life after roe

Vulnerable Anti-abortion House Republicans Set a Trap for Themselves

Endangered California Republican congressman David Valadao. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

The fall of Roe v. Wade in June incensed the nation’s pro-choice majority, and now the backlash is threatening to dampen or even reverse the anticipated Republican wave in November’s midterm elections. Naturally, most GOP candidates would rather avoid talking about abortion at the moment, but their past statements and voting records tend to speak loudly. And now, a good number of Republicans are facing heat for their support of the Life at Conception Act, which was introduced in the House well before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision upended the political landscape.

The Life at Conception Act is a classic “personhood” bill treating every fetus, embryo, and fertilized ovum as just like me and you when it comes to fundamental rights. While the bill does say it does not “authorize the prosecution of any woman for the death of her unborn child,” there’s no exception to the “right to life” for pregnancies involving rape, incest, or even threats to the life of the mother. Most legal scholars believe “personhood” statutes could ban morning-after pills or the use of IUDs. The Life at Conception Act is not a constitutional amendment, but in the wide-open post-Dobbs legal landscape, it would set national policy at the federal level and presumably preempt any contrary state laws, codifying “fetal personhood.”

At the federal level, Democrats still have the votes to block enactment of most anti-abortion legislation. So ironically, the most imminent threat posed by the Life at Conception Act is to the careers of the Republicans who support it, particularly those from blue states. While citizens in Democrat-run states are still free to set their own more progressive abortion policies, that right would be swept away by the Life at Conception Act. In California, a recent poll showed registered voters favoring an abortion-rights constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in November by a 71-18 margin. Yet as the Los Angeles Times recently noted, three particularly vulnerable House Republicans from the Golden State cosponsored the Life at Conception Act:

The legislation was co-sponsored by more than half of California’s Republican congressional delegation — including three representatives who face highly competitive races in the November midterm elections: Reps. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach, Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita and David Valadao of Hanford.

Garcia and Valadao are in races rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, while Steel’s race “leans Republican.” A clear example of their extremism on an issue suddenly very important to voters could trip up all three of them, though as the Times reports, the Life at Conception Act wasn’t an aberration for any of them:

In the past, Steel, Garcia and Valadao have quietly backed an array of antiabortion efforts. All three signed onto a brief asking the Supreme Court to end federal protections for abortion and they each carry A+ ratings from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a politically powerful antiabortion group.

Valadao’s apparent strategy for dealing with this issue is to ignore questions about it (“The Valadao campaign did not respond to inquiries for this story,” said the Times). Steel is saying any discussions “surrounding a nationwide ban on abortion are purely hypothetical at this point,” which is only true if her party continues to be in the minority in Congress, a safeguard to which her defeat would materially contribute. Garcia has said abortion policy isn’t his problem: “If you are concerned over your abortion rights, call your state assemblyman or senator as the law now falls under the guidance of Sacramento.” But the whole point of the Life at Conception Act is to set policy in Washington for the whole country.

If these lawmakers admitted that they only cosponsored this radical legislation to prevent a primary challenge from their right, they could at least get some props for honesty. But barring that, they are wriggling on a hook they baited for themselves.

The Californians aren’t the only House Republicans who are likely regretting their cosponsorship of the Life at Conception Act. Steve Chabot of Ohio and Yvette Harrell of New Mexico are also in Cook “toss-up” races. Ted Budd of North Carolina, who is in a competitive Senate race, is another cosponsor of the bill. Beyond these sitting ducks are many Republican incumbents and challengers in 2022 congressional races who have taken extremist positions on abortion that they are trying to change or obscure.

Even if the backlash to Dobbs doesn’t save the House (or the Senate) for Democrats, it is certainly making anti-abortion extremism uncomfortable for Republicans. This could drive the party to curb its ambitions for limiting abortion rights at the national level. But for pro-choice voters, keeping Republicans out of office is the safer option.

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Anti-abortion House Republicans Set a Trap for Themselves