A recent road trip took me into the precincts of rural Georgia and Florida, far away from the traffic jams, boutique coffeehouses and National Public Radio signals that frame my familiar landscape. Along the way, billboards reminded me that I was outside my natural habitat: anti-abortion declarations appeared every 40 or 50 miles.
"Pregnant? Your baby's heart is already beating!" "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. -- God." And, with a photo of an adorable smiling baby, "My heart beat 18 days from conception."
The slogans suggest a stirring compassion for women struggling with an unplanned pregnancy and a deep-seated moral aversion to pregnancy termination. But the morality and compassion have remarkably short attention spans, losing interest in those children once they are outside the womb.
These same stretches of Georgia and Florida, like conservative landscapes all over the country that want to roll back reproductive freedoms, are thick with voters who fight the social safety net that would assist children from less-affluent homes. Head Start, Medicaid and even food stamps are unpopular with those voters.
Through more than 25 years of writing about Roe vs. Wade and the politics that it spawned, I've never been able to wrap my head around the huge gap between anti-abortionists' supposed devotion to fetuses and their animosity toward poor children once they are born. (Catholic theology at least embraces a "whole-life" ethic that works against both abortion and poverty, but Catholic bishops have seemed more upset lately about contraceptives than about the poor.) While many conservative voters explain their anti-abortion views as Bible-based, their Bibles seem to have edited out Jesus' charity toward the less fortunate.
That brain-busting cognitive dissonance is also on full display in Washington, where just last week the GOP-dominated House of Representatives passed a bill that would outlaw all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. After the bill was amended to make exceptions for a woman's health or rape -- if the victim reports the assault within 48 hours -- U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., withdrew his support. The exceptions made the bill too liberal for his politics.
Meanwhile, this same Republican Congress has insisted on cutting one of the nation's premier food-assistance programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. GOP hard-liners amended the farm bill wending its way through the legislative process to cut $2 billion from food stamps because, they believe, it now feeds too many people. Subsidies to big-farming operations, meanwhile, remained largely intact.
The proposed food stamp cuts are only one assault on the programs that assist less-fortunate children once they are born. Republicans have also trained their sights on Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor. Paul Ryan, the GOP's relentless budget-cutter, wants to turn Medicaid into a block grant to the states, which almost certainly means that fewer people would be served. About half of Medicaid's beneficiaries are children.
The Pain-Capable Unborn Protection Act, whose name implies more medical knowledge than its proponents actually have, has no chance of becoming law since it won't pass the Senate. Its ban onabortion after 20 weeks, passed by the House along partisan lines, was merely another gratuitous provocation designed to satisfy a conservative base that never tires of attacks on women's reproductive freedom.
Outside Washington, however, attempts to limit access to abortion are gaining ground. From Alaska to Alabama, GOP-dominated legislatures are doing everything they can think of to curtail a woman's right to choose. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 14 states have enacted new restrictions on abortion this year.
That re-energized activism around reproductive rights slams the door on recent advice from Republican strategists who want their party to highlight issues that might draw a broader array of voters. Among other things, they have gently -- or stridently, depending on the setting -- advised Republican elected officials to downplay contentious social issues and focus on job creation, broad economic revival and income inequality. Clearly, those Republican lawmakers haven't gotten the message.
Still, GOP bigwigs get furious when they are accused of conducting a war on women. But what else is it? It's clearly not a great moral crusade to save children.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)