In the year the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, one of the most emotionally charged issues in the country has been defined by two seemingly contradictory political realities.
In competitive general elections, abortion rights have emerged as a major electoral asset for Democrats and, often, a clear liability for Republicans: Americans tell record levels who advocate at least some access to the procedure, and the issue has fueled Democratic victories across the nation.
At the same time, Republican-dominated state legislatures moved quickly to restrict or outright ban abortion access. Activists are demanding that GOP presidential candidates make a firm commitment to federal restrictions and are urging ever-wider legislation in states.
This headlong into risky territory for the national Republican Party — and the extraordinary backlash against some of these measures — represents the lasting political fallout from the Supreme Court decision, which turned a 50-year partisan stalemate.
Anti-abortion activists and some Republican strategists applaud the approach of many state lawmakers, arguing that voters expect their lawmakers to commit to one of the core tenets of the conservative movement.
« If you can, you must, » said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the leading anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. « Not to do so would, politically, be a disaster for the pro-life voters who put them in office. »
But as the anniversary of Dobbs’ decision to topple Roe comes on Saturday, interviews with more than a dozen Republican lawmakers, strategists and anti-abortion activists paint a portrait of a party that is still struggling to find a consensus on state policy. abortion and grappling with how to energize grassroots voters on the issue without alienating swing voters.
Many observers see the wave of new restrictions, which vary in gestational limit and exceptions and have sometimes been withheld in court, as a function of several factors: years of promises and repressed right-wing energies; deeply held beliefs about when life begins; and gerrymandering that has often left Republican lawmakers more concerned about far-right primary challenges than shutting out moderate voters in the general election.
But for a critical slice of Republicans — those representing competitive districts in state legislatures or Congress, supporting some degree of abortion rights, or, in some cases, presidential candidates — the issue presents a particularly difficult balancing act.
Their decisions and calculations are at the heart of the tensions over the abortion debate within the Republican Party in the post-Roe era.
“I listened strongly to both sides,” said Florida State Representative Mike Caruso, a Republican who opposed a measure — eventually signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. with few exceptions. « It was basically an abortion ban. »
« I have seven kids, I’ve been through nine pregnancies, » she added. « I don’t think I ever knew, we never knew, that we were pregnant before six weeks. »
But, demonstrating the widely differing views on the issue within the party, Florida State Representative Mike Beltran said that while he voted for the measure, « frankly, I don’t think it goes far enough. »
« All of these bills were huge compromises, » said Beltran, who said he personally opposed abortion rights without exception, suggesting that if a mother’s life was in danger, barring ectopic pregnancies, the answer could often be to give birth to the fetus, even after months prematurely. « We should suffer electoral consequences if we don’t do what we said we would do. »
Anti-abortion activists and lawmakers have forcefully presented a version of that argument to Republican candidates, sometimes citing polls to show lawmakers what they believe voters in a particular state will accept. (Some of these polls are commissioned by abortion opponents, and their conclusions may be in contrast to public polls.)
« It’s a key issue for Republicans to protect life, » said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition. She has backed the state’s new ban on most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, though she wants restrictions that go much further, calling a six-week ban « step two. »
« A candidate needs pro-life voters to win, » he added.
In an interview this month, Susan B. Anthony’s Ms. Dannenfelser urged candidates to be « very clear about what it means to be ambitious for life » as she sought to spark disagreements with Democrats on the issue, warning of the risks of being defined on the other side.
This isn’t a « theoretical moment of messaging, » he said. « This is real life. »
In the presidential race, however, some of the candidates have tried to avoid questions about which national restrictions they would support. Contenders Included former President Donald J. Trump — who helped bolster the Supreme Court justices who made Roe’s overthrow possible — has indicated that they think the issue should be resolved by states, though Trump too has been vague about the question.
“Their hesitation to communicate was frustrating,” Ms Dannenfelser said, referring extensively to the camp. But the debate stage, she said, « will be where the rubber meets the road, and our bright red line says you have to have a 15-week limit or better or we can’t support you. »
However, when Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina proposed a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with a few exceptions last year, it ignited immediate resistance from several fellow Republicans, evidence that some in the party see a danger politician in a national ban.
A Gallup poll released last week found that a record 69% of Americans, including 47% of Republicans, believed abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy.
« That just makes me wonder if maybe there’s room for nuance within the party, » said Lydia Saad, director of US social research at Gallup. « But nuance generally doesn’t have much success in politics. »
In some states, Republican lawmakers have rolled out bans with some exceptions starting after 12 weeks, towards end of the first quarter, as something in between. And from Nebraska to South Carolina, there have been lawmakers who have actually said they can’t support a six-week ban, but have indicated they’re more comfortable with 12 weeks, even as those proposals have drawn condemnation from some in the US. local business e medical communities.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the 12-week ban. He and other abortion-rights advocates have warned that the measure would interfere with critical medical decisions and create dangerous barriers for women seeking an abortion.
State Representative Ted Davis Jr., a Republican, indicated during his campaign last year that claimed state law that allows abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. When the state legislature adopted the 12-week measure, he jumped The vote.
But citing factors including loyalty to his caucus, frustration with the other side and voters who, he said, seemed divided over overriding the veto, he eventually joined fellow republicans to override the veto, helping to make the most restrictive measure prevail.
However, he tried to draw a distinction between the two votes.
“What worries me is what will happen in the future with regards to access to abortion,” she said. « Will the Republicans now try to limit it further? »
Other lawmakers have tried to punish women who seek abortions, or those that help them. Some Republican South Carolina lawmakers have moved – without success — treat abortion at any stage of pregnancy as homicide, which can carry the death penalty.
That measure would have given « more rights to a rapist than to a woman who was raped, » said Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina who switched seats from a Democrat in 2020. « That’s where the conversation ended « .
« They listen to some of the extreme voices, and they operate and vote and legislate out of fear, » he said. “They don’t hear from the rest of the electorate, 95 percent of people who vote in elections. They’re listening to the 5 percent who say, ‘You’re not a Republican if you don’t want to ban abortions without exception.’”
Even in her conservative state, there were pockets of Republican resistance to efforts to pass a near-total ban on abortion. A six-week ban was passed by lawmakers but is now stuck in court.
« I’ll probably draw a lead challenger, » admitted state senator Katrina Shealy, who opposed that measure, with its many requirements for women seeking abortions. She already has been censored by a local Republican county party.
Some on the far right, he suggested, “don’t want people wearing masks. They don’t want people to get vaccines. »
They believe, she said, that “they should have full rights, but not let women make that decision. And this is not right.