In the leadup to the US supreme court overturning Roe v Wade and thus scrapping federal abortion protection, Republican lawmakers across the country maintained an uncompromising rallying cry against abortions, vowing to implement a sweeping wave of restrictions in their states.
However, since the highest court in the US overturned the ruling, many Republican leaders and officials have become more hesitant – or have even gone silent – over the exact type of bans they promised to enact.
As Republicans move towards an election season rife with internal disagreements within their own party and mixed public opinions on exceptions in abortion bans such as instances of rape and incest, many rightwing lawmakers are finding it increasingly difficult to implement cohesive abortion policies.
The phenomenon has been starkly illustrated by Kansas’s referendum last week, where the usually reliably Republican state voted to keep abortion protections in its state constitution, providing an unexpected boost from red state America to the abortion rights movement.
With delays in passing abortion bills across the US and contentious questions on how far the bans will reach, Republicans are now, as Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist, said to Politico, “the dog that caught the car”.
According to a survey conducted between 27 June and 4 July by the Pew Research center, a majority of the American public disapproves of the supreme court’s decision to overturn Roe: 57% of adults disapprove of the court’s decision, including 43% who strongly disapprove, and 41% of American adults approve while 25% strongly approve of the court’s decision.
The survey also found that 62% of Americans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 36% of Americans say that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Only 38% of Republicans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, marking a 1-point decrease from poll results obtained in 2007.
As Republican lawmakers grapple with mixed public opinions, many lawmakers have been divided over just how far they should go to ban abortions. With the recent case of the 10-year-old rape victim traveling across state lines from Ohio to Indiana to obtain an abortion continuing to dominate national headlines, many Republicans are realizing that the reality they are presented with differs vastly from their initial narratives surrounding abortion politics.
What kind of exceptions should be made in cases of rape and incest? Should a woman be granted an abortion if she is faced with a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy or an incomplete miscarriage? If an outright ban is put in place, should there be expansions of paid family leave benefits and increased funding for foster care and women’s health?
Some states have plowed ahead. Indiana has now passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would ban nearly all abortions in the state with limited exceptions, including cases of rape and incest, and to protect the health of the mother. That made it the first state in the US to put new restrictions in place, rather than just rely on a pre-existing “trigger law” passed before the supreme court’s decision.
But even in Indiana the move came after a series of thorny debates in the Indiana congress that reflect the growing divide Republicans are facing when it comes to fleshing out the specifics of abortion ban bills.
Before Roe v Wade was overturned, lawmakers did not spend “enough time on those issues, because you knew it was an issue you didn’t have to really get into the granular level in. But we’re in there and we’re recognizing that this is pretty hard work,” Republican Indiana state senator Rodric Bray told the New York Times.
Another Indiana Republican state senator, Kyle Walker, who voted against the ban last month, said: “I believe we must strike a balance for pregnant women to make their own health decisions in the first trimester of the pregnancy and also provide protections for an unborn baby as it progresses toward viability outside the womb.”
Even state senator Sue Glick, the sponsor of the bill, said that she was “not exactly” happy with the bill.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana called the bill “cruel” and “dangerous”, while Indiana Right to Life criticized it as being “weak and troubling”, saying that it “lacks any teeth to actually reduce abortions in Indiana by holding those who perform abortions or would intentionally skirt the law accountable with criminal consequences.”
South Dakota, a predominantly Republican state, is facing a similar situation.
Shortly after the bombshell leak of the supreme court draft opinion on Roe, Republican governor Kristi Noem announced that she will “immediately call for a special session to save lives and guarantee that every unborn child has a right to life in South Dakota.”
However, since the supreme court overturned Roe, Noem has yet to publicly give any indication of when or if a special session will still take place. In response to the Associated Press asking if the special legislative session is still on the table, Noem’s office said it will happen “later this year”.
Noem has largely kept her language surrounding South Dakota’s abortion bans vague, simply reaffirming that “there is more work to do” and promising to “help mothers in crisis”. In June, Noem appeared to soften her approach on abortions by saying that doctors, not their patients, should be prosecuted for offering abortion pills.
