President Donald Trump called for federal abortion restrictions during his State of the Union address Tuesday night in front of a joint session of the U.S. Congress, sparking outrage from reproductive health advocates who vowed to continue the fight against the administration’s anti-choice agenda.
Trump asked Congress to pass legislation “to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.” This may signal that Senate Republicans will again take up a 20-week abortion ban—such as the one Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) reintroduced in mid-January—based on the dubious claim that a fetus can feel pain at that point in a pregnancy.
The president criticized New York’s recently passed Reproductive Health Act, which legalized abortion after 24 weeks in cases of life endangerment or if a fetus is not viable, repeating anti-choice talking points about later abortion. He also pointed to Virginia where there has been a debate over a bill to loosen restrictions on later abortions, falsely accusing embattled Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of saying he would “execute a baby after birth.”
Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, forcefully rejected the president’s framing of the Virginia bill in a statement shortly after his remarks. “The bottom line is that patients who need an abortion in the third trimester deserve to have the same access to care as those who obtain an abortion earlier,” said Nash. “Right now in Virginia, an archaic law stipulates that three separate doctors are required to verify that a person’s pregnancy is urgently threatening their health or life in order to obtain an abortion in the third trimester, which not only delays access to that abortion, but further endangers any person whose pregnancy is urgently threatening their health.”
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Others expressed concern for the physical safety of reproductive health providers amid the mounting violent rhetoric from the anti-choice movement. “[T]he inflammatory rhetoric itself jeopardizes the safety of health care providers,” said Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, in a statement Tuesday night. “This demonization, by inciting violence, attempts to scare health care practitioners away from providing the care their patients need. This most-recent campaign of inflammatory rhetoric and blatant misinformation has already led to our receiving multiple calls from abortion providers concerned for their safety. Anti-abortion extremists feel emboldened when they see elected officials spreading their propaganda.”
The speech comes as the finalization of the administration’s long-awaited domestic gag rule looms. The anti-choice restriction would ban Title X family planning providers from referring patients for abortions and force providers to physically and financially separate abortion services from family planning services.
Trump also announced at his State of the Union address that the administration would seek to eradicate the HIV epidemic. “In recent years we have made remarkable progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS,” said the president in his speech. “Scientific breakthroughs have brought a once-distant dream within reach. My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within ten years.” The pitch comes despite the administration’s campaign to ban fetal tissue research, which has been vital to the development of Truvada, a medication that prevents the transmission of HIV.
HIV and AIDS advocates remain skeptical, given the administration’s track record on the issue. The administration has proposed cutting funding for HIV prevention programs administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In December 2017, Trump fired the entire Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
“This administration simply cannot achieve this goal while, at the same time, charging forward with attacks on health care for the communities most impacted by HIV,” said David Stacy, director of government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement Monday. “The American public deserves a real commitment from their government to end the HIV epidemic.”
According to Jaron Benjamin, vice president for community mobilization at Housing Works, an organization dedicated to ending the dual crisis of AIDS and homelessness, the Trump administration cannot hope to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic while pushing policies that would make health insurance more difficult to access. “We can end the AIDS epidemic if we get more people in treatment,” he said in an interview with Rewire.News before Tuesday’s State of the Union. “More people have to get tested, that’s true. But then those folks who test positive need treatment. It’s hard to get routine [HIV and AIDS] care if the first time you’re getting routinized care is with the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and then suddenly it goes away. It’s not going to work.”
The Trump administration has supported the repeal of the Affordable Care Act while taking action to undermine it. Since the president took office, the number of people without insurance has risen by 7 million, according to Gallup.
Key Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have their own checkered pasts when it comes to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. As governor of Indiana, Pence oversaw the closing of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Scott County, leaving the area without an HIV-testing site and triggering an HIV outbreak in 2013. Pence waited two years to allow a needle exchange program that finally stemmed the local transmission rate.