This past weekend, West Virginia became the first Democratic-controlled state to pass a 20-week abortion ban, after both chambers of the legislature approved a bill that would outlaw later abortions without any exceptions for rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormalities. If Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) doesn’t veto the measure sometime over the next two weeks, it will automatically become law even without his signature.
Ten other states already have 20-week bans on the books, based on the scientifically disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain after this point. But all of those measures were passed by GOP-controlled legislatures. Now, West Virginia is giving the impression that there’s bipartisan support for this type of policy.
That dynamic is reinforced by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democratic lawmaker from West Virginia who has historically opposed abortion rights. Manchin recently came out in favor of the measure. “I am pro-life and supportive of the principles in the bill that was just passed in the West Virginia Legislature,” he said in a statement released this week.
Abortion opponents are now well-positioned to claim that banning later abortions is a moderate position with support from both sides of the aisle. “Democrats are realizing opposing 20-week abortion bans is extreme,” the right-wing National Review Online proclaims in a new op-ed — pointing out that another Democratic politician, Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, recently expressed tepid support for the same policy.
In fact, the unfolding political situation in West Virginia says more about the anti-choice community’s effective strategy to slowly chip away at reproductive rights than it does about the “extreme” nature of later abortion services.
The push for 20-week bans has always relied on framing this policy as moderate, reasonable, and popular. The anti-choice community frequently cites the fact that public support for abortion services drops off later in pregnancy to make the case that permitting later abortions is starkly opposed to Americans’ values. Particularly after the illegal abortion provider Kermit Gosnell was convicted of murder for preying on impoverished women in his Philadelphia-area clinic, this became an area where conservatives could capitalize on emotional outrage — and paint all abortion services as barbaric.
Although the anti-choice community claims it’s not a big deal to shave a few weeks off of the current window for legal abortion services under Roe v. Wade, 20-week abortion bans actually do represent a serious threat to reproductive rights. This restriction signals that emotional arguments against abortion can trump science, since there’s no real evidence for abortion opponents’ “fetal pain” claims. And although it’s a policy that affects relatively few individuals, since abortions after 20 weeks are already rare, it harms women in the most vulnerable situations. The individuals who need later abortion care are disproportionately economically disadvantaged, since it often takes them too long to scrape together the money for the procedure. Some of them are also facing heartbreaking decisions about ending a wanted pregnancy that has gone terribly wrong.
In fact, when Americans understand more of that context, the political narrative about 20-week abortion bans flips on its head. Voters who realize why women may need a later abortion tend to oppose cutting off access to that type of reproductive health care. And a recent poll in West Virginia found exactly that. Most state residents don’t want to deny abortion services from women in desperate circumstances, and they believe this issue is the wrong one for their lawmakers to be focusing on.
Last week, a woman who was forced to carry a nonviable pregnancy to term because she lived in a state with a 20-week abortion ban implored West Virginia lawmakers to “prevent women from living my tragedy.” Writing in an op-ed published in the West Virginia Gazette, she pointed out that this type of legislation fails to trust women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, as well as prevents doctors from exercising their own medical judgment. But explaining these type of personal stories is more complicated than polling Americans on “late abortions,” and that’s exactly what abortion opponents are counting on.
The political momentum for this anti-choice strategy is picking up steam. Right-wing groups like the Susan B. Anthony List are now pressuring Manchin to lend his support to a national 20-week abortion ban introduced in the Senate this past fall, which currently doesn’t have any Democratic co-sponsors. The GOP-controlled House has already passed its own version of this legislation along party lines.