In their official response to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, Republicans returned to the well of selecting one of their rare congresswomen to deliver it. However, Sen. Joni Ernst’s speech was markedly different than the one given by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers last year. Rodgers put a huge emphasis on the “woman” thing, talking a lot about being a mother and a wife and hinting at domesticity by sitting in front of a fireplace. Ernst, on the other hand, stood in an office, only briefly mentioned that she is a mother, and spoke way more about her own childhood than about the raising of others. Not to be overly reductive about this, but the shift is, I believe, all because of reproductive rights.
Last year, Republicans, up in arms over the “war on women” meme, were trying to justify their attacks on Americans’ bodily autonomy. Subsequently, Rodgers really dwelled on the issue in her speech, talking about how she personally had three children, one with Down syndrome, while serving as a member of Congress. The implication was easy enough to grasp: Rodgers has had no need for reproductive choice in order to work, so why should you?
Ernst, however, mentioned abortion in the most perfunctory manner, saying, “And we’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society.” There were no other nods to the issue of restricting reproductive rights, despite Ernst’s long history of being obsessive and radical about the topic—including her support of “personhood” amendments, which could criminalize some miscarriages and potentially be used to attack legal contraception. Yet she seemed nearly indifferent to the issue in her rebuttal.
Based on this difference, it seems as if Republican tactics have shifted from trying to justify their extreme anti-choice views to trying to minimize them. That’s understandable in a country where support for legal abortion remains stable, despite a four-decade campaign draping the procedure in shame. This also appears to have been the strategy during the campaign season, where some Republicans like Scott Walker and, yes, Joni Ernst tried to imply that their “pro-life” views would not have any actual impact on your ability to get an abortion.
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But just because the Republicans in Congress don’t want to be seen as anti-choice doesn’t mean they’re going to go so far as to actually stop trying to take away your access to abortion. The opposite, actually. While Ernst was fronting like Republicans can barely be moved to think about abortion, the reality is that GOP members of Congress can hardly think of anything but abortion. Between the House and the Senate, Republicans have introduced five new bills on the issue: A measure that would defund Planned Parenthood at the federal level, an admitting privileges bill that would dramatically reduce rural access, a 20-week abortion ban to make it harder to abort for fetal anomalies, a sex-selective abortion ban (even though this isn’t actually a problem in the United States), and a particularly frightening proposition that would allow emergency rooms to refuse you abortion-related care—even though such refusals can end in infertility, injury, and even death.
Sadly, the method of playing the “abortion who?” game in public while obsessing about it endlessly in Congress will probably be an effective one for Republicans. Part of the reason is a media environment that is far more focused on what people say than what people do. (Ask Todd Akin, who isn’t any more anti-choice than most of his Republican colleagues, but who lost a Senate election because he was less euphemistic than most when expressing ugly attitudes about women.)
As long as Republicans speak about abortion as little as possible and in the most oblique terms, they can signal to their fervent anti-choice base that they have their back while hoodwinking the pro-choice public into thinking things aren’t so bad. Ironically, this depends on Obama vetoing any anti-choice bills Congress coughs up, because the public’s interest in the issue is likely to rise if there are headlines about a national ban being enacted on a huge number of abortions.
The other reason this strategy will likely prove successful is, in a sick twist of fate, because of the relentlessness of the conservative obsession with abortion. The full-court press of these kinds of bills in the past few years has actually normalized the attacks on reproductive rights. Oh, the Republicans are trying to restrict abortion again? Must be Tuesday. The sheer number of bills has exhausted the public’s ability to give attention to the issue. It’s become boring. People want to talk about something else. They may even start to resent pro-choicers for harping on the issue, even though, in reality, we’re just trying to draw attention to the conservative fixation with the topic.
Say what you will, but Republicans are handling this issue masterfully right now. Stay silent about the abortion issue while passing more and more bills restricting it. And when feminists cry foul, let them take the blame for bringing that old issue up again, even though everyone is tired of hearing about it. Ernst was just playing her part—and right now, it seems like it will work in her, and other Republicans’, favor.