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GOP’s 15-Week Abortion Ban Is a Midterm Tactic — But Not in the Way You Think

The proposed ban is a cynical gambit to enable GOP lawmakers to feign distance and appear more “moderate” than they are.

Sen. Lindsey Graham smiles before speaking during his news conference on Capitol Hill to announce a national bill on abortion restrictions on September 13, 2022.

On Tuesday, less than three months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) introduced a national 15-week abortion ban in the U.S. Senate. The bill, the first Republican abortion ban proposed since Roe’s end, contains exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the pregnant person. The measure is sure to fail in the Democratically controlled Senate, where it would need to get 60 votes to override a filibuster, and it’s out of step with the majority of Americans, who support safe, legal abortion care — a number that has only grown in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June.

The bill’s timing seems odd. While Republican candidates are scrubbing their websites of any mention of opposition to abortion and a national surge of newly registered women voters may upend the midterm elections, why is a leading Republican senator proposing a national 15-week abortion ban?

The timing and the legislation aren’t mistakes or accidents. Instead, they reflect the long game that Republicans and abortion opponents have been playing on abortion for decades, one that helped them overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal in a dozen states –– moving the goal posts to the right. A decade ago, a leading Senate Republican proposing a 15-week abortion ban would have been unthinkable: Roe v. Wade was the established law of the land, and the Supreme Court had already previously upheld it. Instead of outright banning abortion, Republicans were devising ways to make it inaccessible, like Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws, trying to work around Roe rather than explicitly violating it. Now, it’s not only par for the course; this proposed ban is being used as a media tool to position the party that ripped our constitutional right to abortion from underneath us as somehow more middle-of-the-road.

To understand how this strategically deployed messaging tool is functioning, take a look at the responses of some other leading Republicans. Commenting on the ban proposal, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told CNN that he’d like to “have each state handle those issues.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) echoed him, saying, “I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”

As they have since Roe was overturned in June, unleashing a wave of outrage among broad swaths of the electorate, many Republicans once again chose to frame abortion as a “states’ rights” issue — one that they, at the federal level, aren’t interested in pursuing.

But their records reveal that they are lying, just like they were lying when Republican-nominated justices said that Roe v. Wade was settled law. Both Cornyn and McConnell have voted for 20-week abortion bans in the past, and there is no reason to believe that they wouldn’t support other national bans even though they claim to reject this one.

When Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was decided in June, Senator Cornyn issued a statement, praising the ruling as a “historic victory for life.” Prior to Roe’s demise, McConnell said that if the landmark ruling was indeed overturned, a national abortion ban was, in fact, “possible.” In response to Graham’s proposed 15-week ban, former Vice President Mike Pence once again reiterated that the next Republican president would support a national abortion ban, potentially allowing it to go into effect.

Senator Graham, who won reelection in 2020 and won’t face South Carolina voters again until 2026, has nothing to lose from proposing a national 15-week ban now. With the Senate, House and presidency all controlled by the Democrats, the bill won’t pass. He knows this. Other Republicans know this. Everybody knows this. Proposing the 15-week ban now allows Senator Graham to position himself as a “pro-life” leader while allowing many of his Republican colleagues to feign distance from an abortion ban and position themselves as more moderate on the issue, just weeks before the midterm elections.

This proposed ban has given national Republicans precisely the kind of headlines they only could have dreamed of a few weeks ago. “Republicans Struggle to Unite Party Around National Abortion Restrictions,” reads the New York Times. “Graham’s abortion ban stuns Senate GOP,” says Politico. At ABC News, the headline is even more explicit: “Graham’s proposed near-total abortion ban quickly meets GOP resistance.”

The narrative spin is working –– mainstream media coverage is suddenly allowing many Republicans to masquerade as far more moderate on the issue of abortion than their voting records or previous statements would indicate. Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked any attempt to protect abortion rights at the federal level. Senate Republicans have embraced and voted for numerous restrictions, including a 20-week abortion ban just two years ago.

Now, instead of talking about how Republicans have created a post-Roe hellscape in which 10-year-old rape victims are forced to travel out of state for abortion care, or a pregnant woman was forced to carry a dead fetus inside of her for two weeks after she miscarried, the media narrative is focused on how Senate Republicans refuse to support Graham’s 15-week abortion ban.

Abortion is once again reduced to a political football, and Republicans now have a narrative opening to slither out of the hole they dug for themselves by using this doomed-from-the-start abortion ban as a straw man for their moderating posture. For decades, Republicans put in the tedious work of shifting the legislative goal posts around abortion further and further to the right, all while publicly posturing about moderation and settled law, chiding abortion rights supporters as “hysterical” for asserting that Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court was a death knell for Roe v. Wade. Now, they’re doing it again with their response to this 15-week abortion ban.

Make no mistake –– there has been no change of heart for this party. The proposed abortion ban and the resulting Republican arm-flailing aren’t the result of a moderated approach to abortion rights. This is a cynical ploy to lure the American public into helping Republicans shift the narrative away from their extremism. It’s well past time to stop letting them get away with it.

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