“I don’t believe women should ever be prosecuted,” she said. “I don’t believe there should be any punishment for women, ever, that are in a crisis situation or have an unplanned pregnancy,” she said. The governor also set up a website for pregnant women that aims to “help mothers and their babies before birth and after by providing resources for pregnancy, new parents, financial assistance and adoption.”
Speaking to the Associated Press, South Dakota Right to Life’s executive director, Dale Bartscher, said that Noem’s actions reflect a turning point in the anti-abortion movement.
“An entirely new pro-life movement has just begun – we stand ready to serve women, the unborn and families,” he said. The Guardian reached out to Bartscher for additional comments.
In Arkansas, the Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, appears to have taken a softer approach on the issue after the state’s abortion trigger ban immediately went into effect when Roe was overturned. Last month, Hutchinson did not confirm that abortion will be a topic on the agenda of this month’s special session that is supposed to focus on tax cuts.
Referring to alternatives to abortion, Hutchinson said: “That’s come up in conversations … I’ve mentioned that need. You know, what can we do more for maternal care? What can we do more for adoption services because of the increased number that’s going to be demanding that? And so that is a potential issue … so just stay tuned.”
In May, Hutchinson acknowledged that his state’s abortion trigger law would result in “heartbreaking circumstances”, adding that “whenever you see that real-life circumstances like that, the debate is going to continue and the will of the people may or may not change”.
The governor admitted that abortions performed in the exceptions of rape and incest are increasingly “reflecting the broad view of Americans” but acknowledged that the issue is “still a very divided [topic].”
However, whether Hutchinson will ask lawmakers to consider the exceptions during the state’s upcoming legislative special session remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, the Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has refused to comment on the state’s recently enacted “heartbeat bill”, which makes abortions illegal after six weeks into a pregnancy. As a result of the state’s strict abortion laws, a 10-year-old rape victim from the state had to travel to Indiana to receive an abortion.
DeWine condemned the case as a “horrible, horrible tragedy” but did not signal whether he would amend abortion restrictions in the state. Speaking to reporters last month, DeWine refused to advocate for specific abortion policies and said that he is “going to let the debate play out a little bit”, referring to the legislative debate that is expected to happen in a few months.
“We’re going to hear from medical experts, we’re going to hear from other people,” he said, adding: “then there’ll be a time when I’ll certainly weigh in.”
Since Roe got overturned, Virginia’s top Republican lawmaker has been expressing similar sentiments to DeWine’s. In June, Governor Glenn Youngkin told an anti-abortion group that he would “happily and gleefully” sign any bill that would protect life, which he believes begins at conception.
Youngkin has expressed support for a ban on abortions after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and risk to the mother’s health.
Youngkin did not specify his support for any particular policies, although he acknowledged the divisive nature of the issue and called for a legislative process to hash out nuances in abortion ban bills.
“I’m a pro-life governor and I will sign a bill that comes to my desk that protects life and I look forward to that. But as of now, what we need is the process to start and to take the next four or five or six months and to work on a bill that can be supported on a bipartisan basis,” he said.
As Republicans across the country face a widening divide over the particularities of implementing abortion bans, a leading anti-abortion group has been urging Republicans in Congress not to leave the issue to the states. Many anti-abortion activists worry that extreme measures by Republican state lawmakers may cost Republican lawmakers seats nationally, especially with midterms on the horizon.
At the same time, in the wake of the Kansas referendum result, many Democratic strategists now believe public opinion, even in many red states, will be on their side. The issue can be used to shore up under-threat Democrats and wielded as a weapon against Republican candidates who can be portrayed as out of step with most Americans.
In a memo from Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America sent out in July, Republican lawmakers were encouraged to stay away from phrases such as “nationwide ban” and were urged not to relay the issue to state lawmakers.
“It is vitally important that pro-life Members of Congress highlight the abortion extremism of Democrats, who support abortion on demand, up until the moment of birth, paid for the taxpayer,” the memo said.