In a bizarre, rambling campaign speech to the Texas Alliance for Life last month, a Republican candidate for Texas attorney general told anti-choice supporters that the millions of “children” aborted since Roe v. Wade would have made a nice Republican voting base, if only their parents had been unable to abort them.
Railing against the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States in 1973, Barry Smitherman, who is currently the Texas Railroad Commission chairman, said that while he sees a number of economic advantages to forcing every pregnant person to carry their pregnancies to term, there’s also a nice political bonus for him and his party: Over the last 40 years, 55 million theoretically un-aborted Americans and their 27.5 million hypothetical offspring “would vote Republican” if they had been born.
The man is baldly arguing for forced pregnancy so that he and his political allies can win elections.
To publicly fantasize about how nice it would be to force millions of people to give birth to what you believe would be your own personal army of supporters is nothing short of appalling. Pregnant people are not incubators for future voters—they are living, breathing, sentient humans, and they have a legal right to abortion if they choose it, even if it’s inconvenient for Barry Smitherman’s political career.
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Of course, de-centering and ignoring the experiences of pregnant people is nothing new for Republicans, and Texas is no exception. This summer, just before the Texas legislature voted to pass HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill that is expected to close all but six abortion clinics in the state, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) wondered aloud to the senate gallery, “Who speaks for the baby?”
In this case, it’s clear that Barry Smitherman thinks he does. But of course, there’s no way of knowing how millions of never-existent voters would vote, or whether they would vote at all, or what the United States as a nation, let alone as a democracy, might look like with—using Smitherman’s numbers—82.5 million more residents.
It may be, as Jonathan Tilove argues in the Austin American-Statesman, that Smitherman’s never-existent voters would very likely have been, demographically speaking, people of color and therefore unlikely to vote Republican:
But, if Smitherman and Blakemore [his spokesman] really believe that an America – and a Texas – with far fewer abortions would benefit them politically, they – and perhaps many Texans – misunderstand the demographics of abortion in America, which disproportionately affects black and brown communities (and the poor), something that might be more apparent were it not masked by the growth of those communities – relative to the white population – despite abortion.
Which does throw a bit of a wrench into Smitherman’s fantasy of farming out women’s bodies for a fresh crop of GOP voters.
In his speech, Smitherman praised HB 2, which he said solves “the problem” of pro-choice politicians holding office, because “a supporter of life is a supporter of the Bill of Rights. A denier of life, is … well you get the idea.” So, if “the problem” is Barry Smitherman not being elected, then the obvious solution, according to Barry Smitherman, is that more people should be forced to give birth to all the Republican babies that Barry Smitherman deserves.
But besides the fundamental stupidity of Smitherman’s fetus farm fantasy: To treat the issue of abortion as an interesting politico-intellectual exercise, as an opportunity to move a few pawns around on the board and see what happens, is an especially crass and reprehensible display of unexamined privilege in light of the fact that HB 2 will kill Texans.
Because HB 2 doesn’t operate in a vacuum, it doesn’t affect all people equally, and it will disproportionately affect low-income Texans and Texans of color, who cannot drive or fly hundreds of miles to the nearest legal, licensed abortion facility. Some low-income Texans and Texans of color will certainly die when they seek out illegal, unsafe abortion because they no longer have access to reputable, responsible abortion providers in licensed facilities. This is not speculation; it is extrapolation based on established historical fact. When abortion is inaccessible or illegal, people who want to end their pregnancies will try to do so, and they will not always survive.
The egregiousness of Smitherman’s remarks go well beyond anything we saw this summer at the state capitol, when at least the rhetoric of “raising the standard of care” acknowledges that there is a pregnant patient involved in an abortion procedure.
To hypothesize—or in Smitherman’s case, fantasize—about 82.5 million never-existent voters with nary a mention of their would-be parents’ loss of bodily autonomy and outright oppression by the state is the very worst kind of fetus fetishization, wholly ignoring the living, breathing, sentient humans who would be forced to produce these hypothetical voters either if abortion is made illegal or when, as we are seeing in Texas, legal abortion becomes so inaccessible as to be fundamentally unavailable to anyone but the wealthiest, whitest of citizens.
The question, as odious as it is, is not “How would un-aborted Texans vote?” but “Could un-aborted Texans vote?” But moreover, when low-income Texans and Texans of color are rendered infertile or killed as a result of laws like HB 2, I seriously doubt we can expect to see vast numbers of their offspring turning up in any voting booth at all, casting votes for any political party whatsoever.
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 accomplishingits 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.”
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.”
Republicans in state legislatures that have passed rigid voter ID laws have claimed that such laws are necessary to prevent in-person voter fraud. GOP-led investigations, however, have not turned up any evidence of voter fraud.
Officials in North Carolina and Texas want the Supreme Court to reinstate voter ID laws after two federal appeals courts ruled they should not take effect, setting the stage for a potential Roberts Court fight over voting rights during a presidential election.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) on Monday said in a statement that the state had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay last month’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck down the voter ID requirement. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals released that decision in July, holding that the Republican-majority legislature had enacted the voter ID provision of HB 589 with a discriminatory intent to burden Black voters, and that it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
McCrory said the Fourth Circuit’s ruling striking down that state’s voter ID law would create confusion during the upcoming November election.
“Allowing the Fourth Circuit’s ruling to stand creates confusion among voters and poll workers and it disregards our successful rollout of Voter ID in the 2016 primary elections,” McCrory said in a statement.
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“The Fourth Circuit’s ruling is just plain wrong and we cannot allow it to stand. We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold our state’s law and reverse the Fourth Circuit,” he continued.
North Carolina is now represented by Paul Clement, who successfully argued Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. In its emergency filing, the state asked the Supreme Court to stay the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, arguing that the 2013 GOP-backed elections law “was the product not of racial animus, but of simply policy disagreements between two political parties about what voting measures are best for North Carolina,” according to SCOTUSblog.
North Carolina will petition the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari in the upcoming term. In the meantime, the state awaits the Supreme Court’s ruling on its emergency request for a stay.
A spokesperson for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Tuesday that Texas would appeal the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that Texas’ voter ID law, SB 14, disproportionately burdened Black and Latino voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Writing for the Fifth Circuit majority, Judge Catharina Haynes wrote, “[t]he record shows that drafters and proponents of SB 14 were aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities, and that they nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact.”
“The primary concern of this court and the district court should be to ensure that SB 14’s discriminatory effect is ameliorated … in time for the November 2016 election,” Haynes continued.
In response to the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos approved a plan that would allow voters without the requisite photo identification to vote in Texas in the November election, absent the Roberts Court stepping in.
Under Ramos’ order, people can vote if they sign a declaration of citizenship and present proof of residence in Texas, such as a paycheck stub, bank statement, or utility bill, according to the Texas Tribune.
Paxton’s spokesperson would not specify whether the state would file an emergency appeal in advance of its petition for writ of certiorari. In order to reinstate the voter ID law, Texas would need to file an emergency appeal and ask the Supreme Court to stay the case, as officials in North Carolina have done.
Republicans in state legislatures that have passed rigid voter ID laws have claimed that such laws are necessary to prevent in-person voter fraud. GOP-led investigations, however, have not turned up any evidence of voter fraud. A study conducted by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found a mere 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion votes that were cast nationwide from 2000 through 2014.