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One Year Later

The GOP is moderating on abortion post-Dobbs.

A woman holds a pro-life sign before in Clearwater, Florida, on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Thomas Simonetti/Washington Post/Getty Images)

On Wednesday morning Semafor reported that one of the country’s most influential pro-life groups is turning up the heat on Republican politicians. 

Enough with the mealy-mouthed dodges on questions about abortion, a new memo from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America warns. It’s past time for the GOP to go on offense.

The party needs to get serious about a … 15-week federal abortion ban.

A 15-week ban is not what the group has traditionally advocated, the New York Times’ Jane Coaston pointed out. Cruise on over to the “About” page on their website and you’ll find this uncompromising mission statement in large print at the top: “SBA Pro-Life America’s mission is to end abortion by electing national leaders and advocating for laws that save lives, with a special calling to promote pro-life women leaders.”

A 15-week national ban won’t end abortion. It’ll barely make a dent. By one estimate, just 6 percent of pregnancies that were terminated during the last years of the Roe era ended at or after the 15th week of gestation. Any progress toward saving lives is welcome, of course, but very modest incrementalism is not what one would expect from an activist outfit dedicated to nothing less than eradicating the practice.

Saturday will mark the first anniversary of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a fine time to take stock of where the Republican Party stands following a momentous legal and moral victory 50 years in the making. Has the pro-life cause gained ground or lost it since the ruling it fought so hard to make possible?

A bit of both, I think. Somewhat paradoxically, there are fewer abortions now than there used to be and legal abortion has never been more popular. Removing the issue from the province of unelected jurists to electoral politics has given pro-lifers an opportunity to work their will where they can while forcing them to accommodate themselves to the will of the majority where they can’t.

This is what democracy looks like.

The Dobbs era has made possible what it was supposed to make possible: reducing the number of terminated pregnancies in the United States. Numerous red states have passed laws that restrict abortion sharply or ban it altogether, with more on the way pending local litigation. Fewer babies are being killed in the womb in those states.

But nationwide the effect hasn’t been as dramatic as you might think. An analysis by the Society of Family Planning finds a decline in abortion of just 3.5 percent since April 2022. Terminations are down considerably in states where the practice is banned and slightly in states where it’s restricted, but they’re up considerably in states with few restrictions. Most abortions in red states aren’t truly being prevented, in other words; they’re either being outsourced to blue states or happening quietly at home with abortifacients sent through the mail, legally or otherwise.

You can understand why pro-life groups might be frustrated by the pace of progress and looking at national solutions to prohibit some of that outsourcing. But here’s where they run into that pesky “will of the majority” business.

When CBS asked Americans whether overturning Roe was a good or bad thing for the country, 57 percent said it was bad. 

A Gallup poll published last week found that 69 percent of Americans now believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. That’s the highest share recorded since polling on the question began in 1996. Among independents, 74 percent agree.

Fifty-two percent of all Americans now believe that abortion is morally acceptable, tied for the highest share on record and 10 points higher than the historical average since 2001. At 40 percent, the share of women who think abortion should be legal under any circumstances has reached its highest point since the mid-1970s.

Other polls also show voters trending pro-choice. A new Suffolk survey asked people whether their views of abortion have changed since Dobbs; of the 29 percent who said yes, the vast majority (23 percent) said it made them more rather than less supportive of keeping abortion legal. Within the key swing bloc of women independents whose views have changed, the tilt toward supporting legal abortion broke 28-5.

One might interject at this point to note that issue polling is often misleading because it doesn’t reflect how strongly voters feel about an issue, only that they prefer one position over another. But there’s evidence that abortion restrictions really are driving a backlash at the polls, in case the GOP’s record in the midterms and the pro-life movement’s record on ballot initiatives last fall hadn’t already convinced you. A Republican polling firm recently measured the damage:

“There has been a 6 point swing in the last year on the Generic Senate ballot from R+3 to D+3. This movement is [led] overwhelmingly by Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” according to a “National Issue Study” by co/efficient, which was in the news recently as one of the pollsters for Kentucky Republican gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron. 

The poll, conducted April 20-24, had similar findings on the House side. “There has been a 10 point swing in the last year on the Generic House Ballot from R+6 to D+4. This movement is [led] overwhelmingly by Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” it said on slide seven. “Reproductive Freedom is the #1 issue among those that DID NOT vote in 2020.”

