Anti-Abortion-Rights Activists Make Smart Rhetorical Moves In Georgia, Nebraska

Late last week, the Georgia Senate approved a bill barring gender- and race-specific abortions. If it becomes law, the bill, dubbed The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, would criminalize a person who performs an abortion "with the intent to prevent an unborn child from being born based upon race, color or gender of the child or the race or color of either parent of that child."

This comes on the heels of another proposed abortion law, this one in Nebraska, that would bar abortions past 20 weeks' gestation. From a short item I had in NEWSWEEK's print edition this past week:

Nebraska has long played a pivotal role in the national abortion battle, mounting the first defense of the "partial birth" ban before the Supreme Court in 2000. Now the legislature is pushing another first-of-its-kind restriction—this time on procedures that cause "fetal pain." Currently the only abortion bans that have been deemed constitutional are based on viability, the point at which the fetus can live outside the womb (about 24 weeks). This bill, introduced last month, would set a new standard—blocking abortions after 20 weeks out of the concern that the fetus may feel the procedure (A 2005 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that fetal pain was "unlikely" before 28 weeks).

What do these two bills have in common, aside from attempting to restrict abortion access? They're both attempts to flip the rhetoric in favor of anti-abortion activists, a strategy they has proven successful in recent years.

The last major victory for anti-abortion-rights activists was, arguably, the passage of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003. The success wasn't as much about restricting abortion access as it was a public-relations success. The National Right to Life Committee coined the term "partial-birth abortion" back in 1995 to refer to a procedure known medically as "dilation and evacuation." It was an incredibly rare procedure—used in about a 10th of 1 percent of abortions in 2000—but, rhetorically, "partial-birth abortion" was a home run. Thirty states had passed bans within five years of the term's introduction, engendering two Supreme Court cases and, finally, the federal ban. Women could still obtain late-term abortions ("partial-birth abortion" referred to a specific technique, not a point in time) but, rhetorically, anti-abortion activists had framed the debate in their favor.

The bills in Georgia and Nebraska are, essentially, different iterations of the "partial-birth" strategy: find an emotionally compelling way to frame the abortion debate in their favor. Gender-specific abortion, for example, puts abortion-rights supporters in the tricky spot of arguing in favor of allowing doctors to terminate pregnancies based on their child's gender. Likewise, the use of "fetal pain" is a potent bid to connect with voters on an emotional level. If either makes it out of their respective state legislatures—the Nebraska bill is awaiting a floor vote, Georgia's now sits with the House—we could expect to see similar initiatives cropping up elsewhere in the country.