At the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Republicans and right-wing media figures abandoned any pretense of reality in their description of abortion procedures and instead fabricated increasingly unrealistic and sensationalized scenarios to fearmonger about so-called Democratic “murderers.”
Though inaccurate anti-choice rhetoric is a staple of conservative commentary, right-wing media have spent the last few weeks in a frenzy -- first claiming that Democrats allegedly want to legalize abortions “up to birth,” and then moving on to the even more sensational claim that Democrats support “murder” during and even after birth. When Republicans and right-wing media figures hit the CPAC stage last week, some on Twitter expressed disbelief that the speakers promoted such obviously inaccurate language. However, the rhetoric on display at CPAC was merely the latest example of conservative and right-wing media figures deploying sensationalized language to fearmonger about abortion.
Conservative outlets, and Fox News in particular, have been promoting inaccurate and extreme language about abortion for weeks, and President Donald Trump adopted those talking points in his 2019 State of the Union address. Trump and other Republicans are reportedly banking on using anti-abortion extremism to rally voters during the 2020 election -- a strategy that was seemingly tested on the CPAC stage.
Here’s what Republicans and right-wing media are willfully ignoring about abortions -- particularly those performed later in pregnancy
Right-wing media’s recent outrage centers on efforts by Democratic lawmakers in several states to ensure access to abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned or to remove unnecessary restrictions on abortion. Republicans seized on these measures to promote myths about abortions that happen later in pregnancy and to advance the inaccurate talking point that there are excessive numbers of so-called “born alive” abortions.
In an attempt to address the nonexistent instances of abortions “after birth,” Republicans introduced and attempted to force a vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act -- a bill anti-choice politicians touted as aiding so-called “abortion survivors” who are “born alive” following an attempted abortion procedure. The bill ultimately failed to advance in the Senate, but it is part of a Republican strategy of “bringing back the issue of very late abortions, perhaps in the hope of energizing their base in advance of 2020” with the goal of getting “Democrats on record opposing it.” By forcing a vote on the legislation, Republicans and right-wing media can then spin opposing votes as evidence of Democrats’ supposed “extremism” on abortion rights.
Similarly, right-wing media’s depictions of abortions happening up to the “moment of birth” do not conform to any medical procedure happening in the U.S. Abortions later in pregnancy are performed for complicated personal and medical reasons, and the people who anti-choice advocates compare to murderers often have to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy because of a nonviable fetus or due to their own great medical risk. In other instances, people need abortions later in pregnancy due to anti-choice restrictions on earlier access. In either case, if anti-abortion media really wanted to understand the people who have had abortions later in pregnancy, these outlets and commentators could read actual accounts rather than demonizing those individuals and feeding a manufactured right-wing media outrage cycle.
The idea of abortions after birth or “born alive” abortions is also not based in any medical standard of care or practice, as Rewire.News reported in 2013. As doctors Daniel Grossman and Jennifer Conti pointed out to The New York Times, it is more likely that the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act would force doctors to pursue treatment options that run counter to patients’ wishes -- such as ensuring that a fetus delivered “at the edge of viability” but unlikely to survive could not receive “comfort care” which would “allow the child to die naturally without extreme attempts at resuscitation.” In addition, as writer Robin Marty explained, the bill could be used opportunistically by anti-choice opponents to prosecute abortion providers.
Here’s what Republicans and right-wing media figures said at CPAC about abortion
- Trump: Democrats are embracing “extreme late-term abortion. ... In Virginia, the governor, a Democrat, stated that he would allow babies to be born -- to be born outside, he would wrap them, he would take care of them, then he’ll talk to the mother and the father as to what to be done. And if they didn't want the child, who was now outside of the womb -- long outside of the womb, they will execute the baby after birth. They will execute the baby after birth, and that's one that many people have neber even heard of or thought about. This is a radical agenda by the Democrats.” [YouTube, 3/2/19]
- Vice President Mike Pence: “With Democrats standing for late-term abortion, infanticide, and a culture of death, I promise you: This president, this party, and this movement will always stand for the unborn. We will always defend the unalienable right to life.” [Twitter, 3/1/19]
- Donald Trump Jr.: “The post-term abortion issue ... anywhere else in the world, at any other point in time" would be “called murder. … This isn't woman's health care. If the baby is born, and it's alive, the woman is no longer at risk.” [Twitter, 3/1/19]
- Fox News host Laura Ingraham: “Abortions -- about a million a year -- through most of a pregnancy. That’s not enough. Abortion of babies in the womb -- not enough. Now we got to wait to terminate life after birth.” [YouTube, 2/28/19]
- Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: “By the way, it's not live-birth abortion. It's not infanticide. It is murder if you take the baby home and kill the baby at home, it's murder. The same thing is true at the hospital.” [Twitter, 2/28/19]
- Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens: “We have a sick and twisted [New York Democratic] Gov. Andrew Cuomo celebrating that you can rip fetuses -- you can rip infants and babies from their mother's wombs at nine months -- nine months. That's absolutely sickening what we're talking about here. And who is that going to impact the most? In New York City, for those of you who don’t know, more Black babies are aborted than born live.” [Periscope, 3/1/19]
