Pro-Life and Pro-Woman? Republican Women and Antiabortion Legislation
By Amanda Roberti | July 21, 2022
The legislation that led to the end of Roe v. Wade was originally introduced by Mississippi Republican House member Becky Currie. In an op ed, she defended her 15-week abortion ban by drawing on her experience as a nurse in the 1980s: “I experienced the joy of delivering babies working in the labor-and-delivery department, and the horror of post-abortion complications when I worked in the emergency department. We worked to save the lives of beautiful women who experienced hemorrhaging and infection following abortions—one young woman had to have a hysterectomy.” It seems unlikely that Currie never encountered the potential complications following birth. Indeed, Currie neglects to mention that Mississippi has a maternal mortality rate higher than the national average (22.1 in 2021 versus the national average 17.4). Abortion is still significantly safer than childbirth. Currie’s choice to frame her antiabortion bill as “pro-woman” reflects the growing influence of Republican female lawmakers in antiabortion legislation and narratives.
Currie is far from alone amongst her Republican colleagues. As part of my research, I collected all regulatory abortion bills that were introduced in all 50 states from 2008 – 2017 into a database. This 10-year period marked a precipitous rise of antiabortion legislation that has not ceased since. Two distinct and enduring trends are remarkably clear. First, Republican women are overrepresented as the sponsors of these bills. Of the 1,639 bills introduced in that decade, 45% had a Republican woman sponsor (33% had a Republican woman as the primary sponsor who introduced the bill). Even though these are not majoritarian numbers, it is notable that Republican women have never crested 10% of representation in state legislatures. Even in their modest numbers, Republican women are disproportionately active as antiabortion bill sponsors. Second, Republican women framed the bills as being in women’s “best interests.”
Conservative women argue that feminist movements have steered women away from their most natural and dignified calling as mothers. Julie Daniels explained that her “goal” for sponsoring the Oklahoma bill that bans all abortion from “fertilization” was “ to see more women bring their babies into the world and experience the joy of loving and nourishing their child.” The bill’s co-sponsor, Representative Stearman, claimed to be acting on behalf of women. She stated, “I view [the bill’s passage] as a significant victory for women… I do not believe it is a step backward. I believe that we took a step backward in the 70s…” The anti-abortion policies proposed by these lawmakers rely upon a romanticized notion of womanhood, with grave consequences for living women who seek abortion care.
This rhetoric, labeled “pro-woman”, “mother-child,” or “woman-protective” by numerous scholars, myself included, is a strategic move to soften the optics of extreme anti-abortion policies. The antiabortion movement has certainly not abandoned talking about the rights of the “unborn child.” The “pro-woman” frame, however, challenges the reproductive rights movement’s critique that Republicans have historically been hostile towards women. Republican women have taken on more of a leadership role in antiabortion legislation after their male colleagues made blundering and sometimes outrageous statements against abortion that offended people across political ideologies. The trend in the pro-women framing of abortion regulations is irrefutable as countless instances of such language can be found throughout US media outlets.
Engaging in pro-woman rhetoric is strategic. It is meant to mask the harm of restrictive abortion policies.
The pro-woman language is sometimes mobilized in conjunction with the argument that the “abortion industry” is white supremacist. Take the sweeping omnibus abortion bill in Kentucky. The bill’s sponsor, Republican House Representative Nancy Tate stated, “Our goal is to ensure the [abortion] procedure is the result of a fully informed, educated choice that takes into consideration the health and safety of both the unborn child and his or her mother.” Tate also invoked the antiabortion movement’s claim that abortion is Black genocide. She opined that, “I am deeply concerned that African Americans have been targeted.” This statement is echoed in the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In it, Justice Samuel Alito entertains a similar argument from amici for Dobbs when he writes, “…it is beyond dispute that Roe has had [a] demographic effect. A highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are Black,” (footnote 41). This amicus brief makes the argument that abortion and birth control are themselves eugenicist—predicated on the control and elimination of “undesirable” races and populations.
The threat to Black pregnant people’s health lies in the racial disparities in reproductive and maternal healthcare. Black women are up to four times more likely to die because of pregnancy, have significantly higher maternal mortality, have greater maternal health complications, and have a harder time accessing reproductive healthcare. These disparities have intensified in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the racial inequalities in the healthcare system that pose a threat to Black women’s reproductive health, not abortion. The pivot towards a civil rights frame, like the pro-woman frame, allows conservatives to fracture movements and counteract arguments that their policies will most directly and negatively impact women and people of color.
As the number of Republican women grows across the states and in Congress, it will be interesting to see if these women continue to engage their partisan-gender identity using the pro-woman frame to support antiabortion and other anti-feminist legislation. Regardless of the feminist cast that Republican legislators apply to antiabortion policies the consequences of their actions will be devastating for women. Republican legislators may find themselves at the limits of the pro-woman frame when women are criminalized for miscarriage, contraception use, or even in vitro fertilization – activities which pose a conflict for bills that define life at “fertilization” as the Oklahoma bill does. One wonders how they will argue that their policies are in women’s best interests if and when women are in prison, or hospitals due to complications of pregnancy, childbirth, or attempts to self-terminate.
If lawmakers wish to counteract the pro-woman narrative, they might take three important steps. First, they could point out the contradictions of framing antiabortion legislation as “pro-woman” through legislative efforts. Some lawmakers have introduced bills that would expand social safety net programs to cover the costs of expenses such as childbirth, education, and childcare.
Forcing legislatures to vote on these programs would show that for many lawmakers the interest in “life” and commitment to women stops at birth.
Many abortion “trigger” laws do not include exceptions for rape or incest. The misogynistic cruelty and misguided logic behind this policy could be underscored further. Lastly, elected officials can also engage with efforts to destigmatize abortion. Studies have shown that this extremely common procedure is also one made with confidence. If we wish to challenge the idea that “abortion harms women,” then it would be productive to highlight the positive feelings many have about their abortion experience.
Amanda Roberti is Assistant Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University.