By Michelle Goldberg [September 14, 2022]
At the end of Senator Lindsey Graham’s news conference on Tuesday proposing a national ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a woman named Ashbey Beasley stood up and asked him a question inspired by her own excruciating loss.
“What would you say to somebody like me who found out that their son had an anomaly that was incompatible with life at 16 weeks?” she began. Beasley chose not to have an abortion, delivering her son at 28 weeks. “When he was born, he lived for eight days,” she said. “He bled from every orifice of his body, but we were allowed to make that choice for him. You would be robbing that choice from those women. What would you say to someone like me?”
Graham had no real answer. His bill contains narrow exceptions for rape, incest and life-threatening pregnancies, but not for severe fetal anomalies or pregnancies that are otherwise nonviable. So, faced with someone insisting that he consider the consequences of his proposal, he defaulted to a duplicitous anti-abortion talking point about global abortion laws.
“The world pretty much has spoken on this issue,” said Graham. “The developed world has said at this stage into the pregnancy the child feels pain, and we’re saying we’re going to join the rest of the world and not be like Iran.”
Graham was making an argument, common in anti-abortion circles, that American abortion laws are unusually permissive, and that banning abortion at 12 or 15 weeks would bring us in line with Europe. France and Spain, for example, both permit abortion for any reason through 14 weeks, and Germany through 12 weeks post-conception. “If we adopted my bill, our bill, we would be in the mainstream of most everybody else in the world,” said Graham. “I think there are 47 of the 50 European countries have a ban on abortion from 12 to 15 weeks.”
This is, at best, a highly selective reading of European abortion laws. It ignores the fact that, on most of the continent, abortion is state-subsidized and easily accessible early in pregnancy, so women aren’t pushed into later terminations as they struggle to raise money. More significantly, the restrictions on later abortions have broad exceptions.
Take German abortion laws, which are, for Europe, quite stringent. Until this summer, a Nazi-era ban on advertising abortion was still in effect, and abortion is still technically illegal, though it’s been decriminalized during the first trimester. After that, abortion is allowed to protect a woman’s physical or mental health, taking into account her “present and future circumstances.” For low-income woman, abortion is publicly funded.
A woman in Ashbey Beasley’s devastating situation would be able to end her pregnancy almost anywhere in Europe. Indeed, what Graham is proposing has little analogue in the developed world. Even Iran — where abortion is, despite Graham’s nonsensical reference to the country, mostly illegal — allows women to petition a panel to get an abortion in cases of severe fetal disability.
Why did Graham leave such an exception, which the vast majority of Americans would almost certainly support, out of his proposed abortion ban? There are two possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive. Either he was pandering to the anti-abortion activists who, on Monday, sent a letter to Congress demanding federal action against states with liberal abortion laws, or he simply hasn’t thought very much about what pregnancy entails.
Most people who have gone through a pregnancy, or watched someone close to them go through one, know that there are certain white-knuckle benchmarks. At 10 weeks, you can get a blood test that checks for some prenatal genetic disorders, but it can tell you only your risk level. “Most of the time we make diagnoses around things like fetal abnormalities, genetic abnormalities, at around 15 to 20 weeks, when we can do an amniocentesis,” said Dr. Kristyn Brandi, an abortion provider in New Jersey and board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health.
Then, at 20 weeks, pregnant patients are typically offered an anatomy scan, which checks, among other things, for problems like anencephaly, in which a fetus’s brain and skull fail to develop.
Graham would condemn every single woman who gets disastrous news from her amnio or her anatomy scan to carry a doomed pregnancy to term, unless she could prove that it was going to kill her. Whether thoughtless or deliberate, the cruelty of this is almost unfathomable.
Politically, Graham’s bill is a boon to Democrats. He seems to have been trying to shift the focus of the abortion debate to later abortions, where Republicans think they can paint their opponents as extremists. Instead, he has underlined Republican callousness toward the abortion patients likely to elicit the most public sympathy.
But Democrats shouldn’t be gleeful. Republicans have shown themselves willing to impose such draconian prohibitions in places where they have complete power. Recently, Kailee Lingo DeSpain, who said that in the past she was “your quintessential pro-life Texan,” told CNN about having to leave the state for an abortion after finding out that her fetus had heart, lung, brain, kidney and genetic defects and “would either be stillborn or die within minutes of birth.” How, asked DeSpain, “could you be so cruel as to pass a law that you know will hurt women and that you know will cause babies to be born in pain?”
At the moment, Republicans don’t have the ability to impose such a regime on the entire country. Nor are many of them interested in talking about national bans; some Republicans were furious at Graham for thrusting the issue into the spotlight. But Graham was probably right when he said, “If we take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we’ll have a vote on our bill.” So far, Republicans have tried their best to give the anti-abortion movement what it wants. When Graham tells us what they intend to do to us, we should listen.
Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment.