That Pence uttered these words from behind a plexiglass barrier the debate commission installed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is perhaps one of the highest-profile examples of how the anti-abortion identifier “pro-life” has lost all semblance of meaning.
Days earlier, President Donald Trump and nearly a dozen other White House officials tested positive for COVID-19 after likely contracting the virus at the event announcing the nomination of anti-abortion judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. As of the day of the debate, the novel coronavirus had killed more than 205,000 Americans, the most deaths of any country in the world, and had infected more than 7 million after a perfect storm of the White House downplaying the virus, failing to set up a national testing strategy, and casting doubt on the efficacy of masks, all of which let the virus rip through the country mostly unchecked.
And yet here was Pence, the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, with the gall to claim on national television that he and his administration value human life.
Anti-abortion lawmakers and advocates have long professed utmost concern for the potential life of an embryo or fetus while ignoring the living, breathing humans trying to stay healthy or just simply survive in the U.S. Their hypocrisy has always existed, but the Trump administration’s policies—which are purportedly "pro-life"—have thrown it into stark relief.
The evolution of 'pro-life'
The term “pro-life” had much more progressive origins before coming to be associated with the anti-abortion movement. It's thought to have originated from Scottish educator A. S. Neill, who wrote in 1960 that “no pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishments of homosexuals, our attitude towards bastardy.” After the Roe decision in 1973, anti-abortion activists adopted the label in what has been called “a marketing masterstroke.” As the author Katha Pollitt told VICE in 2019, “One thing that’s great about it is that it casts the other side as ‘pro-death.’”
This characterization of pro-abortion rights advocates is deeply unfair, especially if you consider the reproductive justice movement that’s focused on abortion access as part of a broader human rights agenda. The reproductive justice philosophy was created by a coalition of Black women in 1994; it argues that bodily autonomy is a human right and that people should be able to choose whether or not to have children, and parent any children they have in safe and sustainable communities.
Reproductive justice is about much more than access to birth control and abortion (though those are important). It also is about making sure people have living wages, paid parental leave, and safe housing free from threats like gun violence, police violence, and environmental racism. (This is slightly different from the reproductive rights movement, which primarily advocates for the continued legality of abortion.) Reproductive justice was specifically created to address the wider needs of women of color and other marginalized people who can get pregnant.
“The people who object to abortion don't pay sufficient attention to the other human rights issues when they're trying to legislate or override [a person’s] personal will and autonomy,” says Loretta Ross, a co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and one of the original founders of the reproductive justice movement. “I don't see any compassion from them that's not just theoretical.”
How ‘pro-life’ insurance bans endanger lives
A prime example of the disingenuousness of the “pro-life” movement is their backing of abortion restrictions that inevitably affect the health and lives of low-income people, says Destiny Lopez, co-director of the grassroots reproductive justice organization All* Above All.
For example, the 1976 Hyde Amendment bans Medicaid—the federal health insurance program for low-income people—from covering abortions unless the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest or it threatens the woman’s life. Hyde gets revisited every year as part of the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and has since expanded to ban abortion coverage for anyone who gets their insurance or health care from the U.S. government. This includes federal employees, Peace Corps volunteers, low-income people in Washington D.C., and people detained in federal prisons or ICE facilities. Only 16 states use their own funds to cover abortion care, while 34 states and Washington, D.C. follow the Hyde amendment restrictions.
The impacts of Hyde are not equal: Because of systemic racism, Black and Latinx women are disproportionately more likely to rely on Medicaid for health insurance, and thereby more likely to be denied insurance coverage of abortion. “The Hyde Amendment is in many ways the original abortion ban for millions in our communities who rely on Medicaid for their reproductive care,” says Margie Del Castillo, director of field and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. “Abortion bans disproportionately hurt our Latina/x community and families by adding yet another barrier to already limited access to health care.”
Medicaid restrictions on abortion can have devastating consequences, Lopez adds. A 2009 review of five states with Hyde restrictions found that about one in four pregnant women with Medicaid seeking abortions were unable to obtain the procedure and ultimately gave birth. (A 2019 study in Louisiana confirmed that statistic.) While anti-abortion rights advocates argue that abortion is unsafe, evidence from the landmark Turnaway Study (a longitudinal study looking at the effects of unintended pregnancy on people’s lives) suggests that people denied abortions are at risk of experiencing life-threatening pregnancy complications like hemorrhage and preeclampsia; they are also more likely to have more debt, lower credit scores, and fall below the Federal Poverty Level than those who were able to get abortions.
