In a 2008 campaign full of low points, John McCain's deepest descent may have come during his final presidential debate with Barack Obama. Dripping with condescension, McCain used air quotes to mock the concern of abortion rights advocates for the "health of mother." Now two years later, the new Republican majority in Congress is trying to make that caustic disregard for the health and safety of American women the law of the land.
By the fall of 2008, McCain's reversal on reproductive rights was complete. In 1999, after all, McCain had declared, "I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations." By 2006, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he not only supported the repeal of Roe, but backed a constitutional amendment banning abortion with exceptions for "rape, incest and the life of the mother." As it turned out, the 2008 Republican platform refused to countenance even those emergencies:
Faithful to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence, we assert the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children.
"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He's [for] health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'"
Now, that shocking and spiteful talking point is orthodoxy for the new GOP majority in the House.
Despite the Republican platform's pledge to "protect girls from exploitation and statutory rape," the H.R. 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act, tried to redefine rape. After a massive public outcry against the GOP's "forcible rape" standard that would ignore other kinds of sexual assault that are typically recognized as rape, including statutory rape and attacks that occur because of drugs or verbal threats, the bill's authors backed off. (Undeterred, Georgia Republican state legislator Bobby Franklin is pushing legislation which would refuse to acknowledge women who are raped are even victims, instead labeling them as "accusers.")
And this week, as TPM detailed, new language in H.R. 358, the Protect Life Act, "would allow hospitals to let a pregnant woman die rather than perform the abortion that would save her life." As Evan McMorris-Santoro explained the provision being advocated by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA):
A bit of backstory: currently, all hospitals in America that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are bound by a 1986 law known as EMTALA to provide emergency care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay or other factors. Hospitals do not have to provide free care to everyone that arrives at their doorstep under EMTALA -- but they do have to stabilize them and provide them with emergency care without factoring in their ability to pay for it or not. If a hospital can't provide the care a patient needs, it is required to transfer that patient to a hospital that can, and the receiving hospital is required to accept that patient...
Pitts' new bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement under EMTALA, meaning that medical providers who aren't willing to terminate pregnancies wouldn't have to -- nor would they have to facilitate a transfer.
The hospital could literally do nothing at all, pro-choice critics of Pitts' bill say.
As Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, put it, "This is really out there. I haven't seen this before."
Maybe not in Congress, but the Supreme Court is another matter. After Justice Stephen Breyer in 2000 upheld the Court's previous exception for the "for the preservation of the...health of the mother," Justice Anthony Kennedy eradicated it in his baseless and paternalistic 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart opinion. Derisively referring to physicians as "abortion doctors" and with callous disregard for the health of American women, Kennedy in the 5-4 majority opinion decreed that father knows best. (His 2000 dissent in Stenberg v. Carhart used the incendiary term "abortionist" no fewer than 13 times.) As the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus recalled:
"Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child," Kennedy intoned. This is one of those sentences about women's essential natures that are invariably followed by an explanation of why the right at stake needs to be limited. For the woman's own good, of course.
Kennedy continues: "While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained." No reliable data? No problem!
Sadly for Justice Kennedy, the mythical post-abortion syndrome he posits has been repeatedly debunked, most recently by a study in Denmark. As Justice Ginsburg explained in her dissent, "The health exception reaches only those cases where a woman's health is at risk."
Increasingly, that risk to the "health of the mother" comes from today's Republican Party.