Most Americans believe that abortion should be legal but vary in their support for the legality of the procedure during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. It’s a broad consensus that still leaves room for heated debate over state-level restrictions.
But if you’ve been listening to the spitting match this past week between Rand Paul and DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the abortion debate is about accusing each other of murder on cable television.
Paul has suggested that Wasserman Schultz and the DNC endorse the “killing” of babies and Wasserman Schultz has, in turn, insinuated that Paul would be willing to “let a woman die” if her life were endangered by pregnancy.
Lives are indeed at stake in the abortion debate but turning a complex conversation into a childish game of ideological chicken doesn’t help either party’s position.
In 2015, the abortion debate deserves better than this.
It all started last Wednesday in New Hampshire when a CNN reporter asked Senator Paul to clarify his stance on exemptions to abortion restrictions.
“You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is just not yet born yet,” Paul responded.
In this first rhetorical salvo, Paul paints his perspective as a departure from a seemingly deadlocked debate over the start of life.
“We always seem to have the debate way over here,” he said, gesturing to one side, before making his dubious baby-killer accusation.
In reality, however, Paul is trotting out the same tired GOP talking points about late-term abortions that make the abortion debate seem more two-sided than it actually is. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, only about 1 percent of abortions in the United States occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy. Nearly 90 percent take place within the first 12 weeks. These numbers fall in line with earlier CDC data, which show that 88 percent of abortions take place before the 13-week mark in pregnancy.
There’s a reason why the abortion debate in its most partisan form tends to hinge on the start of life, or “way over here,” as Paul put it: Very few late-term abortions actually take place.
By turning late-term abortions into a metonym for the issue as a whole, Paul is clearly attempting to challenge the American consensus on the legality of abortion earlier in pregnancy. It’s a tactic as old as Roe: make first-trimester abortions guilty by association with the more easily demonized late-term procedures.
But instead of crucifying the disingenuousness of Paul’s question about killing “a seven-pound baby,” Wasserman Schultz fired back with an unequivocal statement that left him too much room to paint the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights as a wholesale endorsement of late-term abortion.
“Here’s an answer,” wrote Wasserman Schultz that same day. “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.”
Her statement concluded with a reference to Paul’s infamous shushing of a CNBC anchor: “And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ‘shushing me.’”
In what was quickly becoming more of a playground spat than a substantive argument, Paul went on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer to skewer Wasserman Schultz’s response, which was almost as nonspecific as his own position.
“There’s a bit of doubt and discussion earlier in pregnancy but Debbie’s position—which I guess is the Democrat party position—that an abortion all the way up until the day of birth would be fine?” Paul said. “I think most pro-choice people would be a little uncomfortable with that.”
He reiterated, too, that Wasserman Schultz must be “OK with killing a seven-pound baby.”
According to Gallup data, Paul is correct that many people who identify as pro-choice do not support abortion in the third trimester. But beyond that point, his comments leave more than enough room for ridicule. His consistent focus on the weight of fetuses rather than their viability outside the uterus is both bizarre and unscientific. And his refusal, when prompted by Blitzer, to state whether or not he believes there should be exceptions to anti-abortion legislation is political obfuscation at its most transparent.
Above all, Paul is running for president and Wasserman Schultz is not. Refusing to clarify his own platform before the DNC chairman responds to half-accusations of murder is a move that should be thrown out, tout court.
But not only has Wasserman Schultz continued to engage Paul on his terms, she is starting to match the murder rhetoric with some of her own.
In a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on Monday, Wasserman Schultz called out Paul’s deflection and emphasized that she’s not running for president but, unfortunately, she didn’t let her rejoinder rest there.
“Are we going to let a woman die?” she asked. “Would Rand Paul let a woman die because she’s carrying a baby or is he going to let her make that choice with her doctor?”
As a matter of public health, stringent abortion restrictions do play a factor in the annual death of tens of thousands of women worldwide. In the U.S., however, the incidence of unsafe abortion is negligible and the rate of pregnancy-related deaths is increasing but still low. The CDC estimates that 17.8 pregnancy-related deaths occurred for every 100,000 live births in 2011, the latest year for which there is data.
For Wasserman Schultz to divert an already long-derailed discussion of late-term abortions into the concept of life endangerment is even more misleading because most women who seek these procedures do not do so for reasons of life endangerment.
As the authors of a 2013 study in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health write, “[D]ata suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”
This same study does reveal plenty of salient and politically urgent reasons to support “later abortion,” which the authors define as taking place after 20 weeks gestational age. Two-thirds of the women in the sample reported delays because they had to raise money for travel to a clinic and often for the procedure itself. Women seeking late-term abortions are also significantly more likely to have experienced difficulties securing insurance coverage than women who receive abortions during the first trimester.
By making it more difficult for women to receive abortions in the first trimester, the GOP indirectly but effectively forces them to wait until it may no longer be legal to do so—42 states prohibit abortions based on fetal viability or after a certain gestational age. Health exceptions remain an important battleground in the U.S. abortion debate but they are not as central to the issue as the basic barriers to access that many women face.
From this perspective, Wasserman Schultz’s “Would Rand Paul Let A Woman Die?” grandstanding marks a missed opportunity to highlight the massive wave of abortion restrictions hitting state legislatures in 2015.
But talking about the nitty-gritty of legislation doesn’t score as many points as calling Paul a potential murderer when he’s essentially called you the same. Paul’s position on abortion is not a difficult one to defuse but Wasserman Schultz has bungled her opportunities to do so, opting to bite back instead of leaving him to flounder.
In a Fox News interview with Megyn Kelly on Tuesday, Wasserman Schultz continued to dodge Paul’s own deflection of the original question by deflecting Kelly’s questions to her back to him. With any luck—and with Hillary Clinton officially in the race—their back-and-forth will quickly fizzle out form here.
Late-term abortions and life endangerment are not the center of the abortion debate, but as long as Paul and Wasserman Schultz keep talking, they’ll continue to be painted as such. Let’s hope that the conversation around abortion this election cycle can move beyond their bickering.