Even the Republicans are telling the presidential candidates to rein in their anti-repro-rights stance. But who will that hurt in the end?
It’s bad. Really bad. It’s “National Review thinks maybe you should dial it down a notch before you lose the White House” bad.
Yes, the Republican presidential contenders officially have an abortion problem.
It started to be clear that this wasn’t a passing issue during the Fox debate, when Florida Senator Marco Rubio was furious that moderator Megyn Kelly inferred that he didn’t oppose abortion in the case where a person became pregnant as a result of a sexual assault. “I have never said that,” he retorted. “And I have never advocated that. What I have advocated is that we pass a law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection.”
Rubio’s rebuttal was a necessary move to play catchup with rivals like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who earlier in the debate alluded that abortion is never necessary to save a pregnant person’s life, so there is no need to allow that as an exception to future laws, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who demanded a “personhood” law that would codify “that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”
The statements were red meat for a grassroots eager to nominate a strong social conservative, convinced that was their weakness in 2012. But the general voting public found the battle for the most extreme anti-abortion position in the GOP far more alarming, and it has only gotten worse since the candidates stepped off the stage. Rubio went to the absurd trying to reiterate his “pro-life” cred, releasing a bizarre “a human life cannot turn into a cat” petition that drew headlines more than it drew supporters, while Huckabee made the news by declaring that 10-year-old rape victims should be forced to carry to term because it compounds tragedy to “take the life of an innocent child.” (Apparently the 10-year-old’s life was less “innocent”?)
The extreme religious right is, no doubt, loving the fanatical embrace of one of their favorite issues. However, those who are actually focused on trying to get a Republican into the White House are slightly less thrilled by this turn of events. Instead, they would like the candidates to play a little coyer about their intentions to ban all abortion in every case regardless of the circumstance—at least until the election is over.
“It would be perfectly honorable for that candidate to say next that restricting abortion in that case is not part of his agenda—because in no serious sense is it part of any Republican’s agenda; and to say that by the end of his presidency abortion will be just as available in cases of rape as it is today—because that is true. Further questions could then reasonably be dismissed,” writes the conservative outlet National Review online. “Even candidates who, like Rubio and Walker, have volunteered statements about their far-off ideals on abortion policy would be well advised to begin emphasizing just how far off they are. They should, that is, note that banning abortion in the case of rape would be a 50-year task of persuasion and not the work of a presidency. They should explain that their goal is to build a consensus on life, starting with the issues where the public supports life.”
To address how urgently conservatives need to begin redirecting this discussion, the editors conclude that “a good time to adopt this approach would be now.”
The fact that NRO is now offering advice to presidential candidates imploring them to refrain from debating the merits of forcing a pregnant rape survivor to give birth against her will shows how unprepared Republicans still are when it comes to navigating rape exceptions. That’s quite surprising considering the party has literally invested the last two and a half years preparing for this exact subject. After losing two easy senate seats in 2012 because Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock botched this same topic, groups like Susan B. Anthony List dedicated massive resources to training candidates on exactly how to properly answer, “Should a rape victim be forced to give birth?” The advice? Redirect the discussion.
Earlier in the campaign, their strategy seemed successful. Back when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul actually looked like a presidential front-runner, he made a splash by turning the tables on a reporter who asked him about whether he would allow any exceptions to an abortion ban if he were president. Rather than answer the question, he bristled and demanded that reporters instead ask Democrats “Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus?”
Now that the primary fight is on, though, GOP candidates have nowhere to deflect the questions and instead are left with two options: reject exceptions and have a shot winning the endorsement, or embrace them and have shot winning the general. Ironically, it is Donald Trump who appears to have navigated that process the best, perhaps knowing he alone doesn’t need a primary win in order to make it to the general election.
Talking to Meet the Press, Trump clearly understands that abortion extremism won’t get him the White House. “Well, to me, I have exceptions. Rape, incest, if the mother is going to die,” he said. “And Ronald Reagan had those same exceptions. And many Republicans have those same exceptions.” Trump isn’t the only one taking the advice to move more mainstream, either. Long shot Ohio Governor John Kasich made the same statement on CNN State of the Union, as well.
Then there is Dr. Ben Carson, who has the complicated role of being both the only actual medical professional in the race, yet also appears to have little idea of how human bodies work. Attempting to soften his own abortion stance last week, he advocated allowing sexual-assault survivors to have access to “RU-486 in hospitals” as long as it is taken “before a fetus develops,” but still declared that life begins at conception—a rather muddled series of policy statements that completely and totally contradict one another every step of the way. (Obviously, a fetus would have had to develop, as RU-486 can only work on established pregnancies.)
Carson’s contradictory approach to the issue shows exactly how desperate presidential candidates are to have it both ways: to keep the support of the far-right voters most likely to vote in the primaries, yet still not alienate the moderate general election voters they’ll need to win in November. While Carson appears unable to find the right footing, other contenders may have more luck, likely by employing the exact same dodge and deny tactic being promoted by NRO.
If one of those candidates happens to make it into the Oval Office, though? Expect that “moderate” face to completely disappear, and the “force a 10-year-old rape victim to give birth” stance to return.
After all, as they keep showing us, they really don’t want any exceptions at all. They just know they can’t win the election that way.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. You can help by supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism. Because it matters who covers the news. And it matters who covers women’s issues in the news. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.