On Tuesday night, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — a Democrat — signed a bill banning the safest way to perform a second-trimester abortion.
This particular policy has been gaining momentum around the country this year, spurred mostly by conservative Republicans. But Edwards’ endorsement shows just how effective anti-abortion advocates have been at exploiting graphic language to steer the debate around reproductive rights — often in direct contradiction to the recommendations of medical professionals — to gain support on the other side of the aisle.
Banning safe second-term abortion procedures forces doctors to make a choice: Either perform alternative, more dangerous abortion procedures and risk endangering women, or stop offering these abortions at all.
Nonetheless, this policy is steadily gaining ground.
Stoking moral outrage about abortion
Louisiana’s new law — called the “Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act” — bans a medical procedure officially known as Dilation and Evacuation, or “D&E.;” The procedure, which takes about 30 minutes to perform, involves dilating the cervix and removing the fetal and placental tissue with surgical instruments. It’s held up by the World Health Organization as the gold standard for later abortions, and is the only remaining legal option for second trimester abortions — which comprise about 10 percent of abortions — that doctors consider safe.
The language is intentionally inflammatory and dramatic
Abortion opponents, however, have targeted the procedure with graphic and inflammatory terms, misleadingly describing it as tearing babies “limb from limb.” Anti-abortion advocates have even compared D&E; to the medieval torture drawing and quartering.
The sponsor of Louisiana’s legislation, state Rep. Mike Johnson (R), described his “dismemberment” bill in exactly these terms. “No civil society should allow its unborn children to be ripped apart,” he said. “Incredible as it seems, we needed a law to say that. We have it now.”
“The language is intentionally inflammatory and dramatic,” Amanda Allen, senior state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights told ThinkProgress about the growing trend in fetal dismemberment bills. “The graphic terminology is meant to paint abortion providers and people who want an abortion in the second trimester as evil. These terms have no basis in medical language.”
But this emotional framing — stoking moral outrage about fetuses, rather than focusing on the safety of women seeking a legal medical procedure — is very effective. As the passage of the Louisiana law shows, anti-abortion advocates are successfully manipulating public opinion, and passing legislation that may actually endanger women’s health and constitutional rights.
Following a familiar path to the Supreme Court
Banning D&E; is emerging as a clear state-level trend. Last year, Oklahoma and Kansas were the first states in the country to pass D&E; bans (though the laws are on hold during litigation). This year, Alabama and West Virginia followed suit, while multiple other states have introduced pending D&E; legislation this session.
The method follows a familiar model: pass restrictions state by state, gear up towards a national ban, then ultimately engineer a Supreme Court showdown.
It’s familiar because it’s happened before. Although it was less popular than D&E;, doctors used to also perform abortions via a procedure called Intact Dilation & Extraction, or “D&X;,” which involved dilating the cervix and extracting the whole fetus. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, the National Right to Life dubbed this medical procedure “partial birth abortion.” They commissioned graphic, misleading illustrations of D&X; and placed them as paid advertisements in newspapers, shifting the conversation from the women needing a safe medical procedure to a gruesome discussion about crushing the skulls of unborn babies.
Clearly this is an effort to take some of the tactics of the past…to ban access to abortion
Many Americans were confused by the contradictory term “partial birth,” and the emotive framing and exploitation of the ‘ick’ factor worked. Multiple states passed restrictions against D&X;, and then a ban was introduced in Congress and ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. D&X; is now illegal.
“Clearly this is an effort to take some of the tactics of the past — using very graphic descriptions and inflammatory language — to ban access to abortion,” Elizabeth Nash, the states issue manager at the Guttmacher Institute, told ThinkProgress when Kansas first started advancing D&E; legislation. “I don’t know what will happen, but it’s very disturbing.”
Leaving doctors with no good options for their patients
Emotional, imprecise language in laws related to abortion policy is particularly dangerous. When legislation isn’t defined in medical terms, doctors are left unsure about what procedures they can legally do. Stuck between caring for their patients and following the law — and wary of crossing an unclear line and losing their practice, or even risking criminal penalties — some providers will likely stop providing certain types of abortion altogether.
“Doctors aren’t going to break the law to provide medical care. We can’t,” Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Health and a practicing OB-GYN, told ThinkProgress regarding surgical abortion restrictions like D&E.;
As D&X; is already illegal, D&E; bans could effectively ban abortions after 12 weeks.
Doctors groups have strongly condemned this emerging trend. One of the largest OB-GYN groups in the country, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, wrote in a legal brief opposing Kansas’ law that banning D&E; procedure “could have broad sweeping consequences for public health.” The group referred to this type of law as “a medically unnecessary intrusion into the examination room” that “threatens patient safety.”