US: The GOP’s pro-life hypocrisy

If pro-life Republicans want to save lives, they could start with women and children in the reddest states.

Opponents of Texas abortion bill protest
Opponents of an abortion bill circle supporters as a hearings on the bill is held at the Texas state capitol [AP]

Are Republicans actually interested in saving babies’ lives, or are they interested in making women’s lives harder? So far, all signs point to the latter, and their actions this week indicate that they’re only doubling down on their attacks on women while doing little to promote the health and lives of children. 

American mothers and children are some of the least healthy, and least cared-for, in the industrialised world. Every year, more than 11,000 babies die within a day of being born in the US – 50 per cent more than in other developed nations. Maternal mortality rates are also higher here than in economically comparable countries, and they actually increased after the mid-1980s. Today, you’re better off having a baby in Bosnia than in certain suburbs of Baltimore. 

The causes are complex, but our high rates of teen pregnancy – higher, again, than any other developed nations – and poor access to health care are chief among them. Pregnancy and childbirth are also expensive undertakings in the US, and bringing a new baby home can be financially devastating to families. Even women who have insurance often find that it doesn’t cover a full range of maternity services, and having a baby can be a $40,000 proposition. Giving birth in the US costs more than anywhere else in the world. Even with that kind of investment, women in the United States see poorer health care outcomes, and often find themselves rushed out of the hospital and sent home with a new infant while recovering from major abdominal surgery. 

Child health

Nationally Republican senators are wasting everyone's time (and taxpayer dollars) by repeatedly introducing anti-abortion bills that will never be signed by the president and made into law.,

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Families are hurting, people are ill, and moms and children are sick and sometimes even dying. There are lots of ways to fix this broken system, and indeed the Obama health care plan addresses many of them, including birth control access and maternity care coverage. What are Republicans doing to help? Well, they’re vowing to support “life” while opposing nearly all of the measures that help women and babies live, and live healthily. 

Republicans remain largely disinterested in furthering child health, but they do care about restricting reproductive rights. Never mind that the ability to plan your family is associated with positive health outcomes all over the world; the American right dedicates their time and energy into blocking access to birth control and abortion. 

The recent drama in Texas is only one example. There, Republicans were pushing a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks and shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics. Banning abortion after 20 weeks means that women die. State Senator Wendy Davis stood up for 11 hours to block the bill’s passage, inspiring reproductive justice advocates across the nation. Governor Rick Perry and Texas Republicans aren’t giving up the fight, though, and are vowing to double down on their efforts to make family planning more difficult for Texas women. Perry, for his part, boasted that he enjoys causing pain to the mostly female reproductive rights advocates: “The louder they scream, the more we know we are getting something done,” he said.

Misleading teenagers

Texas, by the way, has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. More than one out of every 10 American teenagers who gives birth is a Texan. Sexual health education in Texas focuses on abstinence, and isn’t required to be medically accurate. Students in Texas schools learn that contraceptives are ineffective and the best birth control is waiting until marriage. Since that advice has never worked anywhere in the history of the world, it will come as no surprise that Texas teens are less likely to use condoms and birth control pills than teens in the rest of the country, but they’re more likely to be sexually active and they have more sexual partners. 

It’s not just teenagers who are being misled in ways that complicate their health and their rights. Texas also ranks in the top ten for domestic violence murders. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is leading the push for abortion restrictions, has slashed maternal health services in his state. As a result of those and other right-wing policies, maternal mortality rates in Texas have quadrupled over the past 15 years.

A so called “pro-life”

In more than a dozen Texas counties, the maternal mortality rate is 100 deaths per 100,000 births – that’s on par with Morocco and Honduras.Pregnant women in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Mongolia, Syria and Kyrgistan have better health outcomes. And in two Texas counties, more than 900 women die for every 100,000 births(PDF) – that’s right between the death rates for mothers in Somalia and Sierra Leone, which rank among the top three maternal mortality rates in the world. 

That’s right: Pregnant women are dying at a rate of nearly 1 in 100 in some areas of Texas, and the state Republicans are concerned with making abortion, birth control and sexual health information more difficult to obtain. 

They call that “pro-life.”

