We’ve been wondering when a presidential candidate would say something incredibly insensitive about women and reproduction.
The moment has arrived. The 2016 Todd (“Legitimate Rape”) Akin Award for Sexual Sensitivity goes to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Maybe it was inevitable. Of all the practicing politicians in the scramble, Walker is possibly the sloppiest public speaker. Compared with him, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey can be a pinnacle of verbal discipline.
Last week, Walker was on a radio talk show, praising a law he signed requiring women who want an abortion to undergo an ultrasound. Which they’re supposed to watch, while the physician points out the features of the fetus.
An ultrasound, he said, was “just a cool thing.”
OK, that was only a little piece of his comment. And let’s acknowledge that presidential candidates are often tortured by reporters and commentators who jump on the least little misstatement. The exact same thing happens to people who actually are president. This is why the ability to speak carefully is an attribute we look for when we’re trying to decide who we should elect as the most powerful and closely scrutinized human being in the world.
But about the ultrasound quote. Walker was complaining that, in his words, “the media is a gotcha.” He then bragged about his anti-abortion agenda:
“We defunded Planned Parenthood. We signed a law that requires an ultrasound, which, the thing about that, the media tried to make that sound like that was a crazy idea. Most people I talk to, whether they’re pro-life or not, I find people all the time who'll get out their iPhone and show me a picture of their grandkids’ ultrasound and how excited they are, so that’s a lovely thing. I think about my sons are 19 and 20 and we still have their first ultrasound pictures. It’s just a cool thing out there.”
Now many people tend to babble when they’re stuck in front of a microphone. Perfectly normal. Except, once again, for the part about being a candidate for the most quote-sensitive job on the planet.
Let’s leap, temporarily, past the fact that Walker was conflating the vision of happy parents getting their first glimpse of their baby-to-be with what’s appropriate for a woman who has made the stupendously profound and private decision to terminate a pregnancy.
His larger point was apparently that the sight of a fetus in an ultrasound is so moving that a woman undergoing an abortion would almost certainly change her mind. This is wrong. There’s no evidence these ultrasound laws discourage women who have already decided they want an abortion. And it’s incredibly insulting because it presumes that they’re making this choice on a kind of whim. If they’d only thought things through.
Women’s motives for terminating a pregnancy are as varied and complex as … women. A college freshman regretting a careless fling can share the waiting room with a middle-aged waitress with four children and an abusive husband, or a newlywed like Jeni Putalavage-Ross of Texas, who discovered the little girl she was anticipating so eagerly was not going to survive delivery because the fetus’ development was, in the doctor’s words, “incompatible with life.”
“I just don’t understand why politicians want to be in the middle of this,” she said in a phone interview.
At one point — during a re-election campaign against a female opponent - Walker seemed to get that resentment against political intrusion. So he claimed the then-pending ultrasound proposal “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.” Although neither the woman nor the doctor gets any say in the ultrasound-plus-commentary.
“Who’s opposed to an ultrasound?” the governor demanded Thursday. He was back on the same radio show, berating the good old media.
“They tried to claim that there were certain types,” he complained, presumably referring to ultrasounds. The translation here is that while Walker keeps describing external “jelly-on-the-belly” procedures, representatives of the medical community say doctors will sometimes have to use intrusive vaginal probes to meet the law’s requirements.
Not so, Walker contended. “It doesn’t designate which type, so most people would just do the traditional one that people think of all the time. If they haven’t seen it themselves, certainly most people have seen it on TV or in movies.”
Would it be unfair to note that one of popular culture’s most recent depictions of a happy couple sharing their ultrasound pictures involved the eldest son on “19 Kids and Counting?” Possibly.
Still, we have here a potential president who justifies a law on how doctors treat their abortion patients by citing what we know from watching TV and movies.
Seventeen months to go. Lord knows what’s next.
© 2015 New York Times News Service