Republicans are finally trying to do something about the unpopularity of their abortion policies: They’re talking about using a new word to describe their position. Internal Republican polling reportedly finds that voters are turning against “pro-life” positions, so Republicans are in search of a substitute. Their realization of how much trouble they’re in even has them trying to pretend they don’t want to ban abortion, at the same time as Republican-controlled states are taking their bans to more and more extreme places.
Senate Republicans were sounding this new note after a closed-door presentation of abortion polling by a super PAC associated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sen. Todd Young of Indiana came out talking about “pro-baby policies,” presumably because “pro-birthing-babies-but-not-helping-their-families-stay-out-of-poverty policies” doesn’t sound as good.
“What intrigued me the most about the results was that ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ means something different now, that people see being pro-life as being against all abortions ... at all levels,” Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told NBC News. Gee, maybe because Republicans in numerous states have banned most or all abortions in the name of being “pro-life”? Maybe because that’s how Republicans have sold the term for decades?
“Many voters think [‘pro-life’] means you’re for no exceptions in favor of abortion ever, ever, and ‘pro-choice’ now can mean any number of things,” said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. “So the conversation was mostly oriented around how voters think of those labels, that they’ve shifted. So if you’re going to talk about the issue, you need to be specific.” If we want to get specific, Hawley is a longtime anti-abortion extremist whose wife is a lawyer for an organization that was deeply involved in getting Roe v. Wade overturned. But of course, that’s not the specificity he is talking about. He’s talking about obfuscation, about dwelling on exceptions to bans that rarely turn out to be available in practice, with doctors waiting until women are at the brink of death to invoke protecting the life of the mother as a reason to perform an abortion.
Do these Republicans hear themselves? “Pro-life” was a right-wing messaging term to begin with, intended to cast abortion rights supporters as pro-death. Now, because that isn’t working for them, they’re looking for new words—when it’s their positions that are the problem.
It’s not just an attempt to rebrand, though. Senate Republicans are planning to push an outright lie. A source told NBC News that the National Republican Senatorial Committee “is encouraging Republicans to clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and support for reasonable limits on late-term abortions when babies can feel pain with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.” But as we know, congressional Republicans were constantly looking for ways to ban abortion right up until Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization made the issue toxic for them.
If congressional Republicans think that abortion bans are a big problem for them, the way to show it is not to try to find a new word for “pro-life” or to deny that they want to pass the national abortion ban they were definitely talking about passing until it became politically inconvenient for them. In one presidential election after another, the Republican Party platform included lines like “We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children.” But now we’re supposed to believe that their opposition to abortion is subtle, nuanced, and does not include a federal ban?
No, the way Republicans could show that they don’t want to ban abortion is to … stop doing it. Because while Senate Republicans are trying to moderate their message (translation: lie about it) in hopes of reducing the political damage they’re taking, state-level Republicans continue to be all-in on the harshest policies they can come up with. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall says the state can prosecute people for helping women travel for legal abortions in other states. Some Texas counties are talking about prosecuting people who help a pregnant person drive through town to get a legal abortion elsewhere. Republican attorneys general in 19 states have asserted the right to access people’s private medical records in other states, claiming that their states have a “legitimate interests” in protecting “prenatal life.”
It’s true that those are state and local actions, but if congressional Republicans really wanted to retool their party’s disastrous image on abortion, they would be trying to moderate its actions at every level. And it’s not just the state level, either. Among the Republican presidential candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in his state and has dodged questions about what he’d do if elected president. Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have said they would sign a federal 15-week abortion ban, though Haley is leaning hard on the improbability of such a ban passing Congress and trying to paint herself as a moderate. Former President Donald Trump regularly brags about appointing the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe, and has said he’d “look at” a 15-week federal ban. And former Vice President Mike Pence is a longtime anti-abortion extremist who would ban abortions even for nonviable pregnancies.
Republicans can try to rebrand all they want. Their positions are what they are, and voters can see Republican abortion bans in action in state after state. It won’t be so easy to fool people this time around.
Why does it seem like Republicans have such a hard time recruiting Senate candidates who actually live in the states they want to run in? We're discussing this strange but persistent phenomenon on this week's edition of "The Downballot." The latest example is former Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who's been spending his time in Florida since leaving the House in 2015, but he's not the only one. Republican Senate hopefuls in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Montana, and Wisconsin all have questionable ties to their home states—a problem that Democrats have gleefully exploited in recent years. (Remember Dr. Oz? Of course you do.)