Watching the contentious debate over a 20-week abortion ban in Wisconsin, it’s clear that Republicans have settled on trying to sell this radical restriction as a moderate one by spinning it as a sort of compromise. They’re pushing the idea that 20 weeks is plenty of time to get an abortion if you need one—with the implication that if you can’t get it together in those first few months, then you don’t really deserve to get the procedure.
This talking point has popped up in a couple of prominent instances. When Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) was defending the 20-week ban under questioning by Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), she stood by the idea that 20 weeks is plenty of time to decide. “Generally rape and incest people tend to deal with that in the very early stages,” Lazich argued, “days, weeks.”
Where she got the idea that you can get an abortion “days” after conception, when it takes about two weeks after fertilization to even detect a pregnancy, I do not know. But her implication was obvious: That someone who has an abortion after 20 weeks only did so because they were dithering around during that whole time, and truly deserving people get it together faster than that.
Scott Walker made almost exactly the same argument when asked about why this bill, which was passed out of committee in the state senate Thursday, has no rape exceptions. “I mean, I think for most people who are concerned about that, it’s in the initial months where they’re most concerned about it,” he said, shrugging like he was talking about going to see Avengers: Age of Ultron for the third time.
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The comment was insensitive, which garnered him plenty of headlines. But it also echoed, nearly word for word, what Lazich said, suggesting they’re working off the same sheet of talking points and that it wasn’t a spontaneously developed conclusion on Walker’s part.
Overall, it’s clear that conservatives who are pushing this argument want you to think of the 20-week ban as some kind of compromise position between pro-choice and “pro-life.” This isn’t a new observation, of course, and some anti-choicers don’t even hide that this is what they’re doing. Lila Rose, for instance, is fond of highlighting that 20 weeks is halfway through a typical pregnancy, making it sound like they’re just splitting the difference.
Politically, this is a smart move, because polling data repeatedly shows that Americans are all over the map on this issue and long for there to be some kind of compromise that will make the issue go away.
But it’s also dishonest positioning. For one thing, despite what conservatives may think, Roe v. Wade already splits pregnancy into trimesters, gradually allowing more restrictions as the pregnancy continues. Second of all, abortion care after 20 weeks is very rare, constituting only 1.2 percent of abortions. Throwing such a major fit over such a small number of abortions—most of which occur under high-stress circumstances such as fetal abnormalities or serious personal problems that leave you having to abort so late in a pregnancy—doesn’t make sense from a policy perspective.
But what if they’re not doing it for policy reasons? Looking over these talking points, it’s becoming clear that the debate over the 20-week ban has created lots and lots of opportunities for conservatives to imply that these abortions are both more common and more cavalier than they really are. Both Walker and Lazich were, by repeating these refrains, inviting listeners to believe that there are a lot of women out there, even rape survivors, who can’t be bothered to abort until they start putting on weight. It’s a way to perpetuate misogynistic stereotypes about the kind of women who get abortions, without accusing women of being lazy or vain—and therefore undeserving—outright.
Even though conservatives do not want to be associated with the phrase “war on women,” it’s clear that they’re justifying reproductive rights restrictions by instilling the idea in the public imagination that women who want abortions are stupid, lazy, slutty, or otherwise undeserving of compassion, let alone the kind of medical care that will help them live the lives they choose. It works in much the same way that stereotyping welfare recipients as lazy has worked to justify cuts to the social safety net.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, a similar thing is happening with the rape talking points that crop up not just with 20-week bans but all sorts of abortion restrictions. In that case, it’s about using anti-choice legislation as a pretext to float the idea that women routinely lie about being raped to conceal consensual sex. In this case, it’s about perpetuating the notion that a lot of women who want abortions are lazy and indifferent to the offspring that is developing inside them.
In the end, then, all this isn’t really about 20-week abortions, moderation, or compromise. Most of the supporters of the 20-week bans want to ban abortion completely and a huge chunk of them are giving the side-eye to contraception. This is about convincing the public that they’re only gunning for the reproductive rights of “those kind” of women, who are deemed unworthy of care. And once that idea takes root, anti-choicers will gradually expand the definition of “those kinds of women” until it encompasses us all.
That’s a problem in politics. You can talk activists into standing with others in solidarity, but most voters are mostly moved by self-interest. So rhetoric like this needs to be understood for what it is—an attempt to divide women against each other—and responded to by emphasizing that needing a post-20-week abortion is, while rare, something that cuts across all sorts of class, race, political, and personality lines. It’s not just something “those women” need; it could happen to any of us.