Iowa lawmakers are pushing bills that seek to shame, sideline and disrupt women trying to exercise their right to end a pregnancy. With abortion-foes in control of both houses of the Iowa Legislature and the governor’s office, these counterproductive measures are inching closer to becoming law. And with the Neil Gorsuch confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court underway, they deserve closer attention. Another conservative on the nation’s top court would give such abortion restrictions a better chance, if challenged, of being upheld.
The latest anti-abortion bill approved by the state Senate would have Iowa join 17 other states in making it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to end a pregnancy after 20 weeks. There’d be exceptions, including to save the life of (or avert serious impairment to) the mother, or to save a fetus. But the measure is unnecessary, and the bill’s language, with words like “feticide,” is needlessly provocative, in ways that could confuse or misinform people. There’s even an amendment that would prohibit abortions before 20 weeks - just in case, according to its sponsor, it ever becomes possible to make a fetus viable outside the womb sooner.
This is as emotionally manipulative as a previous Iowa bill that didn’t advance but would have allowed women to sue their abortion providers for emotional distress, even 10 years after the fact. Also in that league was a so-called personhood bill declaring life begins at conception. Granted, abortion is a difficult issue that challenges deeply held belief systems. But that does not permit lawmakers to ignore established science and redefine fetal viability, or meddle with the most personal, life-altering decisions of other people.
Though Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, hasn’t ruled much on abortion specifically, Trump has vowed to appoint anti-abortion justices, and Gorsuch’s nomination has been cheered by anti-abortion groups. His 2013 position on the Hobby Lobby case while he was on the Court of Appeals hints at why. He joined in a decision that even closely-held, for-profit corporations could not be required to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their employer-sponsored health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act if they had religious objections. In other words, he champions the notion that religious freedom rights can trump the rights to abortion or contraception even for organizations with no religious affiliation.
Under Roe v. Wade, the 1972 Supreme Court decision that articulated women’s constitutional right to abortion, a pregnancy can be ended up to the point a fetus can live on its own outside the womb, typically between 24 and 28 weeks. Current Iowa law follows that threshold. The proposed ban on abortions after 20 weeks is based on proponents’ claim that fetuses can feel pain at that point. But that has been debunked by various studies, including a 2005 one by the University of California at San Francisco published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found a fetus probably can’t feel pain until at least 29 weeks of gestation.
At any rate, if pain were the real motivation, why aren’t those same lawmakers proposing measures to allow terminally ill people in chronic pain the right to die on their own terms? And in the case of the bill to sue an abortion provider for emotional distress, why don’t they also worry about the psychological damage to women who were forced to carry and give birth to nonviable fetuses? That’s the main reason to have an abortion after 20 weeks - because many fetal anomalies are undetectable before that. Earlier ultrasounds are not able to determine major cardiac, skeletal, and craniofacial anomalies, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Only 1.3 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the national Centers for Disease Control, so this bill addresses a slim minority of cases. But whether or not it passes, when abortion-condemning bills like this one are introduced, it’s not just their practical impact on access that is problematic. It’s also the negative public narrative they drive about a medical procedure that exists because it is needed. They demonize abortion-providers, and put women seeking abortions on the defensive.
It’s amazing that some of the same people who claim they have a God-given right to bear and use arms anywhere, and to reject vaccinations for their children or to keep them out of the school system, want to limit the right of half the population to make the most personal of decisions - motherhood - for themselves. What we need is a more balanced conversation. Instead of hearing from politicians, we need to hear from women who have chosen to have abortions, for whatever reason, and stood by that choice.
For example, a Virginia woman named Christie Brooks told the journal Think Progress of being nearly 21 weeks pregnant when she and her husband learned they were carrying a baby with a hole in its diaphragm that had caused its stomach and intestines to move to its chest, interfering with lung development. After consulting with specialists, Brooks chose to have an abortion. “The longer I sat with it, the more I thought: Wait a minute. My child might have to suffer greatly at birth just so I can have a clear conscience,” she is quoted saying. “I ultimately decided I would bear this on my conscience for the rest of my life if it prevented my child from (having) to suffer.”
That kind of story offers badly needed context, both on abortion and matters of conscience. Just as sexual-assault survivors, recovering addicts and people coping with mental illness have helped move understanding of those issues forward by sharing their stories, it is time for women with abortion experiences to reclaim that conversation. Because until we change the narrative about who gets abortions and why, the shaming and stigma and roadblocks will only get worse.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register