Political Battles Over Abortion Are About So Much More

While it is true that Republicans are attacking abortion rights at every turn, rhetorically, “abortion” is a dog whistle word to stir up conservative anxieties about sexual freedom.

Why do Republicans think such a political tactic will work to get pro-choicers to stop caring about abortion rights? Wooden kings via Shutterstock

Imagine if a politician tried to argue that people with broken legs don’t need casts, because “whole people” are focused on gas prices.

Or imagine the same politician saying that since you don’t choose the man you’re going to marry every week, but you do fill up your gas tank, having control over who you marry isn’t important and you should let the government choose for you.

If a politician said either of these things, she would be accused, at best, of tossing out non sequiturs in order to distract from her awful policies regarding forced marriage and/or denying people the ability to get broken bones set. At worst, she’d be accused of having lost the plot completely. And yet Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster working to increase the Republican Party’s appeal to women, made an equivalent statement to the National Journal.

“There are very few Democratic women who can begin or finish a sentence without mentioning a ‘woman’s right to choose,” Conway said, noting that she’s actually had her researchers go through hours of remarks by Democratic members to find a single woman who failed to mention abortion. They haven’t found one yet. “There is a tremendous opening for the ‘whole women,’ if you will, to step up and run for office as a Republican … What do you do every week, gals—do you fill up the gas tank or do you have an abortion?” she said.

Even if you accept the notion that electing Republicans leads to lower gas prices—an assumption that the actual evidence shows is not true—this comment makes no sense. As Maya Dusenbery at Feministing wrote, “However, if I had not been able to get an abortion that one time, gas money would be pretty hard to come by because all my income would be going toward diapers and baby food and preschool.” She added that abortion access is “inseparable from economic well-being.” The only thing as intimate and personal as the choice to have children—whether to, how many, and when—is the choice to partner with or marry someone. Even if a politician could lower gas prices and the tradeoff was that she got to choose your spouse and wedding date for you, I highly doubt the public would go for it. Conway’s statements are no different.

So why did she say such a foolish thing? It’s because while it is true that Republicans are attacking abortion rights at every turn, rhetorically, “abortion” is a dog whistle word to stir up conservative anxieties about sexual freedom. The insinuation here is that Democrats are talking to “gals” who have “abortions” as often as “whole” (that is, supposedly morally superior) women buy gas. That’s not really a literal claim, so much as a wink-and-nod insinuation that liberal women and feminists are a bunch of sexually loose women who are obsessed with sex. Suggesting that women have frequent or routine abortions is a way of insinuating that someone has too much sex—the literal realities of her abortion history are not actually being discussed so much and the insulter’s beliefs about her sexual choices.

Rush Limbaugh did the same thing by equating taking a lot of birth control pills with having a lot of sex—he claimed activist Sandra Fluke is “having so much sex … that she can’t afford it.” On a literal level, it was an utterly idiotic statement, since the dosage of hormonal contraception is not affected by the amount of sex you’re having. But it’s clear that Limbaugh was engaging in similar rhetoric as Conway here, though more bluntly: trying to turn a conversation about reproductive rights into a conversation about what is and isn’t the correct amount of sex for a woman to be having, and insinuating that the only reason a woman might be concerned about reproductive rights is because she is a “slut” who has “too much” sex, whatever that means.

Conway is right about one thing: Most women are not single-issue voters who focus only on reproductive rights. Ironically, however, by insinuating that reproductive rights is just a matter of a small minority of sluts acting out, she actually demonstrates exactly why Republicans are having increasing trouble reaching out to women. As the National Journal article shows, Republicans are struggling because they can’t talk to or about women without resorting to demeaning stereotypes. It’s not just the “slut” stereotype, and trying to bully women into voting Republican by insinuating that a vote for the Democrats makes you an oversexed bimbo, though that certainly doesn’t help.

Take, for instance, this quote:

[Rep. Ann Wagner] argues that women bring an important perspective on some of the biggest issues the country is dealing with, such as family budgets, health care, entitlements, and energy policy—all things women tend to handle in their households. “We’re the ones filling the minivan up,” she said.

As with Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention, Republicans fall into the trap that Wagner does here: Stereotyping women as a beleaguered servant class whose fate is to handle domestic chores that are beneath men’s attention. It is true that women are treated that way all too often, but it’s not inherent to women’s character. This article paints a bleak picture of the Republican worldview as one where there are two kinds of women: dirty sluts who need to be put in their place and “good women” who are martyrs who have no hopes or dreams outside of providing service to their families. It makes sense that conservatives would think of these things as inherent qualities of women instead of rigid, dehumanizing roles forced on women—to understand the latter, you have to believe sexism is real, which is basically against the Republican brand. But you can’t talk about women in strictly sexist terms and accept that’s going to make your appeal broader instead of more narrow.

The reality is that abortion isn’t just about abortion. For both sides, “abortion” stands in for a general worldview of what a woman’s place in the world is and how much right she has to decide that for herself. The anti-choice movement is rooted in a belief that a woman’s role is very narrowly written and that any rejection of a rigid, submissive gender role makes someone a “slut” or some other kind of “bad” woman. (There are a few conservative women such as Ann Coulter who elide this, but mostly by selling women out: They are given a pass for their own personal choices because they sell the idea that other women shouldn’t have freedom.)

That’s why relentless attempts by Republicans to paint pro-choice politics as a “single issue” that is beneath “whole” voters is missing the point entirely. Support for abortion rights is linked to a larger worldview, a worldview that takes a broad view of what freedom means: economic security, access to health care, right to self-determination, and a belief that a person’s goodness is determined by how that person treats others and less about how closely that person adheres to narrowly written social roles. Even if the abortion issue disappeared tomorrow, women would still lean more left than men as a group, because women are more likely to buy into the overall worldview more—and no wonder, as it’s one that’s more likely to see women as people and less as broad, ugly stereotypes.