Sep 14, 2022 - Health

Republicans' rocky attempt to change the abortion narrative

Illustration of the GOP logo with animated typing ellipses, as if the elephant is thinking.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Sen. Lindsey Graham's 15-week abortion ban appears to be a political gift to Democrats less than two months before the midterm elections, but it syncs with nearly half of Americans' views on when the procedure should be legal.

The big picture: Elections aren't won on nuance, and most nationally-elected Republicans have gone silent on the subject in the final stretch of the campaign. In the long run, however, abortion politics will likely pivot around which party can most successfully brand the other side as extreme.

Driving the news: Graham on Tuesday introduced a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy that would allow for exemptions in cases of rape or if the mother's life is in danger.

  • On the House side, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has a companion bill that's drawn more than 80 co-sponsors.
  • Neither has a chance of passing in a Democratic-controlled Congress. But Graham said a 15-week ban "would put us in line with the science in the civilized world," adding, "If we take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we'll have a vote on our bill."

State of play: Republicans are desperate to stop talking about whether rape victims or cancer patients should be able to get abortions, and are well aware that the Supreme Court's decision to overrule the federal right to abortion is not playing well for them heading into the midterms.

  • If you squint your eyes, Graham's bill can be read as a more moderate alternative to the blanket bans currently in effect in red states across the country, though it would allow those state laws to stand.
  • It's certainly a contrast to what Democrats have proposed — a prohibition on states banning abortion before viability — which Graham said the bill is a response to.
  • "Should we look like Iran and North Korea when it comes to national abortion policy or maybe France, Belgium, Spain, Denmark and Norway?" he said, noting the 15-week criteria is in line with those in Europe and other developed nations. "If you vote with the Democrats, we'll look more like Syria and North Korea and Iran."

Yes, but: If Graham's intent was to cast a 15-week federal ban as a moderate abortion policy, the rollout didn't go quite as planned. Democrats quickly blasted out statements condemning the legislation and many prominent Republicans distanced themselves from it.

  • "Extreme MAGA Republicans are gleefully charging ahead with their deadly crusade to punish and control women’s health decisions," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that most Senate Republicans believe abortion access should be kept "at the state level," while Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that "Republicans are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to explain why they want nationwide abortion bans when they said they'd leave it up to the states."
  • Brendan Buck, a long-time aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, called Graham "unbelievably selfish," accusing him of "trying to score points with the culture war crowd at the expense of possibly blowing the Senate. Must love the minority."

By the numbers: Public support for the right to abortion drops off the later the procedure is performed in a pregnancy.

  • Two-thirds of Americans think abortions should be legal in all or most cases in the first trimester, according to AP-NORC polling from July. Support falls to 42% in the second trimester and to 24% in the third trimester.
  • When asked specifically whether states should allow pregnant people to obtain an abortion 15 weeks into the pregnancy, 53% said yes.
  • "The fight now is for people who don't want to ban all abortions but aren't comfortable with late-term abortion," a former chief of staff to an anti-abortion Republican member told Axios. Graham "is trying to define late term as 15 weeks."

Between the lines: The legislation serves as a reminder of how fast the abortion landscape has shifted.

  • Graham last year introduced a 20-week nationwide abortion limit that had 45 Republican cosponsors, including McConnell. Contrast that to now: Republicans in red states have enacted full bans with few exceptions, making a 15-week limit look like a compromise.
  • Anti-abortion groups initially urged lawmakers to introduce a more sweeping federal ban, but momentum for such a bill has waned, and widely it's viewed as politically unpalatable.

What we're watching: If Republicans take control of either chamber of Congress next year, they will undoubtedly have to vote on some kind of abortion ban or restriction. The question is whether Graham is putting out a realistic marker.

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