By Pure Coincidence, Murkowski’s Political Ambitions Align Perfectly with Christian Fundamentalist Goals
It’s unfair to attack U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski for her role in the recent attack on women’s right to have an abortion, which is on the verge of becoming illegal in many parts of this country if the Supreme Court follows through on its leaked opinion overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade case.
A calculating centrist politician above all other things (the New York Times calls her “a proud G.O.P. moderate willing to defy party orthodoxy”), Murkowski has done her best to say just enough in support of a woman’s right to choose that she has cover with Alaska liberals, but by blocking the path to full-blown federalization of abortion — not to mention through her role in allowing the judicial branch to fall into the hands of far-right appointees — she will avoid enough right-wing backlash to prevent a complete coup in her upcoming re-election bid. In effect she’s once again walking a tightrope of pretend populism, something Murkowski has mastered to such a degree it will likely be in the first paragraph of her obituary.
That Murkowski is a political chameleon of the first order cannot be questioned and therefore she doesn’t deserve the amount of wrath that’s been cast upon her by pundits — myself included — who should probably focus on the 49 Republicans and one Democrat who joined her Wednesday in voting against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have made broad federal protections for abortion rights federal law.
Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins offered up their alternative Reproductive Choice Act on Wednesday, which Murkowski said would protect the right to an abortion but also prevent a number of right-wing boogeymen such as “late-term” and “taxpayer” funded abortions.
“The legislation before the Senate today, the Women’s Health Protection Acct, goes well beyond the precedent established in Roe and Casey. It does not include the Hyde amendment, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from being spend on abortions — and has been the law almost as long as Roe,” Murkowski wrote in a Wednesday statement. “It does not include conscience protections for healthcare providers that refuse to perform abortions based on religious beliefs. It explicitly overrides the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for the first time. It also allows late-term abortions without any notable restrictions.”
People shouldn’t be upset with Murkowski for that statement, which is composed almost entirely of lies and flimsy rhetorical backflips. Again, as someone who puts political opportunism atop their hierarchy of needs, Murkowski must be excused for pretending to be taking some kind of stand when she’s really sitting on the same old fence.
But because she put it out there, let’s lower the key on these dog whistles to take apart what Murkowski is really saying — and why she’s full of shit.
The first myth Murkowski relies on for her statement is the idea of “taxpayer funded” abortions. What Murkowski and her allies in the anti-abortion movement are typically referring to are tax dollars that go to Planned Parenthood, an organization that in addition to being one of the nation’s most vital provider of health and reproductive care services also provides access to abortions. Because Planned Parenthood — rightly so — receives federal funding for its vital work, these folks like to claim that means taxpayers are funding these abortions. That’s false, as the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds directly for abortions.
Murkowski also wants to see the Hyde Amendment remain in place, which would continue to block federal Medicaid dollars from going toward abortion care. This seeminly innocuous amendment is insidious in that it effectively forces many of the poorest women to seek illegal abortions or carry their fetus to term against their will — both of which often result in horrific outcomes for both mother and child. It’s a cynical and cruel law that punishes the most vulnerable and perpetuates poverty and cycles of abuse and neglect. Meanwhile, women who have money face no such barriers to care and choice, therefore allowing them far greater opportunities for better outcomes and happier, healthier lives.
Murkowski and Collins also say they’re opposed to “late-term abortions without any notable restrictions.” This argument is based on a mythical procedure in which a woman wakes up one morning in her third trimester and suddenly decides to abort a perfectly viable fetus. These are the kinds of goblins and horrors that the patriarchal forces of the anti-abortion movement like to rely upon constantly despite the fact that they’re essentially fairy tales.
In fact, nearly 90% of abortions occur within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and more than 99% happen within the first five months. Women who carry their pregnancies to term fully intend to have their children, and these so-called “late-term” abortions happen only in cases when a fetal anomoly is discovered that likely would result in the death of the mother or a life of servere suffering for the child were it to survive birth.
When women must choose to terminate these pregnancies it often occurs in a world of desperation and pain, one in which mothers must decide to let go of their dreams in order to prevent a lifetime of suffering for their child. It’s a decision that no person should ever be forced to make, but unfortunately it’s a grim reality some mothers must face. These are deeply personal, complicated and troubling decisions that must be made only between a woman and her health care provider. This isn’t something the government should have any say or interest in and the fact that Murkowski — an ostensibly limited government Republican — would have federal bureaucrats involved in these families’ decisions seems hypocritically intrusive and illustrates the dishonesty of her arguments.
Murkowski ended Wednesday’s statement by pointing out that even if the federal protections established by Roe are overturned, Alaskan women will still have the right to an abortion — at least in the near term. What Alaska’s senior senator didn’t say was that if Roe is struck down federally, it’s extremely likely Alaska legislators will move to outlaw abortion in this state. But that’s not important to Murkowski, whose goal in all this is to preserve her seat in the Senate rather than provide a meaningful voice or reasonable alternatives for women in her state and elsewhere in this country.
