In his big-in-the-2000s analysis of the GOP What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank painted a picture of a two-faced Republican establishment that was all too willing to talk a big game in front of pro-life conservatives, but balked when it came to actually passing anti-abortion legislation. However true that analysis might have been when it was written in 2004, it's definitely false 10 years later. Not only does the GOP want the American public to join them in opposing reproductive rights, they have a cynical plan for getting there.
In the past few years, the abortion issue has been marked by increasing legislative clampdowns, with a cascade of laws exploding across the United States to restrict access to abortion services. Instead of trying for blanket bans on abortion — those futile charges that never worked — the GOP has been gradually acclimating America to an abortion-free landscape.
Take the most direct means of limiting access to surgical abortion: term limits. It's not about banning all abortions, the GOP says, it's about fetal pain in the last trimester! It's not about banning all abortions, it's about saving 'viable' fetuses! Nevermind that only 5 percent of women receive abortions after 20 weeks, typically in emergency situations, or that infants born before 24 weeks have an extremely low chance of survival.
When term limits don't work, the GOP uses tactics like modifying zoning laws to make it more difficult for abortion providers to stay in business. For example, in some states they've attempted to reclassify abortion clinics as ambulatory surgery providers. Such moves are intended to push clinics out of business, making it impossible to afford necessary upgrades to their facilities.
Barriers to access are another tool that's being used to slowly eradicate abortion. More states are requiring mandatory counseling and waiting periods, forcing ultrasounds on pregnant women, proposing that abortions only be performed after permissions from an informal "court" with an advocate for the fetus, and requiring parental notification for underage women. Indirect methods, like attacks on buffer zone laws used to protect doctors, staff, and patients at abortion clinics, are also growing. Meanwhile, the GOP is eating away at access to birth control, with some conservatives advancing the dangerous and inaccurate myth that birth control causes abortions.
Now, states are even taking a look at medication abortion, attempting to ban one of the safest abortion procedures in part because it's being so widely adopted across the U.S.
But the GOP's ultimate mission is to make abortion illegal in all forms. Setting up a patchwork system of anti-abortion laws helps acclimate voters, but the party still needs to convince people — a lot of people — to cleave to its hardline ideology.
The party is extremely intelligent when it comes to structuring the discussion and the movement around reproductive rights. It got the jump on shaping the language surrounding reproductive rights and putting the pro-choice community in a reactive position, but it faltered in the 1980s, when Christian evangelicals simultaneously increased the size of the pro-life flock while alienating more moderate Americans who were uncomfortable with the level of aggressive rhetoric they brought to the table. In the 1990s, the movement started to realize that it needed to shift its strategies, and it had the perfect in: Better ultrasound technology.
Medical imaging has made huge strides — by the 2000s, 3D renderings and detailed images of various stages of fetal development were available, and the pro-life movement used them to their best advantage. But the movement realized the time of gory signs and clinic protests was waning — instead, it had to penetrate social organizations and come up with a softer, gentler, kinder pro-life movement.
The movement is getting much younger overall, with young adults taking a highly active role in pro-life organizing. By reaching the next generation, the movement is also working on the development of a "softer sell," marking a turn away from aggressive, potentially alienating rhetoric. Instead of waving bloody fetus signs at abortion clinics, the youthful movement is buying up bulletin boards and plastering them with ultrasound photos and handing out pamphlets about fetal development.
A classic example of the new face of the pro-life movement is the rise of the crisis pregnancy center, offering "counseling" to pregnant women. With warm, friendly décor, professional-looking equipment, and kind-faced staff, these organizations will even lie outright to women seeking information and advice about pregnancy. Frightened and worried women looking for answers about pregnancy and abortion options instead find themselves bullied into keeping their pregnancies, terrified with false claims that abortion causes depression, long-term fertility problems, and other dangerous health consequences.
Meanwhile, the movement has become extremely intelligent when it comes to leveraging wedges wherever it can. A striking example comes up in the form of disability-selective abortion legislation, like a recent law enacted in North Dakota. GOP lawmakers claim such legislation is vitally necessary to prevent abortions on the basis of disability, citing depressing statistics about the frequency of such abortions — and they harness the disability community to do their dirty work, driving up support among both liberal and conservative disabled people concerned about the issue.
Another tactic harnesses social attitudes about sexuality and consequences. While the GOP tends to be the most flagrantly outspoken when it comes to slut shaming and making comments about sexuality and pregnancy, fence-sitters and some liberals share conservative values about sexuality. By presenting the pro-life position as one not just about the sanctity of life but specific challenges to what some perceive as an oversexualized society, the GOP is hoping to win over more moderate voters.
The GOP's work on pro-life causes has gotten savvier and more diverse in the years since Roe v Wade. The party no longer relies on crude, obvious arguments against the right to choose, instead taking more subtle tactics to woo voters from a number of perspectives. If Americans don't watch out, the tactic might just work.