Republicans Divided Over Abortion Bans and How Extreme to Go

RFor over a decade, the epublicans has waited for restrictions on abortion to be implemented. Now that it is possible, however conservative legislators are discovering they differ on how severe to restrict abortion.

While the most ardent anti-abortion lawmakers are pushing legislation with no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, some Republicans are backing away from hardline abortion bills in a tacit acknowledgement that most Americans don’t support such severe restrictions. Others are trying to strike a balance by selling what used to be seen as aggressive measures—like bans on abortion after 15 weeks—as the new middle ground in light of the no-exceptions bans.

In Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina introduced a 15-week national abortion ban. This was surprising to many of his coworkers. West Virginia also saw Republican lawmakers reach a compromise over limited exceptions for a near-total ban on abortion after a July impasse about the details. These developments came just days after South Carolina lawmakers hotly debated a near-total abortion ban only to abandon the legislation because they, too, couldn’t agree on which exceptions to include.

The bills result from complicated arguments over difficult moral, legal and political questions many legislators had only previously considered theoretically. Are rape victims and those who are incest victim exempt from bans on abortion? Who are those who have lethal fetal anomalies and others? Do doctors and other health care professionals need to be jailed for violating abortion bans? What should Republicans do to address the growing public outrage against these laws, as midterm elections are near and this issue is on many people’s minds?

Continue reading: ‘Never-Ending Nightmare.’ An Ohio Woman Was Forced to Travel Out of State for an Abortion

While some of the infighting in South Carolina has led to bills being stalled, others have seen lawmakers adopt unpopular or conflicting positions to help them navigate competing interests. After it dropped the total ban, the South Carolina senate settled on a more restrictive version of the six-week ban already on the state’s books and temporarily blocked by the courts. At the federal level, Graham’s bill is less strict than a national six-week ban that some anti-abortion groups had been lobbying lawmakers to pursue. His 15-week proposal includes exceptions for life-threatening pregnancies, and for cases of rape and incest if the patient receives counseling, treatment or reports the incident to law enforcement—a compromise that some conservatives decried as too strict, and others complained didn’t go far enough. West Virginia became the second state in the country to adopt a comprehensive abortion ban. Roe v. WadeThe legislature passed its Tuesday bill. It made narrow exceptions to medical emergencies and nonviable pregnancies. If the victim reports the crime, the legislators also approved rape, incest and other minor offenses.

West Virginia’s compromises and debate reflect the national discussions taking place on the right. Tom Takubo the Republican majority leader in West Virginia’s Senate won support for the bill. He had refused over the summer to support the ban on near-total rape and incest exemptions. Takubo is an osteopath physician who amended the ban to ensure that doctors do not face criminal prosecution if they break it, but can lose their medical licenses. However, other providers such as nurses and people who assist with abortions may still be facing criminal charges or jail time. Some, including Eric Tarr, a Republican senator from West Virginia, were against the final bill because it was too broad. “This bill will save a lot of lives in West Virginia,” Tarr said on the senate floor. “But I’m also torn and disappointed that my vote now is to decide when do you execute an innocent?”

Protesters gather inside the South Carolina House as members debate a new near-total ban on abortion with no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest at the state legislature in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S. August 30, 2022. (Sam Wolfe—Reuters)

As members of the South Carolina House debate a near-total ban against abortion, protesters gather in the House. There are no exemptions for pregnancies that were caused by incest or rape at the Columbia state legislature, South Carolina.

Sam Wolfe—Reuters

Doctors, legal experts, and abortion rights advocates agree that very few will be able take advantage of any exceptions Republicans are discussing. Some doctors across the nation have stated that restrictions on abortion in emergencies are making it difficult for them to care for patients until they are dead. Incest and rape exceptions can be difficult to use due to the fact that sexual violence is often not reported and there are many reporting requirements. “The quote unquote exceptions that were put into this total abortion ban are that in name only,” says Katie Quinonez, executive director of Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the state’s only abortion clinic. “They are a marketing strategy of the forced birth movement so that they can make themselves seem less like the monsters that they are.”

As Republicans debate these policies and settle on different compromises, they’re deciding for the first time since the 1970s what abortion looks like in America without a guaranteed right to the procedure. These debates will determine the health care that pregnant women receive. It will also influence a complex web of laws that impact a variety of economic and medical realities across millions of American families.

