Jennifer Rubin is right

About one thing! (Still wrong about everything else)

By Irin Carmon
Published May 6, 2013 10:40PM (UTC)
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Not content to merely be prodigiously ignorant about, well, everything else, the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin has taken up the Kermit Gosnell case as a stick with which to beat Barack Obama. On Fox News Sunday, she even said of the president, "I think he's responsible in some spot -- in some parts" for a criminal case in Pennsylvania that has nothing to do with Obama's own policies. But there was one point she made that rang true (stay with me here).

First, the much-needed fact-check, as ever. Rubin erroneously said on the show, "We have 12 states that have prohibitions on late-term abortions" (the actual number is 41), and that "There's a case from Nebraska that has went its way -- that is at the Supreme Court where we're going to see that." Either she's referring to a case that the Supreme Court heard in 2000, or to a 20-week abortion ban -- well before viability -- Nebraska passed in 2010. There's literally no reason to believe that law will make it to the Supreme Court, because no one has challenged it in court.


Last week, Rubin built a whole blog post around an entirely false premise, demanding the following policy changes: "First, all Medicaid and other federal support for abortion services should come with caveats — health standards (of the type Pennsylvania refused to issue and enforce) and appropriate training for all personnel. Second, federal taxpayer dollars should not go for late-term abortions." Actually, the Hyde Amendment has since 1976 prohibited federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape and incest, and as RH Reality Check's Jodi Jacobson pointed out, "In fact, in 2010, there were only seven abortions in the entire state of Pennsylvania paid for by state tax funds, and no federally funded abortions anywhere in the state that year. As in zero. Zip." And Kermit Gosnell is on trial because he is accused of violating existing laws.

But -- and here she has a point -- Rubin also said of the president's address to Planned Parenthood two weeks ago, "I find his language so telling. He won't even use the word 'abortion.' He says 'women's health.' Can he not bring himself to say that we're talking about terminating pregnancies?" On "Meet the Press" yesterday and in a column, Rich Lowry struck a similar note, asserting, "President Barack Obama was proud to become the first sitting president to address Planned Parenthood the other day. But not proud enough to utter the word 'abortion.'"

Rubin and Lowry seemed to believe they were alone in calling out the president's euphemism. But they're joining a critique the pro-choice left has already been making for years, but for very different reasons. The argument is that treating abortion like the elephant in the room perpetuates stigma and segregates it from a broader spectrum of reproductive healthcare that includes contraception and childbirth. (The difference between the public proclamations of much of the Democratic Party and pro-choice feminists is a nuance that, to his credit, Ross Douthat did pick up on.) In writing about the speech, Salon's Katie McDonough pointed out the conspicuous absence of the word. "Politically savvy? Kind of cowardly? I’d argue the latter," she wrote. Feminist activist and writer Lauren Rankin tweeted, "Glad that @BarackObama is 1st sitting president to speak at @PPact, but i wish he would have used the word #abortion. it's not a bad word." (Earlier, Rankin wrote, "I support all reproductive choices that are made freely. I support your right to choose, and I support your right to choose abortion.")


Yes, more than a few Americans are ambivalent about abortion, and the word has had political costs. But both effects can be overstated; after all, during last year's election, centrist pundits warned that Democrats would regret making reproductive rights a cornerstone of the campaign and the Democratic National Convention, but both the polling and the turnout of young female voters proved them wrong. Yes, last year's battles were most prominently about birth control access and the rights of rape survivors, but they also proved that much of the right sees those issues on a spectrum of acceptable female behavior, inseparable from the goal of banning abortion. Even as some Democrats try to thread the needle that implicitly separates out abortion, social conservatives have no problem making a holistic argument that abortion is simply the ugliest sin on a road that includes women having "consequence-free" sex and otherwise rejecting motherhood. If they can make those connections, why can't Democrats? Meanwhile, all the equivocations in the world haven't prevented the right from excoriating Obama for supporting infanticide just for showing up at Planned Parenthood.

Moreover, Kate Cockrill, a social scientist at the University of California at San Francisco who studies the impact of abortion stigma on women, said in an interview, "Believing that abortion is wrong and that it's shameful does not prevent it from happening. It happens all over the world, and happens more often in countries where it's illegal than it does in the United States." She added that stigma "can contribute to making abortion less safe, it can contribute to distorting the reality of how common abortion is, and how common it is in women's reproductive lives. It's very difficult for women to be public about their abortion experiences."

More important than rhetoric, of course, is policy -- and to his credit, Obama has thus far respected abortion rights in nearly every instance where he's had to make a call, mostly with regards to federal appointments and refusing to defund Planned Parenthood. That is, unless you count last week's infuriating decision to try to keep age restrictions on access to emergency contraception. Obama said he was "very comfortable" with an arbitrary set of regulations that make it harder to prevent an unintended pregnancy. But this isn't about his comfort level -- it's about the real meaning of both women's rights and public health he otherwise so blithely touts. In this, and in his polite refusal to say the word everyone knows he means, Obama should spend more time being uncomfortable.

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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