By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post
By the time Ron DeSantis used the phrase “abortion tourism” in a televised interview last weekend, the phrase had already become a favorite little slogan among antiabortion conservatives.
In an interview hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Florida governor and presidential candidate was asked a question related to a military policy of funding abortions for active-duty service members who might have to cross state lines in order to access abortions. “They are breaking, violating the law by funding abortion tourism,” DeSantis replied. “We’re running low on ammunition, our recruiting is in the absolute gutter now, and you’re funding abortion tourism?”
In July, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told a news anchor that “the military should not be paying for abortion tourism.” In August, Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, used the phrase when he introduced the Ban Offshore Abortion Tourism (BOAT) Act, in order to “prohibit abortions in maritime jurisdiction.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has used it. As has Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. Focus on the Family uses it; so does the Christian Coalition of America. All of them use it to describe the same broad concept: A patient who needs an abortion travels to a location where they can get an abortion.
When I did a news search to get a sense of how, and by whom, “abortion tourism” was being employed, I found something interesting: The phrase itself isn’t new; its use dates back at least 40 years ago, mostly in European countries, to neutrally describe the act of individuals crossing national borders to end pregnancies. But in the past 15 months, since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the phrase has bloomed in the United States, used almost exclusively by antiabortion Republicans and with obvious intent: to make pregnant people, whom the party has forced into desperate straits by pushing draconian state laws, seem like harlots on holiday.
Are women who live in abortion-restrictive places traveling across state lines in order to access abortion? Yeah, almost definitely. The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion data, this year has seen “major increases” in abortions in states that border other states where the procedure is banned; an 89 percent increase in Colorado, for example; a 69 percent increase in Illinois.
Are women crossing state lines in order to take in a Broadway show, finally eat at Momofuku and grab a relaxing abortion before ice skating at Rockefeller Center? Please.
“Abortion tourism” is a dismissive, frivolous phrase that implies abortion is a dismissive, frivolous thing; something that bored pregnant people do when they’ve suddenly run out of “Abbott Elementary” episodes. “Abortion tourism” implies that reproductive care is a luxury, not a necessity, and that pregnant people — like the active duty soldiers who have no say in whether they’re stationed in Idaho, where abortion is illegal in nearly every circumstance, or in Oregon — are embarking on the equivalent of a Carnival Cruise if they get in their cars, drive 400 miles, put their feet in some cold stirrups, swallow a few Tylenol and then drive home with a maxi pad wedged in their pants.
We’re deep in a battle of terminology. Not only in the obvious way of “fetus” vs. “unborn child” or “intact dilation and extraction” vs. “partial birth,” but in the more innocuous-sounding terminology that needs to be unpacked in order to fully grasp how insidious it actually is.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard antiabortion activists decry the concept of “abortion on demand,” a phrase clearly meant to imply that people seeking abortion are treating medical clinics like the customer service line of Comcast. That they are impatient, impulsive and self-centered. That they want what they want, and what they want is three free months of HBO and unlimited mifepristone.
What is the protocol that these activists would prefer? Abortion upon polite request? Upon begging? Abortion upon getting permission from your husband, your father, your priest and a slim majority of your state’s legislative body? (Nevermind; I have answered my own question.)
And, of course, there is the newest turn of phrase I’ve seen cropping up in recent weeks: “Abortion trafficking,” which implies that pregnant people are being kidnapped and thrown into vans, dragged unwillingly to unwanted abortion appointments. What does it actually describe? Friends or romantic partners giving pregnant people lifts to the abortion appointments that conservatives have now made sure are, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has an entire guide related to insidious abortion terminology. It is almost entirely composed of the terms that antiabortion activists use to make abortions sound scarier than they are, and to make the people seeking them sound less trustworthy. “Elective abortion” is a poor phrase, the guide suggests: “The motivation behind the decision to get an abortion should not be judged as ‘elective’ or ‘not elective’ by an external party.” The phrase “chemical abortion” is “a biased term designed to make medication abortion sound scarier than the safe, effective medical intervention it is,” the ACOG list says. “The phrase “late term abortion” has “no medical significance.”
The significance is in the ear of the beholder. The significance is in the politicians and activists hoping that the right word choice can convince millions of voters that people — mostly women — are so irresponsible with their abortion-related decisions that the decision should simply be taken away, and that these politicians can take them away faster and with more cruelty.
DeSantis’ campaign is foundering. A recent set of polls shows him going “from bad to much worse,” as a recent Washington Post headline described his candidacy; nearly 50 points behind Donald Trump. DeSantis is running low on ammunition. His recruiting is in the absolute gutter. He has less at stake in this campaign than someone who needs to end a pregnancy, but there’s a certain kind of desperation at play here as he keeps traveling around trying out new ways to get people to react to what he’s saying. It’s outrage tourism. It’s manufactured outrage on demand.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. In 2022 she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the field of commentary. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.” Follow her on X @MonicaHesse.