Opinion | The Abortion Divide Gets Deeper

This week, a Georgia state representative, Ed Setzler, the sponsor of a bill that would ban most abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat could be detected, spoke to a conservative group in the Atlanta suburbs about the legal fight he’d embarked on. “We need to maximize our influence over the next couple of weeks and then close this deal,” he said. Then, he continued, conservatives must mobilize behind Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, as “he recruits the best legal team in the nation to take this to the highest court in the land.”

With the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as well as a host of other judges appointed by Donald Trump to lower courts, anti-abortion forces are engaged in a game of legislative whack-a-mole. Sensing their chance to either eviscerate or overturn Roe v. Wade, Republicans are pushing a barrage of anti-abortion measures at the state level, seeing which one goes all the way to the top.

Access to abortion is already as polarized as anything else in this fracturing country, and it could become dramatically more so. Conservatives, as well as some moderates, have argued that ending Roe would ease culture-war hostilities. “Returning the matter to the states would give most people a law they can live with, defusing the rage that permeates politics and has more than once culminated in acts of terrorism against doctors who perform abortions,” wrote The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle last year. The early signs, however, suggest that radically different abortion regimes can’t comfortably exist side by side.

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As Roe is weakened, conservative states are becoming more conservative, liberal states more liberal. Mutual antagonism is increasing around abortion, as it is around nearly everything else. If Roe is overturned altogether, it won’t just be a disaster for women’s health care and autonomy. It will further rip America apart.

Seeing Roe endangered, the anti-abortion movement has become more legislatively audacious. So-called heartbeat bills, which ban abortion at around six weeks’ gestation, before some women know they’re pregnant, used to be a rarity. Before this year, only two states had tried to enact six-week abortion bans, North Dakota in 2013 and Iowa in 2018. (Courts struck both laws down.) But in the first weeks of 2019, Mississippi and Kentucky passed such laws, and in addition to Georgia, six-week bans are moving forward in Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio.

Any of these laws could give the Supreme Court a chance to overturn Roe. As that possibility comes into view, anti-abortion lawmakers are showing us what a post-Roe world might look like. Another bill introduced in Georgia, also supported by Governor Kemp, would ban abortion if Roe were overturned, and make “the offense of criminal abortion” punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The bill’s language appears to apply to pregnant women as well as doctors.

So-called trigger laws, abortion bans that would go into effect if Roe is struck down, aren’t new. But according to Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion-rights group Naral, proposals laying out prison terms for women who terminate their pregnancies are unusual.

“This is not your grandmother’s anti-choice movement, which was bad enough,” Hogue said. “This is Trump’s anti-choice movement. The bills have a sort of Trumpy cruelty to them that is relatively new.”

Responding to the growing threat to Roe, many blue states are taking steps to codify abortion rights. New York recently expanded access to third-trimester abortion in cases where a woman’s health is in danger or where a fetus isn’t viable. Lawmakers in Vermont are attempting to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution. In Illinois, where the new Democratic governor has pledged to make the state “the most progressive state in the nation for access to reproductive health care,” a new bill would repeal existing anti-abortion legislation and require abortion coverage by private health insurance.

As red and blue states pull further apart, the result is not a lessening of tensions. Republicans, led by Trump, now regularly accuse Democrats of supporting infanticide. Senate Republicans recently attempted to turn anti-abortion propaganda into law with the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which mandated medical care for infants born after a botched abortion, an extraordinarily rare occurrence. The point of the bill seemed to be to pretend that infanticide, which is already illegal, is a consequence of liberalized abortion laws. “The mostly Republican supporters of the bill say that new state-level legislation that has sought to remove barriers to late-term abortions necessitate federal action,” reported The Washington Post.

Even as Republicans seek to harass blue states, Georgia is likely to face a liberal backlash should the six-week ban go into effect. (Legislators are expected to vote on a final version at any moment.) In the past, progressives have boycotted states like Indiana and North Carolina in response to anti-gay and anti-trans legislation. Now, for the first time, there’s a prospect of real economic consequences for an anti-abortion measure.

Georgia is a major center for film and TV production, behind only New York and California. This week, the Writers Guild of America, the union for screenwriters, issued a statement saying that if Georgia passes the anti-abortion law, it would become “an inhospitable place for those in the film and television industry to work.” Fifty actors, including Alyssa Milano, Don Cheadle, Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman, signed a letter saying that if the bill passes, they will try to “move our industry to a safer state for women.” Business executives, including some from Amazon and Coca-Cola, have come out against the bill as well.

This sort of woke capitalism sends conservatives into paroxysms of resentment; the threatened Hollywood boycott has been extensively covered in right-wing media. It’s the result of asymmetries that, at the moment, seem baked into American life. Our electoral system gives rural conservatives disproportionate political power; that’s why a minority president, backed by senators elected by a fraction of the country, can remake the courts. But the entertainment industry, and corporate America generally, is naturally attuned to affluent urbanites, who tend to be younger and more progressive.

Fighting over the most fundamental questions of human autonomy, each side in the divide is going to use whatever influence it can muster against the other. If Roe falls, liberals won’t like what follows, but conservatives might not either.

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