life after roe

Beware Phony Republican ‘Moderation’ on Abortion

Not taking the most extreme position imaginable on abortion shouldn’t entitle Republicans to any claims of “moderation.” Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images/\

Fearful discomfort among Republicans about their vulnerability to a backlash to the reversal of Roe v. Wade has been high ever since the issue was broadly credited with spoiling a much-expected GOP midterm landslide in 2022. But it may reach full panic mode following a landslide progressive win in Wisconsin’s April 4 Supreme Court contest after an insanely expensive campaign wherein Judge Janet Protasiewicz emphasized her support for abortion rights. As veteran Wisconsin political observer Charlie Sykes notes, it’s beginning to sink in that the GOP is simply mispositioned on an issue that aligns Democratic base voters with crucial swing voters:

Republicans in Wisconsin are waking up to the fact that their electoral misfortunes are likely to get worse. “As long as abortion is an issue,” one Republican legislator told me, “we won’t ever win another statewide election.”

It’s not like Wisconsin Republicans went into this latest shellacking with their eyes closed. When Roe was reversed, a total abortion ban enacted in 1849 was on the books and sprang to life. As Sykes observed, Wisconsin Republican legislative leaders tried to soften the wildly unpopular law:

[B]efore the election, leaders of the state assembly tried to craft a bill that would have amended the state’s 1849 abortion ban by including exemptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. But Pro-Life Wisconsin lobbied against the bill, declaring that any legislation that allows abortions “is incapable of being justified.”

This sort of intra-Republican argument over how far to go in banning abortion now that it’s no longer protected by the U.S. Constitution is occurring all over the country, and Democrats are fully taking advantage of how often the hard-liners are prevailing, especially in states like Oklahoma and Tennessee where Republicans are reluctant to concede life-of-the-mother exceptions to a total ban. But there’s another pitfall in the spotlight being shone on the most extreme GOP-backed laws. Republicans may seek to rebrand themselves as “moderate” on abortion by embracing minimal exceptions to draconian bans.

As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reminds us, Republican opinion-leaders are already sending plenty of signals urging such phony abortion “moderation:”

The 11-point loss of the Republican-aligned candidate in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election on Tuesday has influential conservatives rethinking [their] strategy. “Republicans had better get their abortion position straight, and more in line with where voters are, or they will face another disappointment in 2024,” said a Wall Street Journal editorial. Ann Coulter tweeted, “The demand for anti-abortion legislation just cost Republicans another crucial race,” and added, “Please stop pushing strict limits on abortion, or there will be no Republicans left.” Jon Schweppe, policy director of the socially conservative American Principles Project, lamented, “We are getting killed by indie voters who think we support full bans with no exceptions.”

As it happens, this is precisely the same strategic advice that was given to Republicans after their 2022 underperformance by none other than Donald J. Trump in a year-end Truth Social post:

It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the MidTerms. I was 233-20! It was the “abortion issue,” poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters.

This earned Trump a lot of grief from his erstwhile allies in the anti-abortion movement. But as the evidence mounts that Republican extremism on abortion could be a party-killer in 2024, you can expect more and more GOP politicians to distance themselves from no-exception bans. The anti-abortion movement itself may follow suit — just as it did during the long reign of Roe v. Wade, as Elaine Godfrey noted last year:

President Ronald Reagan detested abortion but endorsed exceptions for rape in the 1980s; George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump all also indicated their support for the measures. The National Right to Life Committee supported legislation that included exceptions in the 1990s. Even the Hyde Amendment, the federal law that prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, has long contained these exceptions.

If Republicans fearing electoral disaster make a tiny strategic retreat back to the position of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump on abortion, it’s important that pro-choice Republicans (what’s left of them), Democrats, and, most of all, a credulous news media make it clear this doesn’t amount to moderation in any significant way. According to the Guttmacher Institute, less than 1.5 percent of abortions occur in cases of a pregnancy caused by rape or incest. There’s less data on abortions required to save the life of the mother (an estimated 600 women a year died from problematic pregnancies even prior to the abolition of abortion rights), since until recently almost no one challenged saving one’s life as a legitimate ground for the procedure.

Suffice it to say that such narrow exceptions to total or near-total bans would still leave the vast majority of abortions illegal while eliminating any idea that women, rather than legislatures, should decide when to bear children. In addition, Republican legislators have become adept at designing exceptions that place heavy burdens on women to prove they are entitled to a rare legal abortion.

Yet we are already beginning to see media accounts like this Associated Press story on a Kentucky GOP gubernatorial candidate buying into the idea that abortion bans with minuscule exceptions represent a big moderate turn for the party:

On the debate stage for the first time as a statewide candidate in the Kentucky governor’s race, a small-town mayor stood out for his stands on abortion and other issues that could draw in centrist voters, even as leading rivals veered to the right … Trailing his main GOP rivals in fundraising and name recognition, the debate gave [Alan] Keck an opportunity to introduce himself to a broader audience. He alone voiced support for adding exceptions to Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban to allow for terminating pregnancies in cases of rape or incest …

“The most interesting thing that happened in the debate was Keck plotting out a moderate lane for himself,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political commentator.

If Republicans truly want to display “moderation” on abortion, they can squarely oppose six-week “heartbeat” laws (like the one Ron DeSantis is clearly about to sign in Florida) that ban abortions at a stage of pregnancy when many women don’t even know they are pregnant, or better yet, swear off prospective federal bans and end the forced-birth crusade in GOP-run states altogether. Symbolic gestures of reasonableness that hide abiding hostility to reproductive rights shouldn’t buy Republicans anything other than contempt for their cynicism.

Beware Phony Republican ‘Moderation’ on Abortion