Republicans in Ohio also claim to value life, and use that to justify a new budget containing at least five different provisions that not only curtail reproductive rights, but basic information and freedom of speech. How is Ohio promoting “life”? By defunding Planned Parenthood clinics in that state and instead giving the funds to Christian anti-choice “Crisis Pregnancy centres”. Planned Parenthood offers a wide range of services, of which abortions are only a minuscule part and which state and federal tax dollars already don’t pay for. They’re the primary reproductive health care provider for low-income women around the United States, offering Pap smears, cancer screenings, STD tests, pregnancy tests, sexual health information, contraception, adoption referrals and many other services.

The death rate of African-American infants in Ohio is twice as high as that of white infants - black babies in that state are about as likely to die in their first year of life as babies in born places like Syria and Libya.

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Crisis Pregnancy centres, by contrast, provide a series of misleading statements and outright lies intended to prevent women from getting abortions. Preventing abortion is their entire goal, after all, and they’ve proven themselves willing to say nearly anything, no matter how flatly untrue, to accomplish it. Actually helping pregnant women and their children, beyond handing them a few packs of diapers, is a secondary priority. The centres do offer pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but typically don’t employ trained technicians who know how to adequately read an ultrasound. They can tell you you’re pregnant and point to the fetus, but that’s about it. Women, though, believe they’re getting actual health care, and may not follow up with ultrasounds or tests from real medical providers. 

Cutting funds to rape crisis centres

Ohio isn’t just defunding legitimate health clinics in favour of religiously-motivated ideology centres. The new budget signed by governor John Kasich also cuts funding to rape crisis centres if those centres give their clients any information about abortion. In Ohio, not even rape victims should have the right to choose – or get an honest answer if they ask a rape crisis counselor about their options. 

Targeting rape victims and low-income women isn’t all Ohio pro-lifers have in store. They’re also restricting abortion generally, passing new regulations that on the one hand require abortion clinics to have agreements with local hospitals allowing the clinics to transfer patients there, but on the other bar public hospitals from entering into those agreements. They’re making it impossible for clinics to comply with the law, which has the effect of shutting them down. And they’re requiring doctors to read an anti-abortion script to pregnant patients. 

While Ohio Republicans could find the time, energy and money to attack rape victims and women who want to plan their families, they were less interested in following up on the recommendations of a 2009 task force on infant mortality (PDF) in their state, convened after it came to light that Ohio had the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the nation. The death rate of African-American infants in Ohio is twice as high as that of white infants – black babies in that state are about as likely to die in their first year of life as babies in born places like Syria and Libya. The task force found that “A shortage of women’s health providers in many areas of the state results in long waits for prenatal care and long drives to primary care and delivery hospitals for many Ohio women” and “Many Ohio women have no reproductive health care coverage”. Their number one recommendation? “Provide comprehensive reproductive health services and service coordination for all women and children before, during and after pregnancy.”

So the Ohio GOP cut funding to one of the largest organisations that provides just that, and instead funnelled it into the coffers of anti-abortion groups which offer practically nothing resembling health care.

North Carolina is also considering broad restrictions on abortion, none of which have anything to do with promoting women’s health. Which is too bad, because that state has serious health problems, standing out in health rankings for some of the highest rates of diabetes (1 in 10 adults), infant mortality, and low birth rates in the US. Good thing they’re focusing their time and energy on pointless abortion restrictions rather than dealing with their population of ailing adults and sick children. 

Abortion restrictions on the rise

Other states implementing abortion restrictions this week include Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi and North Dakota. Mississippi is the least healthy state in the nation, beating all others for the highest rates of diabetes, infant mortality, low birth rate, physical inactivity, teen birth rates, preterm births and premature death, and coming in at a close second for the lowest rates of high school graduation. Alabama isn’t too far behind, boasting some of the highest rates of babies dying in their first year of life and being born underweight. Indiana, Kansas and North Dakota also aren’t exactly shining beacons of health, each presenting their own problems, including high rates of infant mortality, low public health funding and high rates of physical inactivity. 

Nationally, Republican senators are wasting everyone’s time (and taxpayer dollars) by repeatedly introducing anti-abortion bills that will never be signed by the president and made into law. If the GOP 20-week abortion bill were law, it would increase the deficit by about $75m. In the meantime, the national GOP broadly opposes the Obama health care plan, which is likely to decrease the abortion rate by increasing contraception access and vastly improve maternal and child health by extending health care to all Americans. 

Our nation, and conservative states in particular, see high death rates among pregnant women and babies and skyrocketing health care costs. Supposedly “pro-life” Republicans need to reevaluate their priorities. Or, if they’re doing little to save the lives of women and infants, they need to pick a more honest moniker than “pro-life”. 

Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives.