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A Second Look

The Most Lasting Damage of the Bush Era Was Not the Iraq War

While neoconservative foreign policy has crumbled, the pro-life project has succeeded—against long odds.

President George W. Bush holds a child after speaking about his veto of a stem cell research bill during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House on July 19, 2006.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President George W. Bush holds a child after speaking about his veto of a stem cell research bill during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House on July 19, 2006.

This week’s vote to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, wasn’t overwhelmingly lopsided, but it was startingly bipartisan given the times: Nineteen Republicans joined the Democrats to retire some of the deadliest pieces of legislation since the Civil War. (Though, in a reminder that we can never have it all, the 2001 AUMF remains in effect.)

The unwinding of the “war on terror” is not over, but I couldn’t help but think that if you had asked me in 2003 which terminally destructive policy Democrats and Republicans would find reasonable consensus on by 2023—American military foreign policy exploits or equitable access to reproductive care—I would have guessed wrong. Or rather, I would have assumed that if politicians were to become squeamish about bloodshed, perhaps that would apply to deaths at home as well as abroad.

The recent anniversary of the Iraq invasion has prompted vivid evocations of just how insanely bright-eyed American politicians were to embark on a bloody lark that, even then, had only the murkiest of actual goals. Mindless pro-war jingoism (flag pins! “Embedded” reporters!) only barely outpaced the punitive derision and silencing of anyone critical of the operation (MSNBC fired Phil Donahue! People stopped eating French cheese!). The boosters of the neoconservative project gained permanent places in the mild debates of television news that they’ve never really surrendered, as their patter about civility and American ideals have since morphed seamlessly into gormless “Never Trump” platitudes.

Still, I don’t feel foolish to have once imagined that the ambitions of the neocons were likelier sturdier than the fervid designs of the pro-life right. After all, scores of Democrats signed on to those AUMFs, proud participants in the culmination of the post-9/11 campaign to cow any dissent regarding the protection of “the homeland.” (Only now is that starting to sound creepy again.)

On the other hand, as hard as it to believe, optimists in the early 2000s could look at the political landscape and find the beginning of common ground in the abortion debate. Not only were there still enough pro-choice Republicans to sustain two whole (if modest) political action committees, the most controversial act of Bush’s presidency on the night of September 10, 2001, was his August 9, 2001, rollout of a federal stem cell research funding policy that everyone hated. Pro-life groups carped that he had given in on the principle of funding stem cell research at all; researchers pointed out that by limiting the research to existing lines, he hadn’t done much good. Moderate Republicans in the House and Senate joined with Democrats in passing bills that attempted to expand the guidelines despite Bush’s promise to veto any further funding.

Had funding for embryonic research been expanded, history might be different. The argument by nominally pro-life politicians who supported stem cell research (including Bill Frist, Orrin Hatch, and Nancy Reagan) was that the harm of destroying the unimplanted embryos developed in vitro was outweighed by the potential benefit to the humans walking around in the world. But the right no longer recognizes that kind of moral calculus, and the legal framework to undermine it emerged at the same time, pushed forward by the same people who seemed so reasonable about stem cell research. 

The pitiless tragedy of his two pointless wars (along with the financial crash that capped off his reign) may have pushed this from our memories, but Bush’s first violent incursion was an assault on the logic of bodily autonomy. In his first term, he signed a flurry of bills into law with tactically gruesome names—the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” and the “Partial Birth Abortion Act”—which, for the first time, enshrined in federal law the legal rights of fertilized eggs and fetuses as deserving federal protection against violence independent of the person carrying them.

Democrats lent support for these measures, seduced into building the foundations of the Dobbs decision by simplistic naming schemes that projected objectors to be outside acceptable norms—not unlike how many found themselves cheering on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I have no doubt there’s a few dissertations’ worth of argument about exactly why political consensus around the war and consensus around bodily autonomy had such disparate trajectories. Ultimately, it just seems like stories about dead soldiers and the constantly shifting foreign policy objectives that doomed them have an effect that stories about desperate women and an advancing medical dystopia don’t.

For fans of American military bluster, the fantasy of the Iraq adventure ran up against the reality of broken bodies and wasted billions a few years into the project, spelled out by the media with a remarkable lack of self-awareness and institutional memory. Democrats quickly and Republicans with less haste recognized over time the human and material cost of their decision and changed their position accordingly.

That’s just not how it’s gone with the hellscape created by shrinking access to reproductive care. I’m sure that’s in part because the catastrophe has happened in ways and to people that allowed potentially persuadable Republicans and, let’s face it, most Democrats and the chattering class to ignore it. Roe fell in America not with the Dobbs decision but in stages, beginning with the most vulnerable Americans, until the curtain finally fell on everyone else.

Only today are we seeing the kind of headlines—equally lurid and heartbreaking—that corroded support for the “war on terror.” A child forced to travel out of state to end a pregnancy that began in rape. People forced into life-threatening miscarriages by laws that hamper a doctor’s ability to administer proper care. Even on the macro level, the horror is inescapable: Giving birth in a state with an abortion ban means you are three times more likely to die.

The truth of forced-birth policies has prompted a handful of notable defections from erstwhile anti-choice figures, like the South Carolina state representative who tearfully recanted his vote for the state’s “fetal heartbeat” bill after being informed about a 19-year-old girl’s particularly harrowing outcome: “That whole week I did not sleep.… What we do matters.” Our intolerable situation forces us to welcome such witless dolts to our side.

In the short term, however, the authors of today’s circumstances meet horror stories with some version of “That’s not what we intended.” They are lying. If they didn’t intend for children or rape survivors to have to give birth, there would be more than three states with that carve-out. If they didn’t want to hamstring doctors’ ability to treat pregnant people before their lives were in danger, that would be part of the law. If they believed traveling to another state for care was a good enough solution, they wouldn’t be trying to ban it. If they valued the lives of women at all, these laws wouldn’t exist. The reason we’re not in Iraq and Afghanistan anymore is that politicians couldn’t stomach being responsible for that big a mistake. The reason women are suffering and dying from a lack of access to health care is because the people responsible don’t think they’ve made a mistake at all.