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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Late-Term Providers and the Abortion Battle

For those of you interested in the battle over abortion policy, I’ve written a review for The Washington Monthly of a book on the notorious 2009 political murder of Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas late-term abortion provider. The book, The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion, by “true crime” specialist Stephen Singular, is a solid recounting of the facts of the case. But as I tried to convey in my review, its treatment of late-term abortion as the central theater in the war over reproductive rights is misleading, and its treatment of anti-choice activists as “fringe” players little different from (and in fact, often the same as) militia members underestimates their power.
A lot has happened to confirm my concerns since I wrote the review. Republicans in Congress and in the states have waged war on any sort of direct or indirect public funding for Planned Parenthood, which is not a late-term abortion provider, and in fact, is most significant as a dispenser of contraceptives. A House-passed appropriations bill also sought to all-but-terminate federal family planning services. And most ominously, states (so far, Nebraska, Kansas, and Indiana, with a bill pending in Missouri) are beginning to act on “fetal pain” bills designed to roll back abortion rights taken for granted for years, typically via bans on abortions that occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy. No one seems confident the Supreme Court will invalidate these new laws.
With respect to the late-term abortion issue, the most interesting development is currently unfolding in Iowa, where the planned relocation of a late-term abortion clinic run by Dr. Leroy Carhart (one of Tiller’s colleagues featured in the Singular book), whose Nebraska practice was shut down by the first of the “20 weeks” laws, is hanging fire. Iowa Republicans managed to get their own “20 weeks” law through the state House, which they control, citing Carhart’s plans as a chief motive. Senate Democrats (whose leader, Mike Gronstal, represents the Council Bluffs district where Carhart’s planned clinic would be located) have countered with a bill that through various technical means would thwart Carhart’s plans, but would not actually ban any late-term abortions, much less the second-trimester abortions that would be affected by the “20-weeks” bill.
The anger of anti-choicers (some of whom actually opposed the “20-weeks” bill as insufficiently radical) at this maneuver makes it pretty plain that their alarms over late-term abortion providers like Carhart simply provided a pretext for steps to shut down abortion providers more generally.
The drive to overturn reproductive rights is enjoying much more success than is implied by books like Singular’s, and is far more extensive than the controversies over Tiller and Carhart, reaching increasingly into the use of contraceptives by the vast majority of Americans. The election of a Republican president, who would be under an iron pledge to appoint Supreme Court Justices sure to overturn Roe v. Wade more explicitly, could have enormous implications in this area.
UPDATE: Stephen Singular offered a thoughtful comment to this post, and I responded in a way that I hope will allay any impression that I don’t fully appreciate his work. We’re equally alarmed about what’s going on in the “abortion battle” right now. Please check out the comments thread.

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