Beware the Suddenly “Moderate” Republican
GOP candidates know their anti-abortion positions are unpopular, so they're burying their extremist rhetoric and hoping voters will fall for it.
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As the post-Roe fallout continues to transform the political (and personal) landscape in America, an unlikely group has suddenly decided that mums the word when it comes to abortion: Republicans.
With less than two months to go until the midterm elections, Republican candidates are scrubbing their websites and public references to the extreme anti-abortion positions they embraced just weeks ago in the primaries. After the traditionally conservative Kansas voted overwhelmingly to support abortion rights last month, and in light of a surge of newly registered women voters in the wake of the Dobbs decision, Republicans are attempting to reposition themselves as moderates on the very right they themselves worked for decades to dismantle.
After Republicans came to power in state legislatures across the country in 2010, they embraced abortion restrictions and bans like never before. From January 2011 to July 2019, states enacted a whopping 483 abortion restrictions, accounting for 40 percent of all restrictions since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. From Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws that tried to close clinics through unnecessary regulation to 20-week, then 12-week, then six-week, then total abortion bans, Republicans have led the charge to eradicate access to abortion care across the South and the Midwest, and have continually voted for increasingly restrictive legislation.
This isn’t some “a-ha!” moment for Republican legislators. Restricting and banning abortion has always been unpopular—and that’s never stopped them. The difference is, once the Supreme Court actually overturned Roe v. Wade, it became impossible for Republican legislators to hide behind it, working in the shadows around the ruling, trying to make abortion technically legal but practically inaccessible. As horrifying as the end of Roe is, that cover is gone now, and the American public can see what they’re doing.
The Republican Party has firmly hitched its wagon to anti-abortion extremism, and the unpopularity of overturning Roe v. Wade can’t and won’t change that. Rather than abandon efforts to restrict and ban abortion, they will likely become more creative, and more secretive.
Last week, the South Carolina State Senate failed to pass a ban on abortions at the point of fertilization after they failed to get enough votes among their Republican caucus. State Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican, filibustered the abortion ban, declaring, “I’m not going to let that happen.” He claims his teenage daughters convinced him not to take away their right to bodily autonomy. But just a year earlier, Sen. Davis voted for South Carolina’s draconian six-week abortion ban, which bans abortions before most people even know they’re pregnant. That ban contains no exceptions for rape or incest.
This is the kind of legislative sleight of hand we’re likely to see from more and more Republicans in the coming weeks. This party has successfully moved the goalposts on abortion so far to the right that they’re able to ban almost all abortions with a six-week ban but somehow simultaneously proclaim that they can’t stomach an actual total ban because they suddenly care about “bodily autonomy”? It’s no wonder that just this week, even as the electoral unpopularity of their position has been made clear, Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill for a federal 15-week abortion ban under the auspices of “where America is at.” And of course, anti-abortion advocates see that as beginning step, not an end goal. “The place to begin is where Graham is beginning,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. There is no compromise because abortion opponents aren’t interested in compromise.
Republicans can only successfully scrub their public records of abortion if the media lets them. Sen. Tom Davis’s filibuster of South Carolina’s total abortion ban received glowing coverage from outlets like the Washington Post and NPR, but neither bothered to mention that he voted in favor of last year’s six-week ban, itself a draconian violation of the very bodily autonomy he now claims to support. The ultimate end of Roe v. Wade wasn’t an accident, but the very goal that Republicans have been building towards by passing laws like South Carolina’s six-week abortion ban, which directly challenged Roe and helped tee up the Supreme Court, filled with Republican-appointed justices, to finally end the constitutional right to abortion. Perhaps some Republicans, like Sen. Tom Davis, never thought that the Supreme Court would ever actually do what was once unthinkable, enabling them to publicly champion and vote for horrifically restrictive legislation while knowing that it would never be allowed to go into effect. Those days are over. Now, every abortion restriction and ban that passes will go into effect, and real people will suffer as a result. It’s imperative that mainstream media outlets not only tell the full story about the effects of these restrictions and bans, but make clear who has historically supported them.
Republicans may be attempting to publicly inch themselves closer to the center on the issue of abortion, but privately, nothing has changed. There’s no turning back for them on abortion, or voting rights, or trans rights. This is who they are—they’ve told us time and again. The question is, will we still believe them?
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