When a Southern state starts backing away from antiabortion legislation, you know something has changed in American politics.
Earlier this week, after a nationwide uproar, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, widely considered a vice presidential prospect, withdrew his support for a bill forcing women seeking abortions to first undergo medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds. “No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure,” he said in a statement.
Then, yesterday, the Virginia Senate tabled a so-called personhood bill. It had already passed the House and been approved by a Senate committee, and was widely expected to reach McDonnell’s desk. Six Republicans, including Senate Leader Tommy Norment, joined 18 Democrats in voting to kill it.
It seems that at least some Republican politicians are starting to notice that their party’s crusade against reproductive rights—a crusade that’s now gone beyond abortion to encompass birth control as well—is not serving them. As family planning has moved to the center of the political debate, President Obama’s favorability ratings with women have shot up, and Mitt Romney’s have plunged. In a Quinnipiac poll this week, 65 percent of women say that Barack Obama cares about women’s needs and problems. Only 34 percent of women say the same about Mitt Romney. A recent Politico headline asked, “2012: The Year of ‘Birth Control Moms’?”
The distaff backlash began when the Komen Foundation, bowing to conservative pressure, tried to defund Planned Parenthood, setting off an epic public-relations disaster. It mounted when Republican congressmen called an all-male panel to decry the White House’s policy on insurance coverage for contraception, and when Rick Santorum’s super-PAC sugardaddy Foster Friess stunned MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell with his comment about women using an aspirin between the knees as birth control. On Saturday, Santorum criticized prenatal screening because it can lead to abortion in cases of severe fetal abnormality, an issue that cuts deep for any woman who has ever suffered a troubled pregnancy, or been close to someone who has. At the Republican debate on Wednesday, no one called Santorum on this. Instead, Romney went after him for being too soft on abortion rights.
Speaking on CNN of Wednesday’s Republican debate, David Gergen, great tribune of conventional wisdom, said, “[F]or a lot of women, it sounds like four white guys who are out there telling them, ‘Here’s how we’re going to control your lives.’”
Feminists have been documenting the escalating attacks on women’s bodily autonomy for years. Now, the mainstream media has started catching on. And so Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound bill became a huge national story. This was unexpected. Certainly, the measure was outrageous—as a Virginia Pilot editorial put it, “Inserting something into the vagina of an unwilling woman is a violation in every sense of the word.” But when Texas passed similar legislation last year—legislation that went into effect a couple of weeks ago, after a court challenge—it didn’t receive nearly as much attention. Somehow, the Virginia bill became a symbol of right-wing prurience, invasiveness, and insensitivity. The nationwide reaction was so strong it took personhood with it.
For years, Republicans have tried to quietly erode reproductive rights without alarming ordinary women. They targeted the most disturbing, late-term abortion procedures. They enacted restrictions on teenagers and cut funding for poor women, people with little electoral clout. Often, they spoke in a carefully calibrated code. George W. Bush didn’t say he wanted to ban abortion for rape victims—instead, he made known his opposition to the infamous Dred Scott decision, which the anti-abortion movement sees as analogous to Roe v. Wade. Feminists who warned of a slippery slope of reaction, one that could end with attacks on birth control, were derided as hysterical. Only those who paid close attention realized how much they had to lose.
Thanks to conservative extremism, that’s no longer true. Now the GOP has to cope with the anger it has unleashed. It’s about time.