- Concerned Women for America CEO and President Penny Young Nance: “Sometimes the abortionist doesn't get the job done in the womb and a baby is able to survive and when she is born does she deserve life-saving treatment? We say absolutely yes! 44, 'The Dirty 44' said no.” Nance’s invocation of the so-called “Dirty 44” was a reference to the 44 senators who voted against advancing the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. [CBN News, 2/28/19]
- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson: For abortions later in pregnancy, “some people feel that it’s OK to murder that baby. And the level of barbarism that that requires -- I quite frankly don’t know how people can do it, quite frankly. … How many of those mothers end up psychologically damaged? They talk about they’re doing this for the health of the mother -- what about the mother’s mental health that she has to endure for the rest of her life?” [YouTube, 2/28/19]
- Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, claimed Democrats want to “extend abortion to the point when a baby -- when a mother is even in labor. In fact, extend that so-called ‘right’ to the baby’s birthday.” She also inaccurately alleged that Democrats’ mantra on abortion is “if you signed up for a dead baby, you’re going to get one, no matter what.” [Twitter, 2/28/19]
- Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel: “It's not a late-term abortion; it's murder. … We need to speak about it in those terms.” [C-SPAN, 2/28/19]
- Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, borrowed a talking point from colleague Sean Hannity: “These heathens are so inhumane and uncivilized that they proudly announce … that they allow the baby a ‘comfort zone’ while the mother is deciding whether the baby should live or die with an up or down like the emperor in the Roman Colosseum. … They call it reproductive health; I call it murder.” [YouTube, 3/2/19]
- Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk: “We are not going in the same direction as the Democrat Party. I don’t want to live in a country where it’s OK to execute a newborn child.” [YouTube, 2/28/19]
There are consequences for this kind of extreme, inaccurate, and vitriolic anti-abortion rhetoric
Anti-abortion violence and harassment are real and ongoing threats in the United States. Eleven people have died as a result of anti-abortion violence since 1993. Numerous others have been injured, and still more have found themselves and even their families targeted with personalized harassment from abortion opponents -- a trend that has intensified in recent years. According to a report by the National Abortion Federation, rates of anti-abortion clinic protests in 2017 were already at the highest levels seen since the organization began tracking such incidents in 1977, and 2017 included “the first attempted bombing in many years.” In 2018, there were additional incidents of violence or threats against clinics reported in New Jersey, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
This isn’t the first time that right-wing media outlets have helped fan the flames of resentment against abortion providers, patients, and clinics with extremist language. Before an anti-abortion extremist murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in 2009, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had openly bullied Tiller on his program numerous times. According to Rolling Stone, “O’Reilly had waged an unflagging war against Tiller that did just about everything short of urging his followers to murder him.” O’Reilly repeatedly called the doctor “Tiller the baby killer” and said there was a “special place in hell for this guy.”
In 2015, an anti-abortion extremist who killed three and injured nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO, reportedly offered the phrase “no more baby parts” as an explanation for his actions. His comment seemingly referred to an oft-repeated right-wing media talking point based on deceptive videos from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. The New Republic reported on the admitted shooter’s penchant for right-wing media such as Fox News and Infowars, saying it shaped his paranoid and conspiratorial views about abortion and Planned Parenthood.
In 2019, right-wing media’s extreme rhetoric on state measures protecting abortion rights has already sparked to harassment. After a video went viral of Del. Kathy Tran (D) speaking about an abortion measure she sponsored in Virginia, Tran told The Washington Post that “she and her family have received death threats through telephone messages, email and social media, leading to extra police protection for her and her family.” Tran also had to postpone a town hall meeting on February 2 because of “security and safety concerns” in the wake of the outrage ginned up by misrepresentation of her bill. ThinkProgress posted audio of a threatening message about the bill sent to the Democratic Party of Virginia and another clip of a racist tirade against Tran, telling her to “go back to Vietnam.” The state party’s communications director told ThinkProgress that “the party has also had to take additional security precautions” as a result of receiving such threats to its members.
In February, The Virginian-Pilot reported that a man in Virginia was “charged with threatening to assault a U.S. official” because he allegedly threatened “to punch and shoot U.S. Sen. Mark Warner because of his stances on issues like abortion.” On March 4, another man was charged with arson for trying to burn down an empty Planned Parenthood clinic in Missouri in February. The FBI previously said it is investigating the latter incident as a possible hate crime, but it’s currently unclear whether these two events are linked to the recent extreme anti-abortion rhetoric from right-wing media figures.
Inaccurate rhetoric about abortion from Republicans and right-wing media is dangerous and could lead to additional harassment and violence. Unfortunately, CPAC shows us it’s not likely to end anytime soon.
Chenay Arberry contributed research to this article.