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The GOP’s Actions Speak Louder Than Words On Reproductive Rights

In 2012 we were assured that there were “binders full of women.” In 2014, we heard that the “war on women” was an unfair and scurrilous political attack. In 2016, we were told that fears over the fall of Roe and the meager protections it afforded were “hysterical” and “overblown.”  In 2020, we watched as the first self-proclaimed feminist on the Supreme Court was replaced with a woman who wouldn’t say that the racial equality confirmed by Brown v. Board of Ed. was correctly decided under the 14ᵗʰ Amendment, let alone gender equality. And in 2022, despite our protests and objections, we saw half a century of progress for millions of people wiped out by the whims of six justices.

So now we have a choice to make in 2024.

The Republican Party is going to do its best to muddle the nature of this decision. They will focus on issues where they think they have a stronger message and a winning hand — immigration, education, anti-diversity initiatives, foreign policy — and minimize the horrors that they’ve forced so many pregnant people to endure in the last two years. They will deflect away from stories about 7th graders giving birth or 10-year-olds fleeing their homes to get abortions, and focus instead on exceptions, “reasonable” restrictions, and the presumed love generated by birth that binds parents and children. It has always worked before.

For decades, the Republican Party has accommodated forced-birth extremism within its ranks and explicitly promoted anti-abortion advocates to leadership. They have said in closed rooms and open forums that they had Roe v. Wade in their sights, and then dismissed or undermined anyone who pointed this out. In every confirmation hearing, in every campaign, Republican-aligned jurists, candidates, and elected officials insisted that there was nothing to worry about — they believed in precedent and precedent protected abortion, even if they disagreed. The GOP had no interest, no investment, no plans, no effort to eradicate abortion protections…until they did.

And now they say the same thing about contraceptives and family planning. Recently, in oral arguments over the outrageous effort to ban mifepristone, the main form of medicine abortion in the country, both Justices Thomas and Alito mentioned the Comstock Act. It is a 19th century law that has gone unenforced for decades, since it was designed to make the transmission of abortion pills, birth control, and even family planning and contraceptive information a crime. Last month, when the Alabama Supreme Court declared the personhood of frozen embryos used in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, Republicans across the country rushed to say that they disagreed, with even the GOP supermajority of the state hurriedly passing a law to shield IVF clinics from liability. But they didn’t argue with the merits of the ruling, which included explicitly religious reasoning about the state’s interest in human development. And in early views of what another Trump term would look like, embodied in the policy bible Project 2025 from the Heritage Foundation, the apparatus of the federal government would commit to wiping out contraceptive support altogether, scrapping funding for condoms and morning-after pills, reclassifying mifepristone, banning or severely limiting IVF, and proposing a national abortion ban that would reach into previously safe states for reproductive rights.

None of this is being shared with voters, of course. It is all being shielded by equivocation or deflection, as Republicans structure a message that sounds compelling while leaving the devil in the details. Just like the assault on abortion, the GOP is going to deny their intentions until it is too late to stop them, and tell every skeptic along the way that we are prone to paranoid and overactive imaginations. So to make our decision count this election cycle, we cannot rely on what politicians and their ideological fellow travelers tell us about their plans. We need to look at what they do.

And the track record on action isn’t pretty. Even leaving aside the long list of lies from before the Dobbs decision demolished the inferred right to bodily autonomy, Republican legislators and functionaries have stymied popular will at every turn where pregnancy rights are concerned. At the national level, that has included a constant feed of cases crafted by well-placed GOP ideologues to Republican-appointed federal judges, regardless of standing or injury, including the frankly bizarre argument made by Josh Hawley’s wife that forced-birth doctors would or could be emotionally harmed by the results of someone, somewhere was taking mifepristone to end their pregnancy. 

At the state level, it’s no better. In Ohio, the brutally gerrymandered GOP majority illegally tried to change the rules of state constitutional amendments when activists successfully got an affirmation of bodily autonomy onto the ballot, and when the amendment was added, have done their utmost to prevent it from taking effect. Similar Calvinball rule changes are being litigated by GOP officials in Missouri, Florida, Montana, and Arizona where activists see opportunities to put abortion rights up for a vote, knowing that they are significantly more popular than the restrictions legislators have imposed. All of this is done under the auspices of “protecting” voters from confusion or complicated language, instead of explicitly saying that the state has a greater interest in pregnant people giving birth than letting those people have the right to handle their pregnancies for themselves.

This legislative doublespeak—the space between rhetoric and action—has let many of us take abortion protections for granted in the years before Dobbs. It seemed too outrageous, too cruel, too unbelievable to accept that hundreds of elected representatives saw millions of their own constituents as little more than breeding stock. Experience has now taught us a cruel lesson, one that we cannot forget as we approach this November and an election that will determine whether our government protects fundamental rights or destroys them. Women’s History Month is behind us, along with the anniversary of the ERA, but the wisdom of our predecessors stays: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

We might not get a second one.

Kaitlin Byrd
Kaitlin Byrd
Knows too much, thinks even more. Has infinite space in her heart for tea and breakfast for dinner. Really from New York, so always ready to cut a bitch.