Large majorities of Americans believe first-trimester abortions should be legal. But once pregnancy moves into the second trimester — that is, at 12 to 24 weeks — only 27% of Americans have a pro-choice position. These Gallup poll results mirror policy in most European nations, where abortion is legally restricted early in the second trimester.
For years now, anti-abortion activists in the United States have been trying to establish similar restrictions at 20 weeks’ gestation. Some scientists believe it is possible the prenatal child feels pain at that point, and a strong majority of women tell pollsters they prefer restricting abortion at 20 weeks, rather than the Supreme Court-determined 24 weeks. Legislation to that effect passed in the GOP-dominated House last week. But it is expected to die in the Senate.
Why would a bill that ought to be popular fail?
For starters, the current Democratic Party has been taken over by abortion extremism. The 2016 Democratic platform claims abortion is “core” to the “well-being” of all people. It calls for overturning state and federal laws limiting access to abortion, which is tantamount to saying abortion should be legal at any point in pregnancy for any reason, including because the prenatal child is female or may have a disability.
Only eight years ago, a quarter of the Democratic House caucus bucked pro-choice party leadership and voted for a pro-life amendment to Obamacare. The amendment spelled out that government-supported health insurance could not be used for abortions. But in the 2010 midterm backlash, Republicans and anti-abortion activists worked overtime to defeat even pro-life Democrats, paving the way for abortion extremists to dominate the party.
As long as anti-abortion legislation tanks, the GOP retains a wedge issue that can be used to appeal to pro-lifers.
In the Senate, just three Democrats are likely to vote in favor of a 20-week ban, and if those numbers hold, anti-abortion forces will fall short of the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster.
But Democrats alone won’t be to blame for the defeat of the abortion ban.
In a 2015 push for a 20-week ban, Republicans lacked consensus on parts of the bill and got weak-kneed at the last minute, drawing the ire of conservatives including Ross Douthat, Mollie Hemmingway and Erik Erikson. Tellingly, many Republicans simply wanted the issue to go away. “We’ve got several bigger issues coming up next week and beyond,” one House member told a National Journal reporter.
Republicans actually have a political incentive to simply let this bill and others like it fail. As long as anti-abortion legislation tanks, the GOP retains a wedge issue that can be used to appeal to pro-lifers with an all-too-predictable request: elect more Republicans.
And yet it isn’t clear what such Republicans, if elected, would do. We know they will try hard to replace Obamacare, which actually works against the pro-life cause by gutting social support for women most likely to have abortions and by returning pregnancy to a “preexisting condition.” Will they also work hard to pass abortion restrictions?
Anti-abortion groups who are not devoted to small-government principles argue that abortion restrictions should be paired with social support for pregnant women and their children. Creating a more robust safety net to help eliminate the need for abortion is not only the right thing to do, it would increase the chance that a handful of Democrats would break ranks and vote for a 20-week ban. If the GOP were to add such safety net provisions to the legislation, it would show the party’s willingness to go beyond lip service and pass abortion restrictions into law.
Another obstacle may be major GOP donors, along with Republican consultants, who tend to favor abortion rights. For instance, Republican bankroller David Koch describes himself as “a conservative on economic matters” but “a social liberal” on abortion. GOP elites put up with anti-abortion rhetoric in the party for strategic reasons, but they have little incentive to spend actual political capital on the cause.
Last week, the duplicity was made public. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) used very strong anti-abortion rhetoric over his eight terms in Congress. But as text messages published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette show, when he was worried his mistress might be pregnant, he pressured her to have an abortion. He also admitted the rhetoric was a lie; he “winced,” he told her, when he read staff-written messages on his Facebook page supporting the annual March for Life protest.
The weak commitment of the national Republican Party to the anti-abortion cause (state GOP efforts are a different story) is all out of proportion with the strong commitment most anti-abortion voters have to the national Republican Party.
Abortion, as pro-life feminists have argued for generations, is used in a patriarchal culture to keep its economic and other social arrangements safe, a status quo that doesn’t make it easy to have and care for children. Vulnerable pregnant women are very often left with the expectation that they will have an abortion. Abortion rights are necessary for privileged men to lead the consequence-free sexual lives they desire.
As a nation we should protect prenatal children with abortion restrictions, but we also have to dismantle and replace social structures that undergird the perceived need for abortion in the first place. Such a strategy, if effective, will be multi-pronged. But part of it will involve finding and supporting national candidates — of either party — who will faithfully put forward policies that choose both women and their prenatal children.
Charles C. Camosy is a board member of Democrats for Life and author of “Beyond the Abortion Wars.”
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