House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) recently won an endorsement from a local chapter of the National Right to Life, the most prominent anti-abortion group in the country. In a candidate survey on the topic, the Ohio lawmaker details his pro-life credentials, and notes that he supports federal and state legislation to ban abortion “in all cases except when the health of the mother is in danger, rape, and incest.”
But during his time in office, Boehner hasn’t necessarily ensured that the abortion bans he supports include an exception in cases when a woman’s health may be at risk.
In 2011, Boehner brought a bill to the floor that would have allowed hospitals to refuse to provide abortion care, even in cases of emergency when a woman may have died without it. The next year, he held a vote on a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks in Washington, DC with no exception for a woman’s health. And in 2013, Boehner supported a national 20-week ban that didn’t include an explicit exception for a woman’s health, either.
Reproductive rights groups in the state think the disparity matters. They see it as an attempt to convince voters that Boehner’s stance on abortion isn’t that extreme. Kellie Copeland, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said Boehner’s claim that he supports abortion access in cases when a woman’s health is in danger is “totally bogus.”
“We all know that the GOP has a serious problem with women voters, and Boehner’s attempt to mislead the public on his choice position is desperate at best,” Copeland said. “With polls showing seven out of ten Americans supporting a woman’s right to choose, I have no doubt we’ll see more anti-choice politicians like Boehner trying to fool women voters. And it will not work.”
It may seem like a nitpicky distinction. After all, many abortion bans that don’t specify a health exception do include a provision that permits legal abortion services to save a woman’s life. For instance, the national 20-week ban that the House passed last year includes an exception “where necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered.” Isn’t that the same thing as protecting her health?
Not exactly. The narrow language related to saving lives often makes it difficult for medical professionals to take proactive steps to safeguard their patients. They’re forced to wait to provide abortion care until a woman is clearly at risk of dying — and sometimes, by that point, it’s too late. And politically speaking, the specific language related to abortion exceptions can have huge implications. They’re currently becoming a point of contention for Republican candidates, threatening a potential split within the anti-choice community.
For instance, National Right to Life recently broke ties with its Georgia affiliate over its stance on rape and incest exceptions. Georgia Right to Life favors total abortion bans without any exceptions for rape or incest, a position that the national group thinks is too extreme. David O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, explained to the Associated Press that his group is willing to compromise on legislation with those type of exceptions as part of an incremental strategy to slowly chip away at reproductive rights. “You have to deal with the reality of the social and political climate,” O’Steen said, pointing out that most Americans support legal abortion access for rape and incest victims. But some state level activists, like the ones in Georgia Right To Life, want to take a harder line.
“As we see a wave of increased restrictions on safe and legal abortion across the country, this internal hair-splitting over exceptions among some in the GOP only serves to underscore why politicians shouldn’t be involved in these decisions in the first place,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, pointed out.
The divide is an illustration of a fundamental difference of opinion when it comes to the overall anti-choice strategy. Abortion opponents have had a lot of success gradually dismantling Roe v. Wade piece by piece, but that’s not enough for the activists who want to take a bold stance to ban all abortions. Those abortion opponents continue to push radical legislation, like fetal heartbeat bans to outlaw the procedure at just six weeks, that are struggling to get enough traction among their Republican colleagues.
In Boehner’s home state, the DC-based National Right to Life has also begun to diverge from its Ohio affiliate over these issues. The national group recently endorsed a Republican candidate for Congress, Rep. Dave Joyce — but Joyce doesn’t have the support of Ohio Right to Life, who believes his stance on abortion is too moderate. And there’s at least one theme that Ohio Right to Life and NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio may actually agree on. The group’s president, Mike Gonidakis, has suggested that Joyce may be downplaying his abortion position “for political gain.”