Republicans are squabbling over policy and messaging surrounding abortion amid mounting evidence that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is hurting the GOP ahead of midterms.
Most Republicans supported overturning Roe v. Wade, and the number of pro-abortion rights Republicans in Congress is dwindling. But GOP lawmakers disagree on the next move to make, and many think legislation calling for strict bans on abortion will only compound their problems.
Legislation introduced this week to impose a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks of gestation, with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, highlighted fissures in the party over the issue.
Many party members would prefer to steer the national conversation toward soaring inflation and an economy that could be headed toward a recession rather than abortion restrictions 50 days before the midterms.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said that while he has supported a 15-week ban in Nebraska, he had heard pushback to the federal bill for taking the focus away from economic issues — an argument where Republicans have seen success.
“The average family has had a pay raise of 4 percent, but yet inflation for food is, like, 13 percent. That’s what we should be talking about. So that’s probably the main pushback,” Bacon said.
It is unlikely that any major anti-abortion legislation could make it out of the next Congress because of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) led the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act” in the Senate, and a House version was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a decades-long advocate against abortion.
When asked about critics who say that the height of the midterm season is the wrong time to introduce this kind of bill, Smith said: “There’s never the right time.”
“It is the time to draw a contrast,” Smith added, to Democratic legislation that he said would “eviscerate every modest pro-life policy enacted over 50 years — women’s right to know laws, waiting periods, parental notification statutes.”
Graham also argued in a press conference on Tuesday that the bill offered an alternative to Democratic legislation to codify abortion rights that he said went too far.
A core part of the GOP response to Roe v. Wade’s fall is trying to redirect attention on Democrats and paint them as having extreme positions on abortion.
“Go on offense, explain how it is your opponent who has no exceptions to their abortion position,” it advised.
But not all Republicans agree with taking federal action on abortion, which can put the GOP back on the defense. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threw cold water on Graham’s bill, saying that “most of the members of my conference prefer this be dealt with at the state level.”
Yet, some anti-abortion advocates saw Graham’s bill as a middle ground Republicans could rally around, taking the focus away from Republican-led states that have near-total bans and make little exceptions.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who has been vocal in supporting such exceptions due in part to her own experience with sexual assault, said that she appreciated the exceptions in the bill. But she took issue with some of the details.
The bill requires that abortions on minors past 15 weeks could only be performed if the rape had been reported to a government agency authorized to act on reports of child abuse, or law enforcement agency.
“That gives me some heartburn, because one of the reasons that women don’t come forward with this abuse and the sexual trauma and sexual assault and rape that they’ve been through, is because of what happens when people find out the way that they’re attacked for it,” Mace said.
“And I know this firsthand, because when I told my story, you should have seen the way that people commented about, the way that I was treated by even my own colleagues in the state legislature. It was disgusting.”
Pushback to the bill has also come from the political right. Staunch conservatives have said that they are unwilling appear as if they’re compromising on their anti-abortion stance.
“If you’re a representative for a district in a state that has more restrictive abortion laws than 15 weeks, you wouldn’t be for that,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.).
Smith, the lead sponsor of the House bill, said concerns from colleagues that the bill might override stricter abortion bans in states are a misconception. He stressed that is not the case.
While it would preempt abortion rights laws in states like New York and California, it would not override Ohio’s 6-week ban or near-total bans in other states.
“There are at least 55,000 abortions every year at 15 weeks or beyond. And that is a huge loss of life,” Smith said.
The 15-week bill is an updated version of 20-week abortion ban legislation that previously passed in Republican-controlled Houses in 2013, 2015 and 2017. But House GOP leaders have declined to commit to bring up the 15-week abortion ban legislation if they win the majority.
Smith said that the debate of how to move forward on anti-abortion legislation is healthy.
“There’s always people who don’t know what is the right thing to do, and that’s as healthy as it could be. I think we need to have more conference meetings, you know, so we’re all on the same page,” Smith said. “But Dobbs has been [the] engraved invitation to protect life.”