Women’s rights groups have been on the defensive for weeks over a pair of controversial bills aimed at repealing restrictions on abortion. Now, they’re reading for a public assault from the White House that will likely be further fueled by Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.
Groups like NARAL and the National Institute for Reproductive Health staged press calls and ad campaigns for the days following the president's address, while abortion providers and activists attempted to fight misinformation in the days leading up to it.
“I think as a movement we probably weren’t ready for [the backlash to the bills] the way we should have been,” Erika Christensen, a reproductive rights advocate in New York, told The Daily Beast. “Now we know that passing a bill is one point, and there’s just still a lot of work to do to battle the nonsense.”
Conservative outcry over the last several weeks has revolved around two bills expanding access to later abortions: one passed in New York allowing abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy in the case of serious fetal health concerns, and another, that was shot down in Virginia, would have reduced restrictions on third-trimester abortions if the woman’s physical or mental health was at risk.
Seven states already allow third-trimester abortions without restriction, and another 19 allow them in the case of serious risk to the pregnant woman, according to the Guttmacher Institute. But anti-abortion conservatives seized on the new bills in recent weeks, claiming they allowed for abortion “right up to the moment of birth.”
One poorly worded response from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam led Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to label that state’s bill “legal infanticide.” Even Sen. Tim Kaine—a Virginia Democrat who says he personally opposes abortion but usually votes in favor of expanding access—said he could not support the bill.
On Monday, sources told The Daily Beast that a number of conservative Christian activists were pressuring Trump to address the New York and Virginia legislation in his upcoming State of the Union address. In an interview with The Daily Caller, the president called the Virginia bill “terrible,” adding, “Do you remember when I said Hillary Clinton was willing to rip the baby out of the womb? That’s what it is, that’s what they’re doing.”
Trump once supported abortion rights but has been an ally to the anti-abortion movement since running for office. That position has largely been reflected in his judicial selections—both of his Supreme Court nominations are seen as unfriendly to abortion rights—and in proposed federal rules that would limit funding for abortion and contraceptives.
In anticipation of Trump’s attacks Tuesday, NARAL Pro-Choice America scheduled a press call with its president and other reproductive rights advocates for Wednesday. The National Institute for Reproductive Health also planned a series of ads for the days after the address, to combat what President Andrea Miller called a “hyperbolic, disingenuous and vitriolic campaign of lies and misdirection.”
A coalition of pro-choice groups in Virginia—including Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance—also released a statement condemning Virginia politicians for “pulling out all the stops to paint a false, medically inaccurate picture of reproductive health.”
“The series of attacks we’ve seen over the past week aren’t just misleading—they are part of a calculated smoke and mirrors campaign meant to limit a person’s ability to make informed decisions about their reproductive health care,” the coalition stated. “And they do not accurately reflect the values that Virginians share.”
Individual physicians also took to Twitter ahead of Trump’s address to dispel some of the more common myths around abortions late in pregnancy. Dr. Daniel Grossman, director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), called out talk show host Meghan McCain for claiming that America is one of only seven countries that allow later abortions “on demand.” In reality, sixty-five countries allow abortion after 20 weeks in cases of fetal malformations or anomalies.
And in New York, Christensen—who lobbied heavily for the state’s Reproductive Health Act—organized an open letter from more than than 50 later abortion patients that was published just hours before Trump’s address Tuesday. Christensen said the goal was to humanize the issue of later abortions, and give a voice to the hundreds of later abortion patients that Trump would try to turn into a “faceless monster” in his address.
“This was our attempt for patients to speak out ahead of that and make sure people know who he’s talking about when he speaks,” she said. “If you’re going to pass judgement, know you’re passing judgment on your family, your friends, the people in your community. There are a lot of us.”