Susan J. Demas: Right-wing lies on abortion paved the way for Trump

December 3, 2019 6:42 am

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Oval Office of the White House on October 02, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

During no-filter November, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey sent shockwaves across Michigan’s Capitol when he compared abortion to “the scourge we endured when we still had slavery in this country.”

This, of course, wasn’t the first time the Clarklake Republican popped off; he also recently declared that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democrats were “on the batshit crazy spectrum.”

But Shirkey was merely parroting a popular — and completely offensive and ahistorical — anti-abortion talking point, just like other GOP leaders, including U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson and former Arizona U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (who resigned after creepily offering an aide $5 million to be his surrogate).

Extremist and inaccurate language begets extremist and medically inaccurate — and sometimes impossible — policy, like in Ohio, where a new bill would require doctors to re-implant an ectopic pregnancy. Such a procedure doesn’t exist. Ectopic pregnancies can kill women. Republican legislators apparently don’t care.

“I don’t believe I’m typing this again but, that’s impossible. We’ll all be going to jail,” Ohio ob-gyn David N. Hackney wrote on Twitter.

And this isn’t even the worst legislation to come from our neighbors to the southeast. Another bill creates two new felonies, abortion murder and aggravated abortion murder, which Rewire News says “would make it possible in some cases for both abortion providers and pregnant people who obtain abortions to be put to death.”

Nothing says “pro-life” like state-sanctioned murder over health care.

As deplorable as Shirkey’s rhetoric was, it’s nothing compared to the president, whose impeachment for attempting to extort a foreign power to investigate his political enemies “hurts [Shirkey’s] heart.”

The new popular Republican lie spread by President Trump in a rambling, gruesome fashion is that doctors are actually killing live babies after they’re born — something that is absolutely not happening. And as millions of women, like myself, have given birth in hospitals, we are aware firsthand that this is not a standard medical practice.

But it’s not just Trump being Trump, even though he’s lied 13,435 times in his presidency through Oct. 19 alone. He’s just spreading the infanticide myth endorsed by more genteel Republicans like Meghan McCain and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

And there’s a crass political reason to amp up the anti-abortion fight for 2020. The Republican is getting impeached, his popularity remains dangerously low (despite the bizarrely stubborn ‘Trump voters still love Trump’ genre) and people are sick of his tweets and constant drama. A thrice-married president who was caught paying off a porn star isn’t the most inspiring figure for evangelicals, the GOP’s most-reliable voting block.

So Trump has no choice but to pretend that he’s the white knight of the pro-life movement and sell scared Republican voters on the idea that he’s the only thing standing between them and godless liberals sacrificing babies in the delivery room. So far, they seem willing to swallow the big lie.

It’s somewhat fitting for one of Trump’s biggest lies to be about reproductive freedom, because the anti-abortion movement has trafficked in misinformation and falsehoods for years as scare tactics.

There’s the lie that abortion causes breast cancer (the American Cancer Society says no). There’s the lie that it’s a risky procedure so clinics must be overly regulated and shut down (something that fueled legislation in Michigan), even though abortion is an overwhelmingly safe procedure (and indeed, much safer than giving birth). And there’s the lie that most women regret their abortions, even though an overwhelming majority do not.

But manufacturing misinformation is a cottage industry for the anti-abortion movement. And the media share a lot of blame in spreading it.

There’s an enormous amount of deference and leeway given to anti-abortion groups because of the premise that they have a moral, often religious objection to a basic part of women’s health care. Reporters are trained to be cynical, but it’s considered rude and disrespectful to question if anti-abortion politics are really rooted in misogyny, even though many pro-life politicians don’t support other aspects of women’s equality. (Shirkey’s advice was to “ignore” a Michigan equal pay directive this year).

Another factor is that well-funded anti-choice groups complain very loudly about coverage they don’t like. A decade ago, a newspaper stopped running my columns when I had the audacity to write that a law legalizing embryonic stem cell research probably could have helped my grandfather who just died of Alzheimer’s — indeed, quite the radical argument.

But by printing the lies and mistruths of the anti-abortion movement for the sake of balance — and to avoid angry calls and emails from their lobbyists — we in the media do our readers a great disservice. We also violate our core mission of informing the public.

Can we really look ourselves in the eye as journalists if we dutifully include a Republican lawmaker’s babbling that he believes re-implanting ectopic pregnancies will work — even though it’s a twisted fantasy out of “Frankenstein” with no roots in scientific reality?

There’s a real cost to both-sides journalism.

For those shaking their heads and wondering how we ended up with someone who lies with such abandon in the White House, examining the media’s longstanding tolerance for lies from some of Trump’s biggest backers in the anti-abortion lobby might be a good place to start.

Didn’t we send the message that as long as it’s about a controversial issue or said by a prominent person that we’ll give mistruths oxygen in stories? Wasn’t that opening seized upon by Trump, who got endless coverage in 2016 for outrageous lies like declaring Mexicans are rapists and has since continued unabated as president?

This isn’t a comfortable place to be for many journalists, but it’s something we have to reckon with — and before 2020.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.