Yet for all the talk about life and supporting pregnant women, anti-abortion rights advocates don't seem to acknowledge the reality that pregnancy is a risky health condition—particularly for Black women, who have the highest maternal death rate in the U.S. “There's a real disconnect between what [anti-abortion rights advocates] say they care about, this value that they place on life, and actually caring for women and their families once those lives exist,” Lopez says. (Indeed, Senator Ted Cruz tried to justify attempts to ban the abortion medication Mifeprex by arguing that "pregnancy is not a life-threatening condition.")
To that end, Del Castillo notes the irony of lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio passing abortion bans in 2019 when they have some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the country. “It is evident that these elected officials have no regard for the well-being of pregnant people, particularly Black women, women of color, and immigrants and migrants,” she says.
More U.S. policies that harm health and lives
The reach of so-called pro-life policymaking extends beyond insurance coverage restrictions—and have massive consequences on the well-being of parents and children. Ross, who’s also a visiting associate professor in the study of women and gender at Smith College, notes that most people seeking abortions already have children (nearly 60 percent per the Guttmacher Institute), so they are likely considering the impacts of another pregnancy on their families. People may be experiencing health problems, struggling to pay rent or put food on the table, or trying to get out of a violent relationship—all factors that would affect their ability to live a healthy life, let alone raise another child. But “pro-life” lawmakers typically oppose solutions for these problems. The Trump administration is against raising the minimum wage, has tried to cut access to food stamps, and has undone almost 100 environmental regulations. Trump also supports the lawsuit that would overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its entirety, which would leave over 20 million Americans without health insurance.
On the true meaning of "pro-life," Ross says anti-abortion lawmakers and activists have “hollowed it out by their inaction over the threats to children who are here." And that inaction extends to the children of migrants trying to enter the U.S., families that the Trump administration separated at the U.S.-Mexico border; lawyers are still searching for the parents of 545 of those children. “I’d believe that they were really pro-life if they were organizing as ferociously to get the children out of cages on the border,” says Ross. “If you really cared about the life of children, where's your activism around that?” (Indeed, while a few smaller "pro-life" groups sent supplies to certain border facilities, many national "pro-life" organizations have voiced either support of family separation policies or refused to comment when pressed.)
Del Castillo adds that other immigration policies on the books reflect a complete lack of respect for lives that already exist. The administration implemented a "public charge” rule in February, which allows the government to deny visas and green cards to people thought to be likely to use public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Even before the rule went into effect, it resulted in mixed-status families—meaning families with at least one undocumented member—unenrolling from those programs out of fear.
Additionally, Del Castillo says that existing policy requires many immigrants to wait five years before they can enroll in Medicaid—making health care out of reach for lower-income immigrants. Undocumented immigrants are banned from that program, and cannot even buy their own insurance through the ACA.
“There is nothing ‘pro-life’ about policies that create an atmosphere of fear among families in our communities and prevent children from having access to vital health-care and nutrition programs,” Del Castillo says.
What a truly "pro-life" America would look like
For the U.S. to really value people’s lives, everyone living in the country should have access to the full range of reproductive health care, Del Castillo says. She notes that two proposed bills could make a big difference: the EACH Woman Act, which would reverse the Hyde amendment, and the HEAL for Immigrant Women and Families Act, which would make health care available regardless of documentation status.
“No one should be denied health-care coverage because of who they are, where they are from, how much money they make, or what gender they identify as,” says Del Castillo.
A “pro-life” president wouldn’t have petty fights over how to use billions of dollars allocated months ago for virus testing. They wouldn’t make mixed-status families ineligible for pandemic stimulus checks. They wouldn’t be so focused on getting an anti-abortion Supreme Court nominee confirmed that they ignore the 8 million more people who are now living in poverty after pandemic unemployment assistance ended in July.
“If there was truly a commitment to valuing life, we would have seen the COVID [relief] packages that we require for people to maintain their health and to maintain their economic and financial security,” Lopez says. “To me, that's just the biggest exposure of the hypocrisy.”
So, no, Mike Pence, you and other anti-abortion lawmakers do not stand without apology for the sanctity of human life. The United States would look a lot different if you did.
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