Republicans Are Using ‘War on Drugs’ Rhetoric to Come After Abortion

The right’s new strategy is talking about abortion pills as if they’re fentanyl coming over our borders.

In Depth
Republicans Are Using ‘War on Drugs’ Rhetoric to Come After Abortion
Illustration:Vicky Leta

Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, the fight around abortion access—on both sides—has been zeroing in on abortion pills, a very common and safe method of terminating one’s pregnancy in the comfort of their home.

The Department of Justice recently cleared the U.S. Postal Service to deliver the pills, even in anti-abortion states, and Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid announced they will be certified to distribute mifepristone. Republicans and anti-abortion activists, in turn, have taken a new strategy to sour public opinion on medication abortion: basically, comparing it to deadly narcotics like fentanyl.

Matthew DePerno, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Michigan Attorney General, said Plan B (which is not an abortion pill) and other contraceptives were “no different than fentanyl.” A RedState columnist used abortion pills to complain about border security: “Just wait until Chinese abortion pills come over the southern border,” Buzz Patterson tweeted. “You think we have open borders now.” And a coalition of anti-abortion groups filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration contending that the two drugs mostly commonly used in America to end a pregnancy—mifepristone and misoprostol—constitute a “dangerous drug regimen” and that the FDA has failed “to protect the health, safety, and welfare of women and girls” by authorizing the drugs for use.

This is not a mainstream position in modern healthcare.

Abortion pills are safer than Viagra and acetaminophen pills like Tylenol. The World Health Organization says abortion pills are safe to use for up to 12 weeks. Information about how to safely use abortion pills up to 13 weeks is provided by pro-abortion groups. The FDA has slowly (like, glacially slowly) liberalized regulations around abortion pills, including allowing those retail pharmacies to apply to dispense the drug.

Despite the mainstream medical knowledge that abortion medications are safe and effective (or maybe because of it), anti-abortion activists, lawyers, zealots, ministers, and more have not stopped in their crusade against these little pills. It’s the next phase in the conservative quest to control bodily autonomy. They already won the biggest battle—Roe v. Wade is no longer good law—so why stop the war, when the taste of victory is still fresh in the air?

There are “a number of ways” right-wing media is attacking abortion pills, Jasmine Geonzon, a researcher for Media Matters, told Jezebel. Right now, conservative media and influencers are spreading misinformation about abortion pills. “Most of these are not new, but they’re certainly more focused on medication abortion these days,” Geonzon said. “Some trends we are seeing in the types of abortion misinformation are conflating medication abortion and emergency contraception, overstating risks of medication abortion, and demonizing the process of getting abortion medication through a retail pharmacy, just like you’d get most other medications.”

Medication abortion was first synthesized in 1980, under the direction of Dr. Étienne-Émile Baulieu, for a company whose majority stakeholder was run by a deeply anti-abortion Catholic man. Baulieu emphasized the non-abortion applications to his bosses, but kept working on it. The pill would be called RU-486. In 1989, Baulieu said this pill’s “action is like jamming a radio signal.”

Despite this ease, like many drugs first available overseas, it was not immediately accepted in America. A combination of both a differing in drug approval processes (reasonable) and staunch anti-abortion activists in Congress and at the pulpit (less reasonable). It would be decades until the Food and Drug Administration would allow it into America. RU-486, better known today as mifepristone, got conditional FDA approval when used with misoprostol in 1996 and full approval in 2000. By this point, it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of people in Europe had used the drugs to successfully and safely end pregnancy.

It’s that FDA approval that the lawsuit by anti-abortion group Alliance Defending Freedom, the same group whose lawsuit eventually overturned Roe last summer, is seeking to undo. Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel & legal director at If/When/How, told Jezebel that the organization’s “very specific job of forum shopping” to find a court that’s receptive to its arguments is concerning. The case will be decided by a Trump-appointed Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk. “The entire thrust of this and of the opposition to abortion pills generally is really contrary to the reality on the ground,” she said. “[The lawsuit] reflects a recognition—that’s long been known to abortion seekers—that abortion pills are safe and effective.”

Diaz-Tello said the right’s hopeful de-authorization of abortion pills are a part of a larger strategy of criminalizing abortion without explicitly criminalizing abortion. “People are criminalized for abortion whether or not there is a law on the books—feticide or fetal homicide laws, concealment of a birth originally passed for out of wedlock births,” she said.

Anti-abortion activists are basically trying any tactic now to cut off access to safe abortions, throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks. Students for Life of America announced in late November 2022 that the group has filed a citizen’s petition with the FDA about wastewater. You might be wondering: How the hell does waste water relate to the topic at hand, abortion pills? It’s a reasonable question with an answer that will make your head spin: because anti-abortion activists want the FDA to require abortion pill providers dispose of tissue produced as a result of the abortion like medical waste, thereby keeping abortion medication out of our water. Kristi Hamrick, the chief policy strategist of Students for Life, called it “the next innovation” for abortion restrictions.

That might be because the classic strategies aren’t working as well as they used to. Anti-abortion activists once easily parlayed the use of “graphic, or simply fictional, descriptions” of how the pills work, Geonzon said. The visuals employed at anti-abortion rallies and outside of clinics use fertilization, which is two weeks after the medically used last menstrual period, to artificially and incorrectly age a fetus. Combined with advancement in sonogram technology, how can it not tug at people’s heartstrings?

Earlier this year, medically accurate photos of abortions early in pregnancy went viral. People lost their minds (on TikTok in particular), because for decades anti-abortion activists have presented medically inaccurate fetal illustrations as gospel. This visual deception is so important to the movement that I received a press release about these so-called “victims of abortion” being broadcast on a giant screen at the first post-Roe March for Life last week.

All of this is part of a larger strategy to sow confusion. “Now that [abortion pills] are the main target, they’re looking for more ways to muddy the waters for potential abortion patients,” Geonzon told Jezebel. Making people question if abortion pills are dangerous enough to hurt our groundwater may sound nutty to an informed pro-abortion reader, but not every abortion patient spends all their time considering how abortion may impact their life. They shouldn’t have to.

Compiling even two paragraphs, let alone more than a thousand words worth of anti-abortion tactics, makes my head spin. Reading that people are seriously trying to regulate drinking water to subvert abortion medication makes me feel like we’re living on separate planets. I feel like I’m trying to get people to care about jokes because the work done by anti-abortion activists can feel so absurd. This is one last way this new “war on drugs” mirrors its predecessor. But unlike Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, this one doesn’t have a real demon to point to: People aren’t dying from safely administered medication abortions like they’re dying from narcotics overdoses. The right’s rhetoric about abortion pill deaths relies on defining an embryo as a legal, born person, which it is not.

It will be up to people who believe in bodily autonomy to remind those in power of the safety of medication abortions at every goddamn turn. “If I can emphasize one thing, it’s the importance of people participating in the political process right now and not yielding to political nihilism,” Diaz-Tello says. “We’ve seen victories as people grapple with what the end of Roe really means. We have to keep up the pressure. We can’t afford not to.”

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