As multiple states pass laws banning many abortions, confusion is swirling about what exactly that means for women. (May 17)
Do conservative women have abortions?
The answer is, obviously, yes. But it’s not often we hear from them.
Nearly one in four women in the United States will have an abortion by age 45 — and they don’t all share the same values and political views. Cultural stigma can make it difficult for any woman to talk about her abortion, but the particular pressures facing conservative women mean that stigma often equals silence.
“Republicans don’t have fewer abortions than Democrats or liberals or anarchists or communists. It’s that our political rhetoric paints people who have abortions as largely the same — poor women, young women, irresponsible women, women who hate children,” said Amanda Reyes, president of the Yellowhammer Fund, which provides funding for women seeking care at any of Alabama’s three abortion clinics. “It’s gotten us to a point where we can’t see the fact that we’re all having abortions, and we’re doing it for reasons we personally think matters — and that’s all that matters. Pro-life women are having abortions, too.”
If you just read the headlines, it would seem Democrats are on one side of the abortion debate and Republicans are on the other. But the issue is more complicated, and less partisan than one might think.
Polling shows about a third of Republicans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center, and more than half of Republican women support keeping Roe v. Wade, according to a 2018 poll from the non-partisan public opinion research firm PerryUndem. Nearly 90% of voters say they would support a friend or family member if they had an abortion.
In 2019, four states enacted abortion bans after six weeks of pregnancy and Alabama passed a law banning abortions at any time period with exceptions only when the mother’s health is at risk.
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“If you look at national polling, this isn’t where the American public is and it frankly isn’t even where mainstream Republicans are,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The harshness of it is pretty shocking.”
Lawmakers expect the bans will lead to lawsuits that could push the Supreme Court to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, which recognizes a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
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The bills have received vocal support from many conservative women.
Alabama’s near-total ban “stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” said Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who signed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation last week.
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But some other conservative women, even abortion opponents, find such laws draconian.
South Carolina state Rep. Nancy Mace is a pro-life Republican, but she said she was stunned by the lack of “compassion” her colleagues showed when they voted to pass a six-week “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban without including exceptions for rape and incest. She introduced an amendment to change the bill and in a pair of 10-minute floor speeches cited her own personal experience as a rape victim as the reason why. It was the first time in 25 years she had spoken publicly about her rape at 16, which she says was perpetrated by someone she believed was a friend.
“I was gripping the podium so hard I thought I was going to pull it out of the floor,” Mace said. “I was angry at the language my colleagues were using. They were saying rape was the fault of the woman. They called these women baby killers and murderers. That language is so degrading toward women, particularly victims of rape or incest. And I said to myself I’m not going to put up with that bull—-. I was nearly yelling into the mic. I gave a very passionate speech to my colleagues and that is what got the exception through.”
Then she was chastised.
South Carolina state Rep. Josiah Magnuson put a card from Personhood SC, an anti-abortion group, on Mace’s statehouse desk that read: “It is a twisted logic that would kill the unborn child for the misdeed of the parent.”
Mace notes that Republican men at the highest levels are pro-life with exceptions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, which recently banned abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected with no exceptions for rape and incest, said he supported the exceptions. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) said the same.
“I don’t see them being attacked for having the same position,” Mace said. “The only difference is I’m a woman, and I’m a victim of rape. And you would think that that would be a legitimate voice in the discussion of abortion in South Carolina and across the US.”
Not only is it difficult for Republican women to speak about abortion, but it’s also become nearly impossible for Republican female politicians to get elected unless they’re unequivocally pro-life.
“It’s become harder and harder for pro-choice Republican women or men to get elected, because in the primaries the most conservative voters are who show up,” Walsh said.
In the Senate, there are two pro-choice Republican women: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). In the House there are none.
‘It’s OK to support abortion as long as people don’t know’
Conservative politicians aren’t the only ones attacked. Some supporters of abortion rights also report struggling with stigma.
Last year, Jenna King-Shepherd decided to host a get-together at her home. It was intended as a coming out of sorts. There would be wine and cheese, but the conversation would be anything but light. King-Shepherd decided she would tell the 25 women she had invited from her community of Guntersville, Alabama, how she had had an abortion at 17.
King-Shepherd was hoping to persuade the women to vote no on Amendment 2, which would add language to Alabama’s Constitution making it state policy to “recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life.”
All the women RSVPed yes. But on the day of the gathering, excuses trickled in. One woman said her husband didn’t want her to attend. Another said while she supported what King-Shepherd was doing, she couldn’t risk people recognizing her car in the driveway. Of the 25 women who said they’d come, only two showed.
In November, Amendment 2 passed.
“I felt frustrated and defeated,” she said. “It feels like an uphill battle that can never be won because you’re dealing with culture and how do you fix that? Because it’s systemic. … I just think it speaks to the stigma here. In the South, it’s OK to support abortion, as long as people don’t know.”
King-Shepherd grew up in Guntersville, which she describes as a town with a church on every corner. Her father is a Baptist preacher. Abortion was never discussed in her home. She was conservative, identified as a Republican and said she did all she could to fulfill her family’s expectations of a good Southern girl.
But right before she was set to leave for college at the University of Alabama, King-Shepherd learned she was pregnant. She knew she wouldn’t have the baby.
“It’s really easy to think you believe something until it happens to you and you really understand the gravity of the situation,” she said. “It’s easy to say you shouldn’t have a choice until you’re left without one.”
King-Shepherd shared her story publicly for the first time with AL.com in January, and says while she’s received some supportive messages, she’s also been harassed. A direct message on Facebook read, “Keeping your legs closed before college was an option.” People told her parents they were “disturbed” by her choice.
Laurie Bertram Roberts also had a conservative, religious upbringing. She was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church and when she got pregnant with twins at 16, abortion wasn’t on the table. The only option, she said, was to marry the father. So she did.
Roberts would go on to have five more children (though she eventually split from her husband), and considered herself pro-life until the day she found herself in a Planned Parenthood clinic seeking an abortion. An ultrasound revealed her pregnancy was not viable, and she was told she would eventually miscarry.
“I realized then I’m not actually better or different,” she said. “I was sitting in the waiting room with all of these women who were just as scared as me. None of us looked like we wanted to be there. Some looked ready to get it over with. Life brought us to be at this spot, on this day, and it wasn’t a value judgment.”
Roberts has since co-founded the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, a reproductive justice organization that helps fund abortion access in Mississippi, primarily serving low-income black women. Mississippi has one abortion clinic.
Roberts says most of the women she takes calls from are religious.
“We’re always going to encounter some callers, it doesn’t matter what we say, they are going to believe what they did is a sin — that they’re murderers,” Roberts said. She recalled a woman who “proceeded to tell me why her abortion was different than everybody else’s. Folks who are entrenched in their anti-choice views think they are the exception to the rule. Their abortion is a good abortion, and once it’s done, they’ll go back to shaming other women.”
Reyes and Roberts work closely together. Even though they run funds in different states, the dearth of abortion clinics in the South means getting women access to care often requires coordination.
Both lament how an issue they see as personal has become so politicized, preventing nuanced conversations about not only how complex abortion can be, but also how practical it becomes under certain circumstances, regardless of political or cultural beliefs.
“A lot of people I talk to have never considered or thought they would be the kind of person who would get an abortion,” Reyes said. “We explain this is a choice that you’re making for you — it’s not a political choice.”
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