The Democratic data firm Catalist also believes abortion was key to limiting Republican gains in 2022. Nationally, women voters shifted slightly toward the GOP last fall—but less so than men did. In the most competitive races, Democrats actually increased their vote share among women. (Even more so among women without a college degree.) Abortion helped with turnout too: “Polls and registration data show that Democratic women were more motivated to vote after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.”

One more data point from the Suffolk poll I mentioned. When asked if they’d support a total federal ban on abortion, Americans across the spectrum recoiled. Just 14 percent said yes; 83 percent of independents and even 65 percent of Republicans oppose the idea. Most voters would, on the other hand, support a federal law guaranteeing abortion access. That polls at 53-39 thanks to the backing of 53 percent of independents and nearly a quarter of Republicans.

This is what democracy looks like. And it’s forced committed anti-abortion outfits like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America to make a hard choice. Should they start targeting abortion less aggressively for strategic reasons, knowing how that might compromise the moral clarity of their mission? Or should they use their political leverage to try to maximize restrictions, treating a moral disaster with the urgency it deserves but risking a strategic debacle that will set back the cause?

I suspect most readers think the first option is the sounder one. I tend to agree. But there’s real peril here.

The argument for being strategic is simple: In light of all the evidence that abortion is biting the GOP in elections, an aggressive pro-life campaign to ban the practice nationally would backfire. It’s not a “victory” for social conservatives if they persuade Republicans to go all-in on abolition, only to have Democrats win both houses of Congress and the White House in 2024 and end up enacting sweeping pro-choice federal legislation.

Pro-life groups need to pick their battles, normalizing the idea of federal restrictions in the abstract while eschewing restrictions that might spook voters by seeming too draconian. A 15-week federal ban isn’t a bad one to pick.

According to Semafor, Susan B. Anthony’s polling finds 59 percent of Americans would support “congressional legislation that would prohibit abortions after a baby can feel pain at fifteen weeks of pregnancy” provided that it includes exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That includes 53 percent who describe themselves as pro-choice. If you can’t convince the majority of the country that first-trimester abortions are immoral, you can at least find common ground with them on imposing legal limits at some point during pregnancy.

Particularly since Democratic leaders tend to be allergic to the concept. Recently the head of Susan B. Anthony argued that the most important thing the GOP can do to improve its political position on abortion is to refocus swing voters on the left’s own extremism. “The Democratic Party stance of abortion on demand, paid for by taxpayers, at any time and for any reason up until birth puts us in line with North Korea and China and is profoundly unpopular,” Marjorie Dannenfelser said. “Pro-life candidates who lean into the contrast win, while those who take the ‘ostrich strategy’ and try to run from the issue are done.”

Make the abortion debate about why liberals can’t tolerate a modest 15-week national ban that most voters support instead of why Republicans keep enacting aggressive bans in red states, and the pro-choice energy driving Democratic electoral gains might drain away.

The reduction in abortions with a federal 15-week ban in place probably wouldn’t be great, admittedly. But again, progress is progress. And as Americans get more comfortable with the idea of Republican-controlled Washington blocking Democratic states from terminating pregnancies, in time they might come to tolerate more aggressive restrictions than 15 weeks.

That’s the best-case scenario from the incrementalist approach. There are other scenarios.

For starters, normalizing a 15-week ban at the federal level risks leading voters in red states to wonder why the same timetable isn’t appropriate locally. The appeal of ballot initiatives to overturn onerous local bans might grow in those states once there’s a more relaxed federal benchmark to compare them to. Why, after all, should the women of Florida labor under a six-week ban if a Republican-dominated Congress, in its wisdom, decides that 15 weeks is an appropriate length for most of the country?

Don’t say “federalism.” The whole point of federal abortion restrictions is to undermine the sovereignty of blue states in setting their own abortion policy. In fact, creative liberals will argue in court that a 15-week federal ban preempts the more aggressive restrictions in states like Florida and Georgia. Imagine if they prevail and the more lenient federal statute ends up making it easier to get an abortion in red states.

