For nearly 50 years, those of us who favor legal protection for children in the womb have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow abortion policy to be set through democratic debate. Now we’re having that debate, and strategists in both parties say we’re losing it.
We should be clear-eyed about the accumulating political evidence of public discontent with anti-abortion policies. Polling has shown an uptick in support for legal abortion since the court overturned Roe v. Wade. Democrats tell pollsters the issue is motivating their votes more than Republicans do. Republicans’ poll numbers have fallen overall. And voters in Kansas overwhelmingly defeated a referendum to let the state legislature increase restrictions on abortion.
Midterm elections typically go poorly for the party that holds the White House, likely in part because its supporters are complacent and its opponents aggrieved. The abortion decision, and the flurry of restrictions and proposed restrictions that followed it, have at least blunted the Republican advantage this year. On abortion, it’s the party out of power that is making controversial changes.
The debate has also focused on the issues where the public most favors legal abortion: on abortions early in pregnancy, on cases of threats to the mother’s life, on rape and incest. It’s not dwelling on the aspects of abortion that incline most people toward restrictions: whether it should be government funded, used for sex selection or allowed late in pregnancy.
Pro-lifers and Republicans should do what they can to change this focus, even before the elections are over. But that will require adjustments from two different groups. Passionate pro-lifers, in their impatience at what they recognize to be a grave injustice, are forgetting the need for patient persuasion of the public. Republicans who consider themselves pragmatists, on the other hand, are making a practical mistake in assuming that by not talking about their view of abortion, they can make the issue go away.
Both groups should converge on an approach that has served them well in the past: pro-life incrementalism.
Republicans should acknowledge that sustaining legal protections for unborn children requires a public consensus. They should declare that they will act to extend that protection where a consensus exists and try to build one where it doesn’t. In all but the bluest and reddest states, that should mean working in the near term to prohibit abortions late in pregnancy.
That’s not an abandonment of the goal of broader protections. It’s a step toward it — one that acknowledges the public isn’t there yet. The successful campaign for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, a federal law, should be a model. Pro-lifers convinced many Americans who do not agree with us about abortion in general to prohibit one method of abortion that seemed particularly inhumane. But we did not stop thinking and saying that other methods of abortion should be restricted as well.
There’s more that pro-life Republicans can and should do to reassure ambivalent voters. One is worth doing in its own right, apart from any electoral considerations: State governments that have enacted bans on abortion at various stages of pregnancy ought to be much more active in offering legal guidance to doctors and hospitals, clarifying that they can exercise their best judgment in protecting pregnant women from harms to their physical health.
Pro-lifers should also refrain from self-defeating rhetoric. Some pro-lifers have made a point of claiming that abortion is never medically necessary. That’s because they don’t consider ending an ectopic pregnancy, for example, as a “direct abortion” — an intentional taking of human life. That’s needlessly confusing, and pro-lifers should simply say they’re for an exception in such cases.
They should also broaden their agenda to include measures to aid parents of small children — such as the proposals of various Republican senators to expand the child tax credit and to finance paid leave.
Promoting a culture of life includes fostering the economic conditions that help it thrive.
As they correct course, though, Republicans need to maintain some perspective about the political challenge they face. The end of Roe was worth losing some congressional races. It is enabling an expansion of legal protection for unborn children this year, and will enable more in the future — especially if Republicans take the House, even narrowly, and so prevent Democrats from enacting a statutory version of Roe in the next Congress. Republican governors who have signed laws against abortion in battleground states such as Florida, Georgia, and Ohio are on track to win re-election.
For pro-lifers, the post-Roe debate is not going as well as it could. But it’s also just beginning.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editor of National Review. This column was provided by Tribune News Service.