On Wednesday morning, a House subcommittee supposedly dedicated to "the Constitution and civil justice" will hold a hearing largely dedicated to denying women both civil justice and constitutional rights. The subcommittee will hear testimony on HR 490, the "Heartbeat Protection Act," which would ban abortion as soon as what the proposed law calls a "heartbeat" is detectable on an ultrasound — which is around six weeks into a pregnancy.
Most legal experts believe the bill will die in Congress, and it certainly can't pass a court test. But that doesn't mean there's no reason for alarm. The main purpose of this bill, and Wednesday's hearing, is propaganda. It's about promulgating myths about women's health care that will be used as the underpinnings of future and perhaps more realistic efforts to dismantle access not just to abortion, but to any kind of gynecological care that makes sex safer for women.
The first thing to understand about this bill is, as Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Salon, that "a six-week abortion ban is just a ban on abortion."
The premise might lull people into thinking, hey, a woman has a month and a half to get an abortion, Davis explained. But first of all, a woman is not likely to be sure immediately that she has become pregnant. And in reality, Davis said, the earliest possible appointment for an abortion is at roughly six weeks.
The reason is simple: Any earlier than that, and the doctor can't clearly see the pregnancy on an ultrasound.
“It’s standard practice in the United States that we need to see a pregnancy on an ultrasound before we’ll do an abortion," Davis explained, "so we know where it is and the gestational age."
This hearing is largely being conducted, in other words, to troll pro-choice advocates and physicians. Oh no, Republicans will insist -- they're not banning all abortions! They're only seeking to ban any abortion that is being conducted in a safe, responsible manner by a medical professional who cares about her patient's health and well-being.
Even the invocation of a "heartbeat" is something of a troll as well. What doctors see when they look at a six-week fetus on an ultrasound image isn't really a heartbeat by any normal definition of the word.
"There isn’t a little tiny miniature heart in there," Dr. Davis explained. "It’s the very, very, very beginning of that primitive vascular structure."
This congressional hearing is a sign that the anti-choice movement, after years of pretending that abortion restrictions are about "protecting" women, has decided to return to a previous strategy: Dehumanizing women, either by erasing them from the discussion completely or by portraying them as monstrous and undeserving of compassion.
Using the word "heartbeat" is part of this. It's an effort to focus attention away from the woman and imply that the only relevant issues in pregnancy are about embryonic development: a view that turns women into incubators, instead of people with their own rights and their own needs. But the choice of witnesses at the hearing also demonstrates that this is part of a larger effort to get back to dehumanizing women as a political strategy.
There is one pro-choice witness, because Republicans can't block Democrats from calling witnesses entirely. But the other three witnesses — David Forte, Star Parker and Dr. Kathi Aultman — all have a history of ugly views that undermine a pregnant woman's claim to be treated with compassion and respect.
Forte, a Cleveland law professor, is a big proponent of "natural law," which is an elaborate and pretentious philosophical framework that religious-right types use to argue for turning their religious beliefs into law.
In a 1998 book that Forte edited on natural law, writer Terry Hall argues, for instance, that "harm no one" is the "fundamental moral teaching" that naturally leads to outlawing abortion. It's a great argument — so long as you don't consider a woman to be a person. That's the only way a policy of enforced childbirth harms "no one."
Aultman has a history of demonizing women who have abortions and uses the fact that she used to be an abortion provider to lend credibility to her portrayal of women who have abortions as sluts and immoral monsters.
In a testimony given to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Aultman complained that a patient had come in for her fourth abortion because she used "abortion as her method of birth control" and refused to consider another method. She also described another patient saying, "I just want to kill it," adding, "I was taken aback by her hostility and lack of compassion towards the fetus."
Of course, anyone who isn't a misogynist might read that and be taken back by Aultman's hostility and lack of compassion for her patients, who, unlike fetuses, are actually human beings and citizens.
Parker is a religious right activist who unapologetically frames abortion restrictions as a way to curb sexual activity she dislikes.
"Regarding abortion, the liberal agenda is really about two things," Parker argued in 2011. "One, an alleged right to sexual promiscuity and two, an alleged right to have others bear social and financial responsibility for that promiscuity."
Having an abortion, which is nobody's idea of a picnic, is not about making others "bear social and financial responsibility" for you. But the facts don't really matter here, as Parker's job is to stereotype women who have abortions as oversexed leeches.
Beyond just an opportunity for some mid-morning woman-hating, this bill serves another propagandistic role: To make other proposed abortion bans seem more moderate.
“We’re all very concerned that they’re going to use this as some of kind of comparison to then turn around and say, ‘Well, OK, but then forget it after 20 weeks,'" Davis said. That's highly plausible: A 20-week abortion ban was recently passed by the House and is being currently being considered in the Senate.
Imani Gandy, a legal expert for Rewire, expressed the same concern on Twitter last week:
So a 6 week ban is ridiculous. They’ve been struck down everywhere.
— 👻Imani Gandy👻 (@AngryBlackLady) October 26, 2017
This is the shift that the anti-choice movement is making in the age of Trump: Portray women who get abortions as lazy and promiscuous, and then cast themselves as magnanimous for "letting" women have 20 weeks to get an abortion. The issue here isn't the immediate legal threat to abortion rights, but the propaganda deluge that is clearly meant to dehumanize women -- and to lay the groundwork for future assaults on reproductive rights.