From a speech Virginia Democrat and Kansas City native Sen. Tim Kaine recently delivered on the Senate floor, in response to new abortion laws such as the one Missouri Gov. Mike Parson just signed:
It can sometimes appear that there is little common ground between people who call themselves pro-choice and people who call themselves pro-life.
But there is common ground among so many of us. For example, Americans with many different views on abortion overwhelmingly believe that Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land. More than 70% of Americans support the decision and believe it should not be overturned.
There is also a common ground — based on data — about strategies that work. And I want to offer a common ground perspective on this issue.
There is a way to dramatically reduce abortion in this country that both pro-life and pro-choice should embrace. It’s a strategy of compassion.
The Abortion Rate Has Fallen
Let me start with a noteworthy fact that is almost never mentioned: During the last 25 years, the time I have been in elected office, the abortion rate in this country has been cut in half.
By 2015, during the Obama administration, the abortion rate in the U.S. was at its lowest level since Roe v. Wade became law.
In fact, if you just measure it by the data, you could argue that the Obama administration years were the most pro-life period since Roe v. Wade.
Why has this happened? While there are a number of reasons, the most important one is this: The rate of unplanned pregnancies is decreasing. Teen pregnancies are decreasing. And if the number of unplanned pregnancies goes down, the abortion rate goes down. There is a direct connection between unplanned pregnancies and the abortion rate.
Need to Reduce Unplanned Pregnancies
So here is a strategy that should unite everyone: Reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. Can anyone be against that? And the good news is we know how to do it.
When women have better access to affordable health care, including better access to contraception and better access to comprehensive sex education, the number of unplanned pregnancies goes down and the number of abortions drop.
We know that more women have access to health care and contraception today than in the past. The passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the 36 states that have expanded Medicaid, have provided millions of women with health care, so many of whom didn’t have it before, including preventive care and contraception access.
Make sure kids get comprehensive sex education so they can make more responsible choices. Keep working to expand health care, including access to contraception for women.
This is the compassionate way to bring down the abortion rate. It supports women, trusts their decisions and succeeds in reducing unplanned pregnancies.
But here’s something that puzzles me. GOP legislators all over this country have generally opposed, quite bitterly, those proven strategies. And so have many in the pro-life community. The GOP has fought the Affordable Care Act at every step of the way, and now stands squarely behind the effort to repeal the act entirely and strip health care away from millions of women.
The GOP fights against contraception access. Many in the GOP fight against comprehensive sex education, instead pushing abstinence- only sex education curricula that don’t work.
If the GOP succeeds in killing the ACA and reducing contraception access, the number of unplanned pregnancies will increase and the abortion rate will increase. How is that pro-life?
The GOP is now embracing a different strategy: make women and doctors criminals.
That is the key unifying cruelty of these recent state laws. GOP-controlled states are racing to see who can have the cruelest criminal laws.
A complete ban on abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy? No, how about a ban at six weeks of pregnancy. In Alabama, a ban from the second there is a fetus in utero. No exceptions to someone who is the victim of rape or incest. So think about that: Alabama forces a 13 year-old who is raped, or the victim of incest, to bear a criminal’s child under pain of criminal prosecution and punishment for the doctor. Imprisonment for the doctor.
But wait — let’s get tougher still. In Georgia, women who terminate pregnancies could receive life in prison under a bill recently signed by the Georgia governor. There is some confusion here — prosecutors are arguing about whether the technical language would subject a woman having an abortion to a murder charge. The sponsor of the bill, now that it’s signed, is backpedaling, saying that he only intended for women to be prosecuted under a separate criminal abortion statute which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. He apparently believes that subjecting women to a 10-year prison sentence rather than a life sentence for murder is merciful and lenient.
And the GOP could go further. A Texas bill filed last month would have allowed the death penalty — capital punishment — for a woman seeking an abortion. The bill failed but was no surprise from a party whose president admitted during his campaign that a woman having an abortion must suffer a “punishment.”
We already have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Five times higher than Canada. 70% higher than Russia. But guess what: So many of these GOP proposals would push us even further. And the next big group going behind bars could be women and doctors.
These laws don’t bring about a culture of life. These laws don’t bring about a culture of compassion. They succeed only in demonizing women, robbing their dignity, and intruding upon the most private aspects of their lives. And they demonize the doctors who care for them.
Do Americans want a society that labels women’s health care choices as criminal? No. Is there any proof that criminal penalties for abortion will reduce unplanned pregnancies? No. Is there any proof that criminal penalties for abortion will reduce the number of abortions? No.
A Path Forward
We can pursue a path of compassion towards women secure in the knowledge that better health and contraception access, and comprehensive sex education, will reduce unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
Or we can pursue the path of criminalizing women’s decisions with no evidence that the strategy will have the effect of reducing unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
I have focused most of my attention on the issue of unplanned pregnancies. Of course, some planned pregnancies end in abortion too.
These pregnancies most often involve severe maternal or fetal health issues that are emotional and tragic for all involved. Certainly, compassion toward these families and not criminal prosecution is the right answer.
So this question — do we use a compassionate strategy to reduce unplanned pregnancies or do we criminalize women’s decisions — is the fundamental difference between our political parties on this very important issue right now.
I am firmly in the camp of compassion. If we support women, and trust women, we can keep making significant progress toward a goal we should all share, of fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions.
Tim Kaine represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.