Just hours after U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) co-sponsored and voted for a bill that would effectively ban abortion after 20 weeks, text messages revealed the anti-abortion legislator reportedly asked his extramarital lover to have an abortion.
Murphy’s personal hypocrisy is clear, but the scandal also shines light on a deeper hypocrisy running through the “pro-life” movement and the disingenuous way its advocates seem to break abortions down into two categories: their own “good” abortions and others’ “bad” abortions.
Stereotypes abound in the anti-abortion community about the qualities of people seeking an abortion. They paint clichéd pictures of irresponsible girls who can’t keep their legs shut or wanton young women using abortion as the easy way out, despite Guttmacher Institute research showing that 60 percent of people who abort pregnancies are already in their 20s and 59 percent of abortions are for women who already have children.
These myths persist even though the opposition’s own research discredits stereotypes about the “type of woman” who seeks an abortion. In a 2015 survey of women who had undergone abortions, sponsored by Care Net—one of the largest networks of anti-abortion fake clinics commonly called “crisis pregnancy centers”—36 percent of respondents said they attended church once a month or more at the time of their first abortion, and about a quarter of those identified as evangelical Christian. More than half of the women who’d had an abortion and continued to attend church once a month or more said no one at their church knew about their abortion, reinforcing the narrative that “good” girls don’t get abortions. Two-thirds of the respondents also said that church members judge single women who are pregnant.
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Writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee perceived similar contradictions while conducting research at a women’s health clinic.
“Indeed, my doctors told me, getting an anti-abortion protester as an abortion patient was actually not that uncommon,” Lee wrote.
She added a litany of hypocritical anecdotes she either witnessed or heard about from abortion providers:
One doctor told me about an unmarried patient who stressed over getting “it” done before she’d start to show, i.e., the people at church would know; the doctor changed her schedule for this woman, who went out to continue screaming from the protest lines afterward. Conservative fathers with “important” careers brought in their daughters. One doctor recounted her days at a Catholic hospital pre-Roe v. Wade, and how Catholic mothers dragging in bearing their fifth, sixth, seventh child would beg her in a whisper for “hysterectomies.”
It’s easy to see how pro-life ideology splits the idea of abortion among moral lines. Abortions can be necessary or acceptable for those with specific kinds of power or backgrounds: churchgoing women who are role models within the community; influential fathers and husbands; and women who have already fulfilled their God-given obligation to bear children and grow families as religion dictates.
And, of course, government representatives who need to serve their conservative constituents.
Murphy (who resigned from his seat) is not the only former elected official who deals in the hypocrisy of “good”/necessary and “bad”/unnecessary abortions. In 2009, one-time vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin revealed that she considered having an abortion after learning her son would be born with Down syndrome. Without realizing that her words emphasized a right to choose whether to proceed with a pregnancy after such a diagnosis, Palin used dogged rhetoric to describe her ultimate decision to have the baby; she decided to “walk the walk,” though she said she learned to “understand a woman’s, a girl’s temptation to maybe try to make it all go away.”
Despite years of anti-abortion stumping and belief, Palin considered this circumstance special. She was different and her situation separate from the thousands of other women whom her policies would deny the same choice. She distanced herself from the woman who might choose abortion when faced with the same diagnosis, despite the realization that she’d had the exact same thoughts.
“There, just for a fleeting moment [after receiving the amniocentesis results], I thought ‘Nobody knows me here. Nobody would ever know.’” Not only would she consider having an abortion due to unforeseen circumstances, she understood that if she chose to exercise her constitutionally protected right to end a pregnancy, she would need to keep it private and confidential.
In the days after Murphy’s scandal surfaced, the response from major anti-abortion organizations was perhaps best represented by what Mary Lou Gartner, secretary of the anti-abortion group LifePac, told CNN. Calling Murphy “honorable,” Gartner said, “I’m not ready to cast a stone at him.”
To Gartner, the fact that Murphy opposed abortion publicly was enough to make him honorable. For the anti-choice movement, there’s no need to even entertain the thought that there are valid reasons to reconsider a personal or moral objection to abortion. Personally experiencing how a change in circumstance could immediately make one consider abortion is not reason enough to re-examine myths about why women seek abortions.
Much better instead to heed the advice of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. After Murphy’s scandal surfaced, Perkins said, “For his sake and those around him, our counsel would be for him to bring his behavior in line with his past voting record, not change his policy stance to reflect his wrong behavior.”
A quick search of the “prolife” hashtag on Twitter reveals the movement’s enduring thoughts about people who have abortions. They are “murderers” and “killers” who do not care about babies (despite the fact that Congress let the Children’s Health Insurance Program expire, making health care disappear for 9 million low-income children, and continues to push for less restrictive gun laws despite an increase in mass shootings).
But scratch the surface, and it’s apparent that those labels are for the people they’ve othered: the reckless, selfish, or lazy women who just need to “accept responsibility.” Those labels are not for governors or elected representatives who suddenly find themselves considering abortion. Those labels are not for Christians who have had abortions.
Those labels are not for the “good” abortions.