Pro-life bans are met with public backlash

According to polls, severe abortion bans have a very low popularity. Large majority of Americans agree that abortion should not be illegal in all but certain circumstances. In March, 69%, which included 56% of Republicans in a Pew Research Center survey, believed abortion should be legal if the pregnancy was the result of rape.

In June, the Supreme Court revoked the right of the nation to abort. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationIt triggered a series of nationwide abortion bans. Thirteen states have now implemented near-total abortion prohibitions. Others are in court.

Republicans already face public opposition. Voters in Kansas resoundingly rejected a ballot measure in August that would have taken protections for abortion rights away from the state’s constitution, and special election candidates in New York and Alaska who campaigned on abortion rights won their races. The Republican National Committee issued a memo on Sept. 13 that acknowledged 80% of voters are “not pleased” with the Supreme Court’s decision and advised candidates to “speak with compassion” and “stakeout common ground with the majority of American’s [sic] who support exceptions.”

The public outcry is contributing to Republicans’ shifting stances and forcing changes to some legislation. In South Carolina, Republicans had proposed a bill banning abortion starting at fertilization with no exceptions, but a small group of lawmakers, including the state senate’s three GOP women, said they would not support the legislation without exceptions for rape and incest. After seeing they would not have enough votes to pass the total ban, senators dropped it and instead added restrictions to the state’s six-week ban.

TIME received thousands of emails from South Carolinians expressing disapproval for the bill being passed by Republican senator Sandy Senn. According to her, the most extreme laws would encourage women to vote for abortion on November 8th and then challenge the anti-abortion legislators in the future. “You’re going to see women actually go ahead and vote single issue politics,” she says. “And what you’re going to see is more competition. My colleagues are so worried about getting a competitor from the right because my state is so rightwing that they are overlooking getting a female competitor, and that’s going to be a real threat to them.”

Similar debates took place in West Virginia earlier this summer. Many citizens opposed to the abortion ban flooded the Capitol when lawmakers convened in July for the first session. Abortion rights supporters still expected Republicans to quickly pass a new ban, but when lawmakers couldn’t agree on which exceptions and penalties to allow, they adjourned for the month of August without new legislation. “We pressured them, and people power really helped stall it. We rattled them,” says Alisa Clements of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, who was in the West Virginia capitol in July and this week. The delay in new legislation meant the state’s only abortion clinic could continue seeing patients for more than another month— before it stopped providing abortions this week after the legislature passed the new ban.

Reorienting the message on abortion

Some Republicans are also reassessing their position on issues downstream like emergency contraception due to the increased scrutiny and legal realities surrounding abortion.

Doug Gilliam (South Carolina State Representative) was inaugurated earlier in the month. said a hypothetical 12-year-old rape victim would have “choices” even under the proposed ban that did not include rape or incest exceptions because she could get a morning after pill “that’s available at Walmart.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also recently pointed to emergency contraception as a solution when asked about the lack of exceptions in his state’s abortion ban. “We want to support those victims,” Abbott said, according to the Dallas Morning News. ​​“By accessing health care immediately, they can get the Plan B pill that can prevent a pregnancy from occurring in the first place.”

These answers reveal that there is a divide between Republican politicians who want to placate voters and anti-abortion activists. Anti-abortion advocates have been opposed to emergency contraception since they consider it to be equivalent to early abortion. Students for Life, which is growing in influence in the state legislatures as well on Capitol Hill supports emergency contraception. It also opposes rape, incest exceptions, and other forms of contraception. Kristi Hamrick, a spokesperson for Students for Life, said it’s not surprising that lawmakers are still figuring out their positions on abortion bans and exceptions at this point after the end of Roe. “We’re going to have to educate people. We need to talk with legislators, we need to talk with people, we need to explain what kind of services are available, what kind of help people are going to need,” she says. “It is going to be a conversation and an active education ongoing for us in the pro-life movement.”

The right is negotiating its positions, and real families will be caught up in the middle as more states implement abortion bans. “There’s a lot of disagreement about what personhood means or what a right to life is that you see the movement having to figure out in part because they hadn’t had to before,” says Mary Ziegler, a University of California, Davis law professor who specializes in the history of abortion. “Actually figuring out what you were going to be for when the bill could go into effect versus just be a vehicle for challenging Roe is a completely different story for a lot of legislators.”

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