Over the years,
they cobbled together a considerable amount of evidence — drawn from the state’s abortion statistics, from Tiller’s own comments, and from a 2006 investigation — suggesting that Tiller abused the state’s mental-health exemption to justify late-term abortions in almost any situation.

The operative words here would be:

Story” as in fables.

Critics” as in members of the anti-choice lunatic fringe who have claimed all along that Tiller was doing late-term abortions for fun and frolic.

And “cobbled together…evidence,” as in the “evidence” about links between abortion and breast cancer (discredited by actual scientists), connections between abortion and mental health (discredited by actual clinicians) and abortion and infertility (discredited by actual Ob-Gyns), among the range of other evidence offered to us by those credible folks at the American Life League, Operation Rescue, and numerous others.

You know….those credible sources of evidence.

Douthat then goes on to write:

We may never know how many of George Tiller’s abortions were performed on healthy mothers and healthy fetuses. But whatever the verdict on Tiller’s practice, most abortions in the United States bear no resemblance whatsoever to the hardest third-trimester cases.

Which healthy women and which abortions are we talking about here?  Legal first or second trimester abortions? Because those are legal and generally not restricted (except economically and by lack of access to services), and here is where the whole issue is conflated.  By talking about abortions generally, and claiming that Dr. Tiller and others perform abortions generally (surprise!), it is easy to then just conflate abortions performed where no indications are required–remember, again, elective abortion is legal in this country under current law until a certain point–and those that were performed in the later terms of pregnancy under strict regulation by law in Kansas. To wit: If you talk about having performed abortions, you must be talking about having performed later-term abortions for no reason!

Douthat is right: Most abortions in the United States bear no resemblance to late-term abortions. Again, (and again, and again) 90 percent of all abortions occur
before 12 weeks.  That is a good thing.  The earlier the abortion, the easier it is on the woman and the less risky the procedure.  Moreover, it is clear that no one willingly goes through an entire pregnancy only to seek termination in the last trimester barring seriously extenuating circumstances.  And there is, as Roe states, a compelling interest at that point in balancing the rights of the woman in that period against the rights of a viable fetus.  The issue is still: who gets to decide what those exenuating circumstances are in the case of a later abortion and in particular third trimester abortions?  Women, and their partners and their families, under the conditions set forth by the state.  That is why we have laws governing late-term abortion, as ideologically-driven and misguided as some of them nonetheless are. In Kansas, where Dr. Tiller practiced, that decision was left to a woman, her doctor and at least two other doctors to confirm the diagnosis.  No one got there easily as the many stories that continue to be written show.

But Douthat’s comment is intended to divide between what he now feels might be “legitimate” abortions and the “rest of them” and then goes on to imply we should regulate all abortions.

Douthat writes:

Indeed, the argument that some abortions take place in particularly awful, particularly understandable circumstances is not a case against regulating abortion. It’s the beginning of precisely the kind of reasonable distinction-making that would produce a saner, stricter legal regime.

This is revealing and I think we should all brace ourselves for the cultivation of this argument….indeed the flipping of a long-standing argument put forth by the male pontificators who have been arguing against late-term abortions because they were sure these were “elective” but now see undeniable evidence of “justifiable cause” when the woman’s life is at risk or the fetus is dead or seriously disabled, but who may now argue, as Douthat does inherently, that “elective abortions” (read all other abortions) are the whimsy of irresponsible women.

Wait for it.

Douthat’s swipe at Tiller is disingenuous for several reasons.  First, no abortion for any reason including the life
of the mother is acceptable to fanatical anti-choice groups.  Douthat, if you read between the lines, suggests that no abortion is acceptable to him unless there is a threat to the woman’s life.

Second, he uses the term “abortion” as a broad brush to perpetuate innuendo against Dr. Tiller that is long ago discredited by juries, medical professionals throughout the country and women and men who sought his services.  I have no idea how many first trimester abortions Dr. Tiller might have performed.  But that is beside the point because that is legal and not in question.  But to say he performed and talked about performing “abortions” generally and then to imply that means he actually peformed late-term procedures without justification is bad journalism at best and intellectually dishonest.

It also flouts the evidence.  Kansas has very strict laws governing late-term abortion, and Dr. Tiller was several times accused and never found guilty of any violation of the law.  Ever.  He was most recently subjected to this harassment by a politically motivated Attorney General who failed earlier this year to convict Tiller of anything.  So exactly which evidence is it that has been cobbled together and by whom specifically that Douthat feels compelled to place on the op-ed page of the New York Times without examination or critique?  Luckily, for him, it appears his position does not require he actually provide evidence….just allude to it.

I won’t even bother here to take on Douthat’s disingenuous disposition on dilation and extraction abortions–misleadingly branded by the far right with another term that you all know and which bears so little relation to the actual medical practice I won’t force myself to legitimize it by repeating it here–nor his obvious lack of thought on how the complete politicization and politically motivated efforts of a few led to bans on a medical procedure safer for many women undergoing later-term abortion than any other procedure.  Understanding those issues clearly are too much of an intellectual exercise for Douthat.

But what I have learned from watching the reactions of guys like Douthat is how little they listen, and how little they learn, even when faced with overwhelming evidence.  I do know that pro-choice advocates have to re-energize our efforts to keep all abortions safe and legal, because the consequences, facts, and realities of last week’s events apparently still have not sunk in among many in the so-called intelligentsia.


News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”


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