On Tuesday night, Donald Trump borrowed from the anti-abortion playbook for his State of the Union speech, using graphic rhetoric about the handful of abortions that happen later in pregnancy, while eliding the reasons for later abortions and the people who have them.
He began by taking up what is usually a subtle suggestion — the dividing of women up to the good mothers, who have their babies, and the bad ones, who don’t — and spelling it out. “There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child,” he said, “than the chilling displays our Nation saw in recent days.” Then he shifted to the politicians, the “lawmakers in New York” who “cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” and Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who “basically stated he would execute a baby after birth.” These are each lies, of course: The New York law, intended to bring the state in line with Roe v. Wade’s standard, allows for abortions until 24 weeks or if “there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.” As for Northam, he was talking about end-of-life care “in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that’s non-viable.”
But fact-checks get you only so far in understanding what Trump’s rhetoric did. The passive voice of “that would allow a baby to be ripped” is simultaneously an erasure of the patient making the choice and a demonization of the doctor enacting it. To do so is to refuse to grapple with the moral agency of women and other people who can get pregnant, or to comprehend with any empathy the decisions with which they are faced. Trump’s repetition of “the mother’s womb,” as if it is simply an address without an owner, is fundamentally dehumanizing.
People who have already told their later-abortion stories were ready for this with an open letter, which they posted on a new website, AbortionPatients.com. “This proxy war is not about the later abortions actually happening in the country. We know because we are the families who have gotten them,” they write, adding, “With the manufactured crisis over later abortion, opportunistic politicians are seeking to exploit an already stigmatized, marginalized group of people.”
These patients, most of them women, write about the unchosen predicament of one’s personal tragedy being inherently political. “I am the issue. My husband is the issue. Our daughters are the issue,” writes Darla Barar, who was pregnant with twins when she learned one had an open neural tube defect in which “brain matter was being leached out.” She and her husband chose to terminate one severely ill twin to end her suffering and improve her sister’s prognosis. “We took our daughter’s pain and suffering upon ourselves,” she writes. Christie Brooks writes that she chose labor and delivery after the baby she named Madison was given a fatal diagnosis; she describes the hospital chaplain praying with them, offering “comforting words to us to ensure that we knew our sweet angel was in Heaven with Jesus.”
Trump and the anti-abortion activists who scripted his rhetoric like to portray doctors who prey on women, but that’s not what these stories show. Kate Carson describes being shown “black marks on my daughter’s ultrasounds: large, fluid-filled holes in my baby’s brain,” and a doctor who “listed my options: adoption, abortion, or parenting this child with heavy medical intervention for her short life. If I chose to deliver my baby, it would be a high-risk birth for both of us, complicated by my baby’s condition. Why was she offering me these choices? Didn’t she know how deeply I loved my baby?” At 35 weeks, having decided “ I would have done anything, no matter how dangerous, to save my baby from a lifetime of suffering,” Carson had to travel from her native Massachusetts to Colorado to make her choice real. “The doctor who performed the termination was not a criminal or monster,” Erica Goldblatt Hyatt writes, “and he helped bring my two healthy children into the world after we lost Darby. This doctor honored my decision to terminate, held my hand through the anxiety of subsequent pregnancies, and helped bring me back to life.” What Robin Utz says was “one of the most callous and insulting experiences we have ever endured” was traversing Missouri’s restrictive abortion laws.
The signatories all have agonizing stories of wanted pregnancies and fatal diagnoses; there are other reasons, too, and some of these stories acknowledge that. “I’ve cringed as people called our abortions a zealotry for perfection, eugenics and worse,” wrote Grace Ombry. “I’ve even heard that some of the most terrible prenatal diagnoses should simply be considered a cosmic self-improvement project, as if we should let our children suffer so we can earn a star in our crown. I don’t buy any of that, of course. My point is that there really is no hierarchy of medical reasons. Once I accepted that there was no hierarchy of medical reasons, I could then take that next step and accept that there is no hierarchy of reasons period.”
Erika Christensen and Garin Marschall fought for years for New York to change its previous abortion law, which forced them to go to Colorado and back for an excruciating, medically complicated termination. Not long after their ordeal, Christensen, then anonymous, told Jezebel, “Yes, I had this very particular, horrible situation — but if I had had an abortion at 20 weeks just because I didn’t feel ready, that should be okay, too. Like it or not, all of our rights are intertwined. Maybe there’s some woman who has had four abortions and maybe that feels really wrong to you. But my rights are wrapped up with hers, so I have to fight like fuck for her to have as many as she wants — not just for her sake, but for mine, too.”