Ohio Heartbeat Bill Abortion Outrage: The Religious Right’s Grip on Republican Party

A Christian activist had two fetuses called as witnesses—the latest sign of a nationwide attack on abortion rights. Michelle Goldberg on why the religious right’s grip on the GOP is as strong as ever. 

Anti-abortion demonstrators march along Constitution Avenue during the March for Life march on Jan. 24, 2011 in Washington D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

It sounds like an Onion headline. “ In-the-womb Ohioans testify for Heartbeat Bill,” said a press release from Janet Porter, the Christian right activist who arranged for two fetuses, one nine weeks old, to offer “expert testimony” before the Health Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives Wednesday. They were shown via ultrasound projector, for legislators in a packed room to “see and hear their beating hearts,” as Porter wrote.

Farcical as it seems, what’s going on in Ohio is actually quite serious. The Heartbeat Bill, or H.B. 125, is a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade, and it’s part of a fusillade of anti-abortion legislation being introduced all around the country. H.B. 125 would ban abortion as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, as early as 18 days after conception, and rarely later than six weeks. It currently has been co-sponsored by 50 members of the Ohio House, more than half the total, and similar bills are being considered in Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia. It’s just the latest bit of evidence that the Republican Party is as firmly in the grip of the religious right as ever.

Ever since the Tea Party roared onto the national stage in 2009, the conventional wisdom has been that it’s all about economics. Again and again, we’ve heard that the social issues once dominating right-wing politics have lost their salience, with social conservatives publicly fretting about the ostensibly libertarian bent of the new movement. Yet now that the Tea Party-fueled GOP is in power across the country, it has made curtailing abortion rights and family planning a preeminent goal.

In 2010, Republicans campaigned on Tea Party themes of economic austerity and small government, but they’re using their power to step up intrusions into the private lives of American women.

At the federal level, of course, Speaker Boehner signaled the importance of abortion by taking up H.R. 3, “The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which he declared “one of our highest legislative priorities.” An early version of the bill made news for attempting to narrow the government’s definition of rape, apparently in an attempt to exclude more abortions from insurance coverage. Less attention has been paid to the fact that the bill would jettison current tax breaks for health insurance plans bought by individuals and small business if those plans include abortion coverage, as 87 percent of plans do. Higher taxes, fewer choices – this is not libertarianism.

Then, last month, 240 out of 241 House Republicans voted for the Pence Amendment, which would strip Planned Parenthood, America’s leading provider of reproductive health care, of federal funding. This wasn’t about fiscal discipline. Even if one disregards the overwhelming evidence that investments in family planning save the government money down the road, the Pence Amendment wouldn’t cut spending, it would simply divert it elsewhere. The amendment was clearly meant to punish Planned Parenthood for providing abortions. “You see, I don’t believe that God can continue to bless America while we’re killing 4,000 babies every day,” Georgia Republican Paul Broun said during the debate over the measure.

At the state level, things are even worse. Nebraska is considering a bill that would make killing someone in defense of a fetus “justifiable homicide,” which some see as sanctioning the murder of abortion providers. South Dakota legislators shelved similar legislation after a national uproar, but are poised to pass a bill requiring women seeking abortions to first visit a so-called crisis pregnancy center, anti-abortion outfits that are usually run by religious groups and staffed by volunteers with no medical training.

In Florida, Republicans have filed bills to ban insurance coverage for abortion and to prevent abortions after 20 weeks unless a woman’s life is at stake. Indiana has a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks and requiring that women seeking abortions be told that the procedure can cause breast cancer and infertility, even though neither claim is true. The Texas Senate recently passed a bill requiring doctors to conduct a sonogram 24 hours prior to an abortion and to explain the fetus’ development in detail. Georgia Republican Bobby Franklin recently introduced a bill that would require police investigations of all miscarriages.

What’s happening nationwide is the inverse of the phenomenon Thomas Frank described in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank argued that conservatives used divisive social issues to win votes for unpopular economic policies. “The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off,” he wrote. “Vote to stop abortion, receive a rollback in capital gains taxes.” In 2010, Republicans campaigned on Tea Party themes of economic austerity and small government, but they’re using their power to step up intrusions into the private lives of American women.

There may be a backlash for this bait-and-switch among some independent voters, but probably not from most Tea Party activists. That’s because there was always plenty of overlap between the Tea Party and the Christian right, and the two movements keep moving closer together. Poll after poll shows that the Tea Party is far more socially conservative than the rest of America. In October, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that half of people who identify themselves members of the Tea Party also self-identify not just as Christian conservatives, but as members of the Christian conservative movement. Almost two-thirds of Tea Party supporters want to ban abortion in most cases, and only 18 percent support gay marriage. “Americans who support the Tea Party movement are more likely to identify as white evangelical Protestants than the general population,” the survey found. A majority of Tea Party members say that America is a Christian nation.

In Congress, many of the freshmen Republicans swept into office in November with Tea Party support are firmly rooted in the religious right. Ann Marie Buerkle, a Tea Party favorite from upstate New York, may have run on tax cuts and health care repeal, but she’s also a former spokesperson for the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. Daniel Webster, who defeated liberal fire-breather Alan Grayson in Florida, is a fundamentalist Baptist associated with the rigidly patriarchal Institute for Basic Life Principles, which teaches followers to “[r]eject the concept of working mother…God designed a wife to find her fulfillment by being a helpmeet to her husband.” Vicky Hartzler from Missouri once backed a state amendment that would allow women who have abortions to be charged with murder. She’s the author of a book for aspiring Christian politicians, “Running God’s Way,” which, she’s said, contains “the basic steps for campaigning as outlined in God’s Word.”

The same is true at the state level. John Kasich, Ohio’s new Republican governor, has closely aligned himself with the Tea Party. Human Events called him the “embodiment of a small government-low tax conservative,” and he spoke little about abortion on the campaign trail. But his record is firmly anti-abortion, and at Fox News, where he worked as a host and commentator until 2007, he regularly fanned the culture war flames. “Right now, at least 180 public schools are using your tax dollars to distribute the morning after pill to teenage girls,” he warned on The O’Reilly Factor. He demagogued against the late abortion provider Dr. George Tiller for not reporting the pregnancies of his underage patients to the police: “[I]f you've got kids, allegedly 10- and 12-year-old who had an abortion, who were probably raped by members, perhaps, of their own family. And we're not going to get to the bottom of it?” Janet Porter, the facilitator of fetal testimony, has an endorsement from Kasich on her website: “Janet’s public speaking abilities coupled with her personal integrity and her sheer enthusiasm make her a great spokesperson. She is a real inspiration!”

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When the Tea Party and the GOP talk about freedom from government interference, they’re assuredly not talking about women’s bodies. They may view forcing people to buy health insurance as an intolerable violation of their liberty. But forcing women to bear children against their will is as high on the conservative agenda as ever.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.