Kansas and Oklahoma, both of which have passed laws banning the dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure that is used in most abortions after 13 weeks, have graduated to a new level in their efforts to stamp out reproductive rights. As Dahlia Lithwick at Slate explained, these laws “are radically different” from those of the past few years, which have tried to tried to chip away at abortion access by using phony concerns about women’s health as a cover; instead, Kansas and Oklahoma’s new legislation is simply a vehicle “to overturn Roe once and for all.” So getting the Supreme Court to agree with the anti-choice side about these bans would open the door to just banning abortion outright—no pretending to care about women necessary.
Seems like it should be enormous news, right? Especially considering there are similar restrictions being considered in Missouri and South Carolina. And sure, there’s been some coverage of it in the mainstream media, such as Lithwick’s piece and an op-ed condemning the move in the New York Times, as well as local outlets in Kansas and Oklahoma covering the bans. But not enough. For the most part, it seems as if there’s been little outrage or fear. Is this going to be one of those attacks on abortion rights that a weary public is going to shrug off as no big deal?
The anti-choice movement has employed a twofold strategy here: Overwhelm the news cycle with restrictions on abortion so that the public starts to tune the stories out, and make any one regulation seem so minor that the response, especially from people in the “muddy middle,” will be to shrug and say, “Well, as long as you can still get your abortion, I don’t see the problem.” It’s diabolical—and it’s effective.
The fact that the public is starting to shrug at the-abortion-restriction-of-the-day stories is totally understandable. “When we have come to the point that more than 330 abortion restrictions have been introduced in 43 states since January,” Lithwick wrote, “It’s awfully hard to keep track of which are worth worrying about and which are merely variations on old themes.” The endless churn of it grows wearisome for those of us who work on this subject for a living. It’s hard to imagine people who understandably have other priorities giving this issue the attention it needs.
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And as far as the second part of the strategy goes, anti-choice activists and politicians have long taken great pains to claim, falsely, that the restrictions they’re imposing will not meaningfully impact the ability to access abortion. Take Rep. Pat McElraft of North Carolina, trying to justify a bill earlier this month that would ban state medical schools from teaching abortion by claiming there are “other options”: “Abortion physicians learn from all kinds of training—spontaneous abortions or miscarriages.”
Or Justice Edith Jones, justifying making women drive hundreds of miles for an abortion by arguing last year that the road on which they’d have to do so is a “peculiarly flat and not congested highway.”
Or Justice Anthony Kennedy arguing in favor of banning the dilation and extraction procedure in Gonzales v. Carhart eight years ago: “Alternatives are available to the prohibited procedure. As we have noted, the Act does not proscribe D&E.” Of course, banning D and E is what anti-choicers started working on next, showing that this belief in “alternatives” is just a feint.
You’d think these defenders would consider it a bad thing if restrictions didn’t meaningfully impact care. The fact that they continuously claim that these regulations are no big deal, therefore, can only be an attempt to get this “shrug” reaction—to create the illusion that pro-choicers are crying wolf and can be safely ignored by the public.
The same minimizing techniques are on display with the defenses of these new Kansas and Oklahoma bills. Anti-choice activists are careful to describe the bills as simply banning a certain kind of procedure, which suggests there are many alternatives should you really need them. LifeSiteNews, for example, portrayed people who criticize this law as “extremists” who are devoted to “an abortion absolutist agenda.” It implied that pro-choicers are rejecting some kind of middle ground, with no acknowledgement that this law, which bans the procedure that is universally acknowledged as the best way to do abortions in the second trimester, is the actual example of extremism.
The Washington Times plays a similar game, writing, “Oklahoma has become the second state to outlaw an abortion procedure that ‘dismembers’ the fetus in the womb as part of the process.” The phrasing suggests that it’s just a kind of abortion that is criminalized, with no acknowledgement that it’s the standard of abortion care at this stage in pregnancy. Instead, the article highlights statements from pro-choicers calling D and E the “safest and most expeditious kind of care,” allowing the reader to erroneously conclude that this isn’t so much a ban on most second-trimester abortions as a ban on just one kind.
Imagine, if you will, that you wanted to ban cars from the road but you knew that a law banning cars would not fly. So instead you pass a law that says you’re only banning the use of “internal combustion engine-style vehicles.” A lot of people would reasonably assume that this is only a ban on a certain kind of car, not knowing that nearly all cars run on internal combustion engines. It would obviously be an attempt to ban cars without admitting that you’re banning cars. That’s what anti-choicers are doing with these D and E bans: implying that this is a narrow ban when, in fact, it’s a broad one. And their strategy is working.
It appears that the anti-choice movement really has figured out how to take abortion rights away from us, without us even noticing. They know the public would revolt against them if they tried to take abortion away outright, so instead they aim their legislation at getting a nonchalant response. If and when the public responds by saying, “Doesn’t seem like that big a deal,” or “Call me when they actually manage to end legal abortion,” the anti-choicers are winning. After all, by the time we’re all panicked enough to stop shrugging, it will be too late.