Over the past decade, anti-choice politicians in Congress have promoted legislation to limit access to reproductive health care. And even when the bills failed in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, they altered the way advocates, the media, and the public talk about abortion rights.
These lawmakers have successfully pushed radical abortion policies and rhetoric into the political mainstream, threatening the constitutional right to abortion.
Anti-choice lawmakers and their media boosters have shaped the political discourse around abortion, claiming the moral high ground in protecting the “dignity of life.” Yet abortion rights advocates should be unapologetic in calling out the religious hypocrisy of politicians who want to restrict abortion but refuse to expand access to crucial programs that would improve quality of life, said Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization in Tennessee.
“We need to speak up more and be far less apologetic. There are so many of us who are people of faith in this movement who aren’t doing our work from that space,” Scott told Rewire.News. “Black women have taken the lead in working with faith leaders and dissecting those talking points.”
To combat anti-choice rhetoric and attacks, abortion rights advocates will need to take an intersectional approach, acknowledging the systems of oppression that affect sexual education and reproductive health-care access.
“We need to have conversations about holistic living and equal wellness before we start having a conversation about people’s rights,” Scott said. “Black and brown women have changed the conversation and the narrative to talk about people’s lives and not just people’s rights.”
Here are some of the leading anti-choice congressional lawmakers over the past ten years, and the impact they’ve made on abortion rights discourse.
As chair of the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019 before joining the Senate, headed investigations into false allegations that Planned Parenthood was profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Violence and threats against abortion providers spiked after the release of heavily edited videos smearing Planned Parenthood.
House Republicans formed the panel in October 2015 after an anti-choice front group released videos that appeared to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue. The videos have since been discredited; Planned Parenthood won a lawsuit against the group last month.
The investigative panel ultimately found no evidence of abortion providers selling fetal tissue, but their efforts spread misinformation about Planned Parenthood and cost taxpayers $1.59 million. While campaigning for a Senate seat, Blackburn claimed that she “stopped the sale of baby body parts.” She sponsored the House’s “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” based on the myth that abortion providers routinely murder infants “born alive” after abortions.
Blackburn’s bolstering of the anti-choice narrative that abortion providers are committing criminal acts is more about her political ambitions than serving her constituents, Scott said.
“Marsha Blackburn’s policies don’t surprise me based on her seemingly choosing pieces of policy that potentially solidify her career more than center the needs of Tennesseans or even take into consideration what Tennesseans really need and what disparities look like when it comes to reproductive health-care access and sexual education,” Scott told Rewire.News.
Former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who served in the House from 2003 to 2017, repeatedly pushed an unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban that falsely claimed a fetus develops the ability to feel pain at 20 weeks post-fertilization, despite medical evidence that this is not true. The bill targets abortion care providers, making performing an abortion after 20 weeks a crime punishable by a fine, prison time, or both.
Franks first introduced the legislation in 2013. It has since passed the House three times but never gained traction in the Senate. Though the 20-week abortion ban has not become federal law, lies about fetal pain have made their way into the mainstream discourse about abortion.
Franks resigned in 2017 after he was accused of soliciting staffers to act as pregnancy surrogates.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the first federal “heartbeat” ban in 2017. So-called heartbeat legislation amounts to a near-total abortion ban, prohibiting the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy—before many people know they are pregnant. It’s also before an embryo has even developed a heart; what anti-choice activists call a “heartbeat” is actually electrical activity in an embryo’s fetal pole.
King’s “Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017” amassed 171 co-sponsors, including Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson (MN).
King has been vocal about his disdain for birth control, refusing to state whether he believes contraception should be sold legally in the United States. King has a history of racist remarks, including at a 2016 hearing, where he rebuked Black people for receiving abortion care. “The choices that are made to abort Black babies are made by Black people, the choices to have a self-segregating caucus are made by Black people,” he told Rewire.News after the hearing. “They’re the ones that need to answer these questions, not me.”
King claims his opposition to abortion is rooted in morality and concern for “human rights.” Such arguments have become part of the anti-choice narrative over the past ten years, and it’s something Scott pushes back on in her work with SisterReach.
“Moral talking points have really hijacked the conversation,” Scott said. “Faith is a very personal and individual thing, but here we are where folks have politicized faith and they are using faith as a tool to harm and manipulate and take people’s human rights away. Over time, Black women and SisterReach have shifted into really trying to call out religious hypocrisy.”
During her career in Congress from 2007 to 2015, Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) focused on restricting access to abortion care. Bachmann introduced the “Heartbeat Informed Consent Act”—a failed bill that would have forced people seeking an abortion to undergo a medically unnecessary and physically invasive ultrasound. Bachmann campaigned on ending abortion during her unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Bachmann contributed to the spread of misinformation about emergency contraception during a 2011 presidential debate, calling it the “morning-after abortion pill” to falsely imply that it causes abortion, and that by mandating coverage of contraceptives in the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration was forcing people to pay for abortion. Such claims are decidedly false. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy; it does not cause an abortion.
Bachmann did not seek reelection in 2014 amid allegations of financial impropriety during her failed 2012 presidential bid.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) has been a vocal supporter of defunding Planned Parenthood, and this year he led congressional efforts to force a vote on the so-called “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” based on the myth that abortion providers kill infants “born alive” after abortions.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) has a long history of extreme anti-choice views, including her support for banning all abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest, and for holding abortion providers criminally liable for performing the procedure. Ernst has supported other extreme efforts, like calls to arrest government officials working to implement the Affordable Care Act, as well as the abolishment of federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Education. Ernst delivered the Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2015.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has been a vocal proponent of federal “personhood” legislation, introducing the “Life At Conception Act,” which would grant legal rights to a fertilized egg as a “person” under the 14th Amendment, thus banning abortion and many kinds of contraception.