Are Republicans Preparing To Moderate on Abortion?

‘Some Republicans are saying that abortion restrictions with no exceptions is their party’s version of defund the police.’

AP/Jose Luis Magana, file
Abortion-rights activists protest outside the Supreme Court June 25, 2022. AP/Jose Luis Magana, file

Cognizant of polling that suggests a possible electoral backlash in November, Republican leaders are beginning to back away from earlier hardline positions on abortion, even as leaders in the states go in the other direction.

In an interview with the Associated Press, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, said that Republicans can’t let Democrats continue to “control the narrative” on abortion and need to express support for exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

“I’m not going to speak about every candidate and where they’re at,” Ms. McDaniel said. “But the past four Republican presidents since Roe believe in the exception, and that is where I think a lot of the American people are — according to polling.”

Her use of the phrase “according to polling” suggests that GOP leaders are acutely aware of the political situation, with Ms. McDaniel acknowledging that there are limits on how far many Americans want to restrict abortion.

Surveys by Pew Research suggest that a vast majority of America supports abortion rights in cases of rape or incest and when the health of the mother is at stake. When asked plainly, most Americans — 61 percent — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37 percent believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances.

An associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Miles Coleman, suspects that Ms. McDaniel, conscious of public opinion, is trying to rally the party behind a more lenient position.

“McDaniel isn’t going to be able to control what every candidate says but she can work on perception,” he tells the Sun. “Some Republicans are saying that ‘abortion restrictions with no exceptions’ is our version of ‘defund the police.’”

Research by Pew has found that Americans generally support the right to an abortion earlier in a pregnancy, but that support wanes further along in a woman’s pregnancy.

An outright majority of Americans say they believe abortion should be generally legal up to six weeks. By the beginning of the third trimester, or about 24 weeks, however, most favor some sort of restrictions. The findings line up with those in a recent Wall Street Journal poll, which showed that about half of Americans slightly favor a ban on abortions beyond 15 weeks.

Those limits align pretty closely with the law of the land under Roe. Before it was overturned, Roe protected abortion rights up to the beginning of the third trimester at 24 weeks.

By urging Republicans to craft policies “according to polling,” Ms. McDaniel seems to be directing the conversation back to the sort of restrictions allowed under Roe.

The official Republican Party platform of 2016 called for Congress to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which woud have banned abortion after 20 weeks. The party did not update its platform before the 2020 election.

At the moment, many Republican candidates say they support an outright ban on abortion, and some 16 Republican-led states have banned or placed heavy restrictions on abortions since the Dobbs decision freed them to do so. An additional nine states have bans that are in litigation. 

Mr. Coleman says abortion’s comeback as a mainstream issue will likely reverberate past 2022, and that Republicans may suffer on Election Day because of their hard-line position on the topic.

The trouble the party finds itself in, however, is deeper than just the midterms. Abortion remains a potent issue for portions of the Republican base, and if the party looks to moderate its position it could alienate those voters.

“Its often hard to get Democrats together because they are a rowdier group, where on the Republican side their basic formula for the past few decades has been to say, ‘Cut taxes and restrict abortion,’” Mr. Coleman says. “If that starts to change in a post-Roe world, there might have to be some sort of reckoning.”

Mr. Coleman says conversations on where the party is going in terms of abortion policy, now that Roe is overturned, may threaten the stability of the party’s coalition, adding, “If you see abortion as murder, you’re not willing to give any ground.”

A political scientist at University of Georgia, Charles Bullock, believes some voters may have a hard time taking Republican attempts to moderate on the issue at face value given the strident views of the party’s anti-abortion diehards.

“An attempt to pivot may not convince Democrats and may not convince independents and secondly it may alienate some of the Republican base,” he tells the Sun. “What they may do is simply sit it out.”

For Democrats, abortion is an issue that catches the attention of otherwise depoliticized voters. Women have been registering to vote in droves in many states since the Dobbs decision, Mr. Bullock said.

“What they’re learning is is that there is a share of the electorate which may be up for grabs for which abortion is the biggest issue,” he said. “There’s evidence that suggests that most of the people registering to vote in some states are women and they’re registering to vote to send a message to Republicans.”

The New York Sun

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