There are few topics more complicated and fraught with emotion than abortion politics and policy in the post-Roe era. At New York I addressed a Republican effort to turn the tables on this subject.
When a close and potentially historic election is on the horizon, political analysts invariably try to read entrails from off-year and special elections. This November, Beltway pundits are especially focused on elections in nearby Virginia, where Republican governor Glenn Youngkin is trying to gain control of the state legislature. The GOP currently controls the House while Democrats control the Senate, and thus have a veto on Youngkin’s agenda. Beyond the alleged significance of who wins and loses in Virginia, Youngkin is being widely credited with attempting a new party position on abortion that will get Republicans out of the defensive crouch they have assumed amid a widespread public backlash against the abortion restrictions made possible by U.S. Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade.
As the New York Times explains, Youngkin believes he’s come up with a silver bullet for his party on this issue: a ban on abortions after 15 weeks:
“Legislative races across the state will offer a decisive test of a strategy led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has united Republicans behind a high-profile campaign in support of a ban on abortion after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. The party calls it a ‘common sense’ position, in contrast to Democrats, who it says ‘support no limits.’
“The strategy is meant to defuse Republicans’ image as abortion extremists, which led to losses in last year’s midterms and threatens further defeats next month in an Ohio referendum and the Kentucky governor’s race.”
This 15-week “compromise” idea should be understood from several perspectives. First of all, existing Virginia law, based on Roe v. Wade, allows abortions without restrictions up until fetal viability, or about 26 weeks of pregnancy. The Roe standard is pretty popular in Virginia and nationally, so the Youngkin strategy is to chip away at it incrementally, for now at least, and look for a more strategic time to go much further. It just so happens, moreover, that a 15-week national ban is the litmus-test demand of the most hard-core anti-abortion groups. To be clear, that doesn’t mean a national standard of allowing abortions prior to 15 weeks, but a 15-week floor that enables red states to ban abortions entirely or at a much earlier stage of pregnancy, as most of them have already done (at least where voters haven’t overruled them, as they have in Kansas and Kentucky).
Yet another dimension of the Youngkin gambit is to draw a new line between the parties in which Republicans favor “reasonable” abortion restrictions (at least in those states where they cannot secure unreasonable abortion restrictions) while Democrats favor “abortion on demand” up until the moment of live birth. There’s no question that the plan is to seize on the growing sentiment among many reproductive-rights advocates in favor of abandoning the old gestational framework of Roe (originally based on “trimesters” and now on different rules for pre- and post-viability abortions) and replacing it with more straightforward defense of abortion rights, as my colleague Irin Carmon recently explained:
“[Abortion rights advocate Erika] Christensen believes this moment of outrage provides an opportunity to stop debating about gestational age and instead focus on enshrining abortion as an absolute right. Using the old frameworks, she says, ‘accepts the premise that there’s a reasonable point in pregnancy in which the state should be given authority to compel breeding.'”
Much as the debate among Democrats over police reform following the murder of George Floyd was caricatured by Republicans as representing a demand to “defund the police,” Youngkin and the entire GOP are clearly disregarding the Roe framework that most Democratic policymakers still support in order to depict the opposition as especially devoted to complete legalization of late-term abortions. The full “abortion on demand” position, rightly or wrongly, remains unpopular, especially among swing voters, but more to the point, it’s not the position of Democrats fighting red-state pre-viability abortion bans.
If Virginia Republicans do win in November, you can expect the 15-week “compromise” position to become wildly popular within the GOP, particularly since a fake compromise on abortion is what Donald Trump has been calling for, while lying about where Democrats stand, as he made clear on Meet the Press last month:
“‘Let me just tell you what I’d do. I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable,’ Trump said when asked about a 15-week ban Sunday.
“’I would sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years. I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t,’ he added.
“Trump also called Democrats ‘radicals’ on abortion, claiming that some Democrat-led states like New York allow for abortions after birth.”
Republicans will continue to press for total or near-total abortion bans whenever and wherever they can get away with it while labeling Democrats as extremists, even though most Democrats are simply asking for the legal standard that was in place nationally for 49 years before the Supreme Court struck.
If Youngkin fails, then the forced-birth lobby may have to go back to the drawing board.