Commentary Abortion

Ohio Democrats Ignored My Warning and Fell Into an Anti-Choice Trap

Mallory McMaster

Sure, Democrats stood against the Ohio GOP's total abortion ban, but they fell for an anti-choice resolution that conflates abortion care with infanticide.

Democrats in Ohio’s state senate last week stunned reproductive rights activists by joining Republicans in support of an anti-choice resolution designed to stigmatize abortion patients and providers, revealing a potential gap in the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights.

Minutes before voting unanimously against the GOP’s unconstitutional six-week abortion ban—effectively a total abortion ban—senate Democrats all voted in favor of the anti-choice movement’s transparent attempt to chip away at access to abortion care, a resolution tying abortion providers to infanticide. With their yes votes, people Ohioans look to as leaders in the progressive movement validated the lies and rhetoric that feed the anti-choice movement. 

Though Republicans dominate Ohio’s legislature, and the state has a governor who has spent most of his career fighting to disrupt access to abortion care, few expected Democrats to join Republicans on this purely symbolic measure—part of a wider anti-choice strategy to conflate abortion with infanticide. The state’s entire Democratic caucus voted in favor of a pointless resolution urging Congress to pass the Born-Alive Survivors Protection Act, creating confusion about what it means to support abortion rights. 

Ohio’s Senate Resolution 41, “To urge the Congress of the United States, as expeditiously as possible, to enact a Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” doesn’t solve any of the problems facing Ohioans today. It doesn’t overrule a physician’s obligation to provide appropriate medical care for their patients. It doesn’t address the state’s abhorrent infant mortality rates or our terrifyingly high rate of lead contamination and illness.

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In fact, it doesn’t do much at all, other than elevate anti-choice talking points that rely on lies and inflammatory rhetoric to weaken public support for abortion rights and agitate anti-choice radicals who are engaging in violent, dangerous behavior targeted at abortion providers. Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, called the bill “part of an orchestrated nationwide campaign by anti-choice elected officials and organizations, from President Trump to the Ohio Legislature all trying to demonize abortion providers and their supporters.”

As an Ohioan who has had an abortion and works in the abortion rights movement, I felt obligated to testify against this resolution so I could redirect the conversation away from the anti-choice movement’s lies and focus on the real risk: stigma and violence against abortion providers. During my testimony before lawmakers, I talked about my experience being bullied and harassed by an anti-choice organization in Ohio. The day before the hearing, the organization’s social media accounts featured photos of me delivering testimony more than a year prior, clearly pregnant, and labeled me a murderer. I’ve experienced this type of harassment before, but in an environment where anti-choice rhetoric and threats of violence are increasing daily, and with a family to protect now, I was worried.

I explained why this resolution was a dangerous attempt to stigmatize abortion care and urged the legislators to focus on the real issues harming Ohioans. While I was speaking, I saw Republican legislators leafing through paperwork and not paying attention, and I saw the Democrats, the folks I knew I had in my corner, nodding in agreement with everything I said. I thought I had their support, but I was wrong.

I knew the solidly anti-choice Republicans wouldn’t listen to me, but I was stunned when my pro-choice allies turned their backs on me too. Speaking on the state senate floor before the official vote, one outspokenly pro-choice lawmaker, Democratic state Sen. Nickie Antonio from Ohio’s 23rd district, called the resolution troubling. “This law feels very much like one more time that we’re going to shame women that have abortions. One more time that we’re going to talk about who decides, about their rights…it frankly gives me a whole lot of heartburn.”

Antonio then continued tearfully. “When a baby’s born, a baby’s born.” She sat down and joined her colleagues in voting yes. It felt like a punch in the gut.

Infanticide is already illegal; no lawmaker supports it as public policy. The Born-Alive Infant Protection Act of 2002, based on anti-choice misinformation about later abortion care, ensures babies born after an attempted abortion—something exceedingly rare—are guaranteed legal protections. In the words of Rewire.News Vice President of Law and the Courts Jessica Mason Pieklo, “You cannot abort a newborn.”

