Opinion | The Abortion Ban Backlash Is Starting to Freak Out Republicans

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By Michelle Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

After the Republican Party’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterms, fueled in large part by a backlash to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Republican National Committee recommitted itself to anti-abortion maximalism.

A resolution adopted at the R.N.C.’s winter meeting in January urges Republican lawmakers “to pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible.” Addressing their party’s poor showing in November, it said that Republicans hadn’t been aggressive enough in defending anti-abortion values, urging them to “go on offense in the 2024 election cycle.”

The 11-point loss of the Republican-aligned candidate in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election on Tuesday has influential conservatives rethinking this 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.”

But having made the criminalization of abortion a central axis of their political project for decades, Republicans have no obvious way out of their electoral predicament. A decisive majority of Americans — 64 percent, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey — believe that abortion should be legal in most cases. A decisive majority of Republicans — 63 percent, according to the same survey — believe that it should not. When abortion bans were merely theoretical, anti-abortion passion was often a boon to Republicans, powering the grass-roots organizing of the religious right. Now that the end of Roe has awakened a previously complacent pro-choice majority, anti-abortion passion has become a liability, but the Republican Party can’t jettison it without tearing itself apart.

The reason voters think Republicans support full abortion bans, as Schweppe wrote, is that many of them do.

In the last Congress, 167 House Republicans co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, conferring full personhood rights on fertilized eggs. In state after state, lawmakers are doing just what the R.N.C. suggested and using every means at their disposal to force people to continue unwanted or unviable pregnancies. Idaho, where almost all abortions are illegal, just passed an “abortion trafficking” law that would make helping a minor leave the state to get an abortion without parental consent punishable by five years in prison. The Texas Senate just passed a bill that, among other things, is intended to force prosecutors in left-leaning cities to pursue abortion law violations. South Carolina Republicans have proposed a law defining abortion as murder, making it punishable by the death penalty.

In Florida, which already has a 15-week abortion ban, Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to soon sign a law banning almost all abortions at six weeks. This isn’t something Florida voters want — polls show a majority of them support abortion rights — but it’s a virtual prerequisite for his likely presidential campaign.

Republican attempts to moderate abortion prohibitions even slightly have, for the most part, gone nowhere. Last year, the Idaho’s Republican Party defeated an amendment to the party’s platform allowing for an exception to the state’s abortion ban to save a woman’s life. In the weeks before the Wisconsin election on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill providing some narrow exceptions to the state’s abortion prohibition for cases of rape, incest and grave threats to a pregnant person’s health, but they lacked the votes in their own party to pass it.

It’s true that this week Tennessee’s Legislature passed a bill permitting abortion to save a patient’s life or prevent “serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” But the legislation is meaningless to the point of perversity, since it places the burden of proof on doctors rather than on the state, so that they must still fear prosecution for treating pregnant people in severe medical distress. Language that would allow women to end “medically futile pregnancies” was stripped out.

It’s not surprising that voters have reacted with revulsion to being stripped of rights they’d long taken for granted, and to seeing the health of pregnant women treated so cavalierly. But the backlash seems to have caught Republicans off guard. Last May, when the Supreme Court’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked, Coulter assured her readers that the end of Roe wouldn’t help Democrats. “Outside of the media, no one seems especially bothered by the decision,” she wrote.

Part of what happened here is that conservatives fell for their own propaganda about representing “normal” Americans. (This, incidentally, is the same reason many on the right can’t admit to themselves that Donald Trump lost in 2020.) Coulter was sure Americans would be turned off by those outraged by the end of Roe, writing, “Everybody hates the feminists.” When a poll last year showed that 55 percent of Americans identified as pro-choice, a piece in National Review told readers not to worry: “Many of our policy goals enjoy strong public support.”

Untethered to actual Republican voters, Coulter was able to pivot, but the Republican Party cannot. Instead, its leaders are adopting a self-soothing tactic sometimes seen on the left, insisting they’re being defeated because they’ve failed to make their values clear, not because their values are unpopular. “When you’re losing by 10 points, there is a messaging issue,” the Republican Party chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, said on Fox News, explaining the loss in Wisconsin.

But you can’t message away forced birth. Republicans’ political problem is twofold. Their supporters take the party’s position on abortion seriously, and now, post-Roe, so does everyone else.

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