Still, for as much as she’s taken Murkowski truly isn’t the villain here. In fact, I believe that deep in her calculating heart there could very well be some tiny inkling of compassion for all of the women who will be negatively impacted should Roe be overturned. And to put the blame squarely on her would only serve to reinforce a patriarchal narrative which often casts well-meaning women as dastardly while letting men far more responsible off the hook simply because they’re men and it’s expected they’ll act horribly toward women.
No, instead of continuing to harangue Murkowski for her political choice to try and play both sides, we should look toward all of the people who continue to fight day and night to erode women’s health care access in this country. People like religious fanatics Jim Minnery of the Alaska Family Council and radio personalities Bob Bird and Dan Fagan, strange little control freaks who have devoted their lives to the subjugation of women and forcing their twisted versions of religion on the rest of society. It’s these people whose activism has led the Republican party to stray further and further to the far right over the past several decades — so much so that staunch Alaska Republicans like Sen. Ted Stevens would today find themselves characterized as liberals for their willingness to stand up for things like abortion rights and stem cell research.
Polls show around 60% of Alaskans support a woman’s right to choose, an overwhelming majority in a state that often finds itself split 50–50 or leaning right on most issues. So even if Roe is overturned, it should come as some minor solace to Alaska women that their rights are still intact — at least for now.
But that isn’t going to matter much to the millions of women for whom the loss of abortion access will be a life-changing or possibly fatal consequence of the ongoing war against women being waged in this country by the religions right. Through their financial control of politicians due to lax election finance laws and the failure of the federal government to obey its own laws when it comes to the tax-exempt status of churches, (mostly) Christian religious leaders in this country now wield a grossly disproportionate amount of power and control over the rest of us.
The right for a women to choose abortion is something that should never be intruded upon by government regulators. What a woman chooses to do with her own body and the ways she cares for herself is something that cannot and should not be within the purview of bureaucrats or politicians, and it’s madness that we’ve regressed to the point where soon abortion may not be an option for vast swaths of American women.
Make no mistake, if Roe is overturned and the Talibanesque leaders of the far-right Christian movement have their way, the end result will be more illegal abortions, more pain and suffering, more death. Fewer women will seek access to healthcare due to the fear of government intrusion and the very real possibility that police and prosecutors will find ways to peer into their medical histories. Things will get worse for women in this country, and it’s likely that abolishing abortion in some states will be only the first step toward broader prohibitions nationwide. The next logical step for the mullahs of American society will be to stick their noses into other areas of sexual and reproducive health through regressive sex-ed programs or by abolishing sexual education in schools altogether. These people make no secret of their desire to see a world in which their beliefs are the law of the land, and they will not stop until their puritanical belief structures are imposed on the rest of us.
The upshot of all this will be more control for men, a return to the societies of the recent past in which women were denied full status as humans and treated akin to property or children. But for women it’s going to mean less access to healthcare of all kinds and will dramatically slow the progress we’ve made over the past 50 years in fighting cancers, decreasing the number of abortions and advancing access to prenatal and reproductive healthcare.
I’m a man, and my opinion on all of these matters should be taken with a hell of a lot of salt. I don’t know what kind of experiences someone like Lisa Murkowski brings to this debate, and I recognize that for someone like me to sit here and mansplain why I think she should take a stronger stand on women’s healthcare seems like a hypocritical extension of the patriarchy in and of itself. Those criticisms are fair and valid and I don’t have a lot to offer in response; I am a man, and as such my opinions on these matters should carry less weight. I’m essentially talking out of my ass, I freely admit it.
But I loved a woman once very much and she died of breast cancer and it fucked me up. They didn’t catch it in time and the doctors irradiated her and pumped poison into her body and cut her breasts off and none of it helped her and she died. The last time I remember seeing her was in a hospital bed and she couldn’t recognize me; I had to watch her die slowly and agonizingly and see the pain on her face as she left me and my brothers and my dad behind. I’ve had to live in the years since with the pain and the loss and to be perfectly honest it’s made me a worse person. It’s made my family worse. Society is worse off without her here. One person, one medical outcome, can impact entire communities.
My mom was a staunch Catholic who taught me that the meaning of Jesus’ message was one of kindness and compassion. She was someone who wasn’t afraid to speak out when she thought something was wrong and she was a fierce defender of the weak and powerless. I learned that from her but I haven’t always applied those lessons, and in many aspects of my life I’ve acted cowardly or shied away from taking difficult stands because I was scared of what people would say or how my words would be interpreted.
But I can’t do that in this case. As a society we should be working together to provide better wellness outcomes for all — not just the rich, or those who live in certain states or those with supportive families— and crafting policies whose long-term impacts will be healthier people, happier children and more equitable treatment for everyone. We need policies that allow women to engage fully with their health care providers in order to explore all options and make decisions based on what they feel is right for themselves.
When the rights of some women to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term come under attack, the right of all Americans to live freely falls into grave peril because it means none of us is free from intrusion into the most private areas of our lives. This isn’t about partisanship or even entirely about women’s reproductive rights, but about basic humanity and ensuring the same fundamental human rights and protections are granted to all people equally.
Matt Tunseth is an Alaska freelance writer who has previously worked as editor of the Chugiak-Eagle River Star, Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman and Anchorage Press; and as a reporter at the (Kenai) Peninsula Clarion, Alaska Dispatch News and the Anchorage Daily News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.