So, where did this idea come from? Thanks to some poorly framed but well-intentioned statements from pro-choice Democrats in defense of Virginia’s recent attempt to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade, the right stumbled onto one of the most effective anti-abortion talking points of our lifetime: infanticide. They embraced the term swiftly and without hesitation. President Trump used the talking points. Scott Walker used the talking points. Anti-abortion organizations around the country started hosting “resist infanticide” rallies and Sen. Sasse brought the issue to the U.S. Senate. Then bills like Ohio’s SR 41 started cropping up. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went as far as alleging “growing support for infanticide” in advocating for Texas’ version of this bill.

It’s clear that these bills and rants aren’t saving babies. They aren’t changing the way abortion providers care for their patients. They’re just vehicles for anti-abortion lies and stigma.

Abortion stigma is real, and it’s hard to beat. We’re making progress by sharing our stories and embracing choice in a more abortion-positive and intersectional way, but it’s still hard, and it’s still there. Amid this new wave of lies and anger around abortion, while some people who have had abortions are generously sharing their stories for the first time to correct the record, many might be pushed back into silence.

People who support abortion rights must do better. Our legislators aren’t champions or allies if they don’t recognize abortion stigma as a barrier to abortion care. It’s not enough to say we want people to have access to abortion care when and where they need it—it must also be free of stigma, shame, and violence. That stigma makes people who have had or have even considered having abortions feel like they need to keep their experience a secret. When we don’t share our stories, we can’t learn from one another, comfort one another, or support one another. Abortion stigma leads to harassment online, in our places of employment, and on the sidewalk when we’re walking into the clinic.

That stigma leads to violence too. Just days before I testified about SR 41, I honored Dr. David Gunn on Abortion Provider Appreciation Day. Dr. Gunn was murdered on March 10, 1993, by an opponent of abortion rights who was obsessed with anti-abortion rhetoric and tropes. Soon after Dr. Gunn’s murder, Dr. John Bayard Britton was murdered. Dr. George Tiller was killed by an abortion rights foe in 2009. In late 2015, Robert Dear was so incensed by rhetoric stemming from an anti-choice propaganda campaign that he entered a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic and shot 12 people, killing three. In February of this year, a man committed arson at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Missouri. The clinic was empty, thankfully, but the building suffered severe damage, which prevented providers from offering sexual and reproductive health care.

I thought my pro-choice allies in the Ohio state legislature understood this, but I was wrong. When I reached out to the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus to ask why their members voted in favor of SR41, staffers pointed me to a press release about their vote on the six-week ban and didn’t return emails asking for more clarification on SR41 or abortion stigma in general. The Ohio Democratic Party was more willing to explain their position on this issue.

In an emailed statement, party spokesperson Kirstin Alvanitakis said, “This resolution—like the federal legislation it references—is a solution in search of a problem because any evidence of wrongdoing can and should be dealt with under current state and federal laws. Ohio Democrats and the reproductive freedom community have never opposed those laws. It’s sad that the Ohio Senate GOP is wasting their time pushing toothless resolutions designed to pander to their extremist base, using Ohio women as pawns, rather than dealing with Ohio’s dreadful infant mortality figures, the rising uninsured rate among Ohio children or the lead poisoning crisis in Cleveland.”

Alvanitakis pointed me to the Democratic Party platform for its statement on violence against abortion providers: “We condemn and will combat any acts of violence, harassment, and intimidation of reproductive health providers, patients, and staff.”

We can yell and scream and fight back against abortion restriction after abortion restriction, but we’ll never make real progress toward changing our culture until we confront abortion stigma head-on. Our legislators, political leaders, and pro-choice champions need to be by our side while we do this. Opposing abortion bans but using stigmatizing language is harmful. Democrats refusing to acknowledge the connection between anti-choice rhetoric and anti-choice violence leaves abortion providers and their patients vulnerable. That’s inexcusable.

In states like Ohio and Texas, where Democratic leaders and pro-choice advocates are fighting tooth and nail against the idea that their states are irredeemably red, people who care about the states’ political futures should commit to a progressive, sensible position against abortion bans—including abortion stigma—and lead with their values. Our lives depend on it.

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