Extreme anti-abortion legislation was red meat to power the base. But the GOP is now realizing that without abortion, they have little to drive their constituents to the polls.
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If there is one thing that we can take away from the disastrous 2016 presidential election, it is that abortion continues to be one of the Right’s most effective, indispensable tools to retain political power. Yes, racism and misogyny drew in a core of voters eager to see Donald Trump in the White House, but abortion—specifically, the idea that Trump would appoint. Supreme Court justices that would restrict legal abortion, whereas a Hillary Clinton appointee would have permanently expanded abortion rights—pulled out voters in the states necessary to win the electoral college and hand the GOP a victory. Abortion brought evangelicals out in droves, and abortion pushed Catholics to hold their noses and check the Trump box, even when they were questioning their faith in the candidate and his fitness for office.
So what happens to the Republican Party once legal abortion is gone?
Thanks to the 1980s’ era alliance between Catholic and Evangelical voters that formed the core of the Religious Right, legal abortion became the unifying issue that bound otherwise politically divergent voters into the Republican Party. It turned die-hard social-justice Catholics into rigid social conservatives, willing to turn a blind eye to cruelty to immigrants, the mistreatment of the poor, the lack of care for the sick and disabled, and the growing racial inequities of the prison system as long as a politician promises to ensure every pregnancy results in a live birth. Banning abortion is the carrot, and no matter how long the stick has grown, the GOP has always been able to count on the Religious Right to trudge along after it.
Today that carrot is finally a finger’s width away with Donald Trump as president. The Supreme Court is set up for a final showdown over Roe v. Wade, and numerous states across the nation can finally push the abortion bans they always wanted to pass, knowing there is an extremely high probability that those bans may now actually be enforced in the future. Yet, with everything they wanted in place, the GOP seems shocked to learn that victory isn’t bringing as much joy as they hoped. In fact, they appear to be having some second thoughts.
To be fair, the momentum has grown more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. Trump-appointed judges—straight off the Federalist Society roster—flooded empty judicial seats up and down benches across the nation. State after state after state passed and signed into law the most unconstitutional of abortion bills—eight-week bans, six-week bans, total bans—all at the request of anti-abortion activists eager for their payoff for getting these new, ultra-conservative politicians into office. Meanwhile at the federal level, Trump finally managed to orchestrate the far-right fever dream of a domestic gag rule, forbidding family planning organizations that accept Title X funding from being able to so much as mention abortion, a move expected to force Planned Parenthood, among others, to be denied any federal funding, fulfilling a long-term goal of the Religious Right. So why are they now suddenly so afraid let all of these wins be put into action?
What if, maybe, now that the GOP has everything they dreamed of and the reality is sinking in, they’ve realized that by accomplishing much of what their base wanted, they no longer have anything left to keep them coming to the polls? That without abortion to scare their voters, they may no longer have anything to lure them to the voting booths on Election Day? After all, how do you rally people to cast a ballot for endless wars and a growing military, an endlessly surging national debt, health-care companies whose coverage dwindles as their profits increase, and an ever-widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us, one so large that it matches that of the Great Depression?
It turns out that passing abortion bans and restrictions is the easy part. Dealing with the repercussions of the new laws—and the voting public’s ire over loss of access to basic health care and bodily autonomy—is much, much harder. And with an election looming around the corner, it’s not surprising to see that now Republicans are second-guessing their zeal to put these unpopular bills into action. After all, they can’t avoid the political consequences of their work once impact of their actions become real.
In Alabama, that means that the total, no-exceptions ban on absolutely all abortions—the very same ban that the state legislature eagerly passed with a four to one majority in the State Senate—may be blocked from going into effect in November 2019. Instead, the state of Alabama has agreed with abortion-rights supporters that the law should be put on hold until at least May 2020. This timing works especially well for Alabama’s Republican politicians, who will be able to campaign for most of the next year on having ended abortion in the state, without having to address any of the likely consequences that could come of actually enforcing a total abortion ban, such as poor health outcomes from those trying to terminate on their own, the imprisonment of pregnant people who take abortion into their own hands, or a possible deluge of births—some of them with medical complications—that would inundate health-care providers already facing a crisis when it comes to maternity care and maternal and infant mortality.
Alabama isn’t the only one slowing its roll, either. The Trump administration, once so eager to “defund” Planned Parenthood as a gift to the anti-abortion political groups that swept the president into office, is also pumping the brakes a bit now that they’ve achieved their goal (in policy, if not in practice). First, the administration demanded that the new “gag” rule, which forbids any organization from accepting Title X family planning funds if it has any association with abortion, go into effect immediately. Just days later, the administration back-tracked, offering a new two-month window for “most” of the new rules to be implemented before any sort of enforcement would happen, and then added a new deadline of March 2020 before providers needed “physical” separation in order to comply.
Why, it’s almost like these actions are less about political convictions and more about getting themselves positioned for the 2020 elections.
For the GOP, passing extreme abortion restrictions they know will be blocked in courts has long been a “have your cake and eat it, too” approach to walking the fine line needed to win re-election. Voting for bans means endless financing from far-right groups and a grassroots get-out-the-vote assistance in upcoming campaigns. In the past, it has always been an easy win because there were state and federal courts that would ensure that these unconstitutional bills wouldn’t go into effect. Right-wing politicians could avoid the blowback that would result if their Christian conservative pipe dream ever became real.
But now the courts aren’t there to stop them. The hijacking of the judiciary at every level means that anything the Right proposes and passes is now destined to be a reality—and one we will all have to live in. No wonder the GOP now appears far less anxious to put their policies into effect and are looking for ways to weasel out of the very laws they were championing.
Despite all their claims, the GOP really doesn’t want their major abortion bans to go into effect anytime soon. They need the conflict that comes from the abortion fight in order to keep themselves in office come November 2020. And if the courts are no longer working as that stopgap to keep those bills and restrictions at bay, don’t be too surprised to see lawmakers themselves find ways to stall and delay until closer to Election Day. After all, without abortion, they know they have no hope staying in office.
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