Columns » Max Brantley

The war for the womb

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Garry Trudeau, the "Doonesbury" cartoonist, produced a series of cartoons so biting on anti-abortion legislation that a number of newspapers were too timid to run them this week.

He depicted a woman seeking an abortion branded with the scarlet letter "A" and forced through a series of shameful requirements — notably an ultrasound test — by middle-aged male state legislators.

Trudeau told a newspaper he was surprised to learn reproductive rights had not been decided 40 years ago by Roe v. Wade. Enemies of women's freedom never quit fighting. Abortions are increasingly hard to obtain and government support is prohibited. Republicans have expanded their agenda to discourage birth control, only guaranteeing more people in need of abortions.

Arkansas is no laggard in oppression, particularly with the rise in Republican legislators. "Republican" is now synonymous, at least in the South, with anti-abortion, anti-sex education, anti-birth control and anti-gay. Republicans pushed hard for a number of even stricter abortion rules in 2011, but mostly met defeat in the House Public Health Committee chaired by Democratic Rep. Linda Tyler.

Republicans have been lusting to make Tyler's run for a Senate seat against Sen. Jason Rapert a womb war. An emerging gender gap, inspired in part by Virginia ultrasound legislation similar to what Trudeau depicted, might make that iffier for Republicans. We'll see soon.

Rapert, a part-time Baptist evangelist, sponsored a bill that died in Tyler's committee that was identical in key respects to Virginia legislation that stoked a recent firestorm of pro-choice protest.

Rapert's bill, like the original legislation in Virginia, required women seeking abortion to first have a test to determine whether the fetus a woman is carrying has a detectible heartbeat. The test was to be performed, both bills said without specificity, using "standard medical practice."

In Virginia, opponents noted in debate, a special test is sometimes required in early pregnancy when the heartbeat is harder to detect. It requires insertion of a 10- to 14-inch probe into a woman's vagina. The legislation doesn't allow a woman to refuse the probe.

Rapert, in a one-word answer — "No" — to my question, said his bill wouldn't require this functional equivalent of rape by instrument. But an Arkansas abortion provider tells me he's wrong. His bill was no different than the Virginia bill, amended under intense national attention to exclude mandatory vaginal probes of unwilling women.

External ultrasounds are routinely used by abortion providers. The transvaginal probes are used occasionally; particularly to be sure a woman doesn't have a tubal pregnancy. Arkansas law already requires that women be offered the opportunity to see the results of any ultrasound tests and are given, in advance, a brochure on fetal development.

With genital probing or without, Rapert's bill was offensive. Rapert, a leading critic of health insurance mandates, would mandate a medical procedure that is sometimes not needed. He would require the procedure 24 hours before an abortion (Virginia only requires a two-hour advance procedure) to make it a two-day trip for women coming long distances to get an abortion. The bill required a woman to sign a notice about what the test found, as if she were a school child. It provided no exception for rape and incest victims.

Linda Tyler is no liberal. I'm not sure she appreciates my publicizing that her committee stood up for women's medical autonomy against patriarchal preachers. I'm not sure she appreciates my pointing out that Jason Rapert championed denial of women's reproductive rights and mandated an invasive medical procedure a woman might not want or need. But I can do no other.

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