Even if the preemption argument fails, as it probably would, Democrats will capitalize on the precedent set by the GOP the next time they control Congress and the White House. They’ll repeal the Republican 15-week ban and replace it with a federal law legalizing abortion everywhere, including in conservative states where it’s otherwise banned. When Republicans cry foul, Democrats will calmly explain that if a right-wing federal government could force blue states to follow their abortion preferences, a left-wing federal government can do the same to red ones. What’s the counterargument?

“Democrats will pass a federal law legalizing abortion the first chance they get regardless of what the GOP does,” you might say. Fair enough—it does seem like abortion policy in America will continue to be set in Washington in our post-Dobbs utopia, albeit in the legislative rather than the judicial branch. Recall, though, that Democrats tried to pass a law legalizing abortion last year and couldn’t find the votes thanks to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. I’m not sure that the Manchins and Sinemas in some future Senate will be as willing to stand on principle and thwart their own party if a previous Republican Congress has already short-circuited federalism by passing national abortion restrictions.

There are other, less tangible problems with a 15-week ban.

The project of normalizing incremental abortion restrictions runs both ways. Presented with a 15-week ban, some mildly pro-choice voters might grow more comfortable with the idea of restricting abortion in principle—but some mildly pro-life voters might likewise grow more comfortable with the idea that 15 weeks is “reasonable” and anything more aggressive than that is unreasonable. If the pro-life movement ends up “freezing” 15 weeks as the baseline in the minds of American voters, this country will remain an active abortion mill for a very long time.

The moral capitulation inherent in a 15-week ban also has risks. Yes, “progress is progress,” but abortion ain’t any ol’ issue. Pro-lifers are prone to compare it to slavery when reaching for analogies to measure how evil they find it. A 15-week ban smells like the Compromise of 1850, a desperate political solution designed to temporarily settle some intractable moral dispute that ultimately satisfies no one. Whether the pro-life movement can continue to thrive when its greatest legislative ambition is a ban that’ll permit 94 percent of abortions is anyone’s guess. 

I think a 15-week ban will prove emotionally unsatisfying as well. The end of Roe was a moment of tremendous catharsis for the pro-life right, sweeping away the legal impediments to using legislative power to protect infant life. Here at long last was the opportunity to go on offense. And now, a year on from Dobbs, “offense” looks like … legal abortion through the first four months or so of pregnancy, as endorsed by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

Fifty years of elections and policy arguments and court battles for this? A Republican Party where even the vanguard of the pro-life movement is adopting what’s basically a “soft” pro-choice position?

I don’t know how social conservatives will cope with that. The modern American right doesn’t lightly make concessions to reality by compromising on its ideals, as you may have gleaned from the last several months of Republican presidential polling.

Although, speaking of which …

One last factor in the gradual moderation of the GOP on abortion is, of course, Donald Trump.

In April I wrote that post-Dobbs politics on the right will be a case of the irresistible force, the pro-life movement, colliding with the immovable object, Trump. Trump has seen the polls; he knows women voters already don’t like him; he worries that “harsh” six-week abortion bans will alienate swing voters, especially if imposed at the federal level, and therefore prefers a “states’ rights” approach to setting abortion policy.

Pro-life activists were unhappy with him for that, theoretically endangering his candidacy. But two months and at least one face-to-face meeting later, he looks to be on a glide path to the Republican nomination and the voices complaining about him have (mostly) quieted.

Don’t underestimate the ability of the “Trump effect” to soften Republican views on abortion, I warned in April, noting how normal it’s become in this party for the right to change its beliefs to suit his political needs. If the only way to get him reelected in 2024 is to neutralize the Democratic advantage on abortion by moving closer to the left’s position, even many pro-lifers may find themselves waking up to the wisdom of a modest 15-week ban.

For all the justified hype about evangelicals’ loyalty to Trump, they understand that the Republican coalition under his leadership looks different in important ways than it did in the pre-Trump era. If they want to win—a questionable assumption, but not an unreasonable one—then their new, not-very-socially-conservative brothers-in-arms will need to be accommodated to some degree, just as evangelicals themselves were accommodated with the making of an anti-Roe Supreme Court. In post-Dobbs America, a broadly pro-choice consensus during the early stages of pregnancy is what democracy looks like. Republicans are gradually coming to terms with it.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.