For all the rhetorical back-and-forth and gestures toward a hypothetical “center” of public opinion on the subject, abortion policy has increasingly become a topic on which the two parties are entirely polarized. That was shown again today when the U.S. House voted for the third time on a 20-week national abortion ban with few exceptions and penalties for providers.
This legislation plainly contradicted existing constitutional law and the consensus of scientists about “fetal pain,” and aimed at mobilizing concerns over rare late-term abortions to undermine the legality of early-term abortions. Yet only two — that’s right, two — House Republicans voted against it (Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania; Dent is not running for reelection). Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, despite today’s allegations (which he has yet to deny) that he encouraged an extramarital lover to have an abortion, voted for the ban. Only three Democrats (Henry Cuellar of Texas, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, and Collin Peterson of Minnesota) voted for the ban.
This polarization is not new, but it is, if possible, intensifying. The 20-week ban has now been voted on in the House three times. In 2013, six Republicans voted against it and six Democrats voted for it. In 2015, four Republicans voted against it and four Democrats voted for it.
In 2015, when the Senate voted unsuccessfully to end a filibuster of a very similar bill, three Democrats (Bob Casey, Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin) voted “yea” and two Republicans (Susan Collins and Mark Kirk) voted “nay.” Lisa Murkowski, usually thought of as pro-choice, did not vote.
The GOP Senate leadership may bring the bill back up for a doomed cloture vote this year, too, and if so the vote will likely be almost identical to its 2015 predecessor (aside from the absence of Mark Kirk, who was defeated in 2016). But it has gotten to the point when the particulars of this or that abortion legislation hardly matter except on the margins. Democrats are the pro-choice party and Republicans are the anti-abortion party. All these symbolic votes on anti-abortion legislation are symbolic so long as there are more than 40 pro-choice senators. And the big question, particularly now that the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations has been “nuked,” is whether Donald Trump will get a second SCOTUS pick while Republicans still control the Senate.
For voters who consider abortion rights non-negotiable, the 2018 Senate elections, and the polarization of the two parties on this issue, should be kept in mind constantly for the immediate future. It’s not going to change.