Can Republicans Bring Abortion Issues Back From the Fringe?

Pushing a 20-week ban, the GOP thinks it can reclaim momentum in the debate and pressure red-state Democrats in 2014.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (L) listens to National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias speak during a news conference to introduce new legislation, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act at the U.S. Capitol November 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Graham, who is seeking a third term in the Senate in 2014, is facing a primary challenge from Tea Party-backed candidate Nancy Mace. After Graham criticized a filibuster against the Obama administration's drone program by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe said Graham is 'begging for a primary' fight. 
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Nov. 8, 2013, midnight

If you think Tues­day’s elec­tions con­vinced Re­pub­lic­ans that abor­tion is a los­ing is­sue, think again.

Sure, anti-abor­tion cru­sader Ken Cuc­cinelli fell short in the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race while the prag­mat­ic gov­ernor of New Jer­sey, Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie, won re-elec­tion in a land­slide.

But just two days later, anti-abor­tion lead­ers ral­lied around Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina as he in­tro­duced a bill that would ban abor­tion after 20 weeks of preg­nancy. By tap­ping in­to wide­spread dis­com­fort with late abor­tions, the bill aims to flip the polit­ic­al script and frame Demo­crats as out­side the main­stream.

“Any Demo­crat who is for late-term abor­tions would prob­ably be a loser in the eyes of the elect­or­ate as a whole,” Gra­ham said Thursday on Cap­it­ol Hill.

Ad­ded Mar­jor­ie Dannen­felser, pres­id­ent of the anti-abor­tion Susan B. An­thony List, “It will be very mo­bil­iz­ing polit­ic­ally and mo­bil­iz­ing elect­or­ally.”

The abor­tion ban already passed the House, but it re­mains a long­shot in the Demo­crat-con­trolled Sen­ate. While the GOP would like to see pro­gress on the le­gis­lat­ive front, Re­pub­lic­ans think the meas­ure car­ries plenty of mes­saging power, help­ing them as they try to re­define the middle ground and squeeze vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors seek­ing re-elec­tion in 2014.

And the polling shows they could be on to something.

A United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­alCon­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll in Ju­ly found that a plur­al­ity, 48 per­cent, of Amer­ic­ans sup­por­ted a ban on abor­tions after 20 weeks, ex­cept in cases of rape and in­cest. Sur­veys by Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity and ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post found even high­er, ma­jor­ity sup­port for cut­ting off abor­tions after 20 weeks.

“This le­gis­la­tion re­flects the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans, both men and wo­men,” said Car­ol To­bi­as, pres­id­ent of Na­tion­al Right to Life.

While Re­pub­lic­ans nav­ig­ate a chasm between their con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots de­mand­ing ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity and more mod­er­ate polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment seek­ing to ex­pand the GOP, op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion con­tin­ues to uni­fy the party. It’s worth not­ing that the two Re­pub­lic­an spon­sors who an­nounced the abor­tion bill have taken steps to try to mod­er­ate and ex­pand their party: Gra­ham has sought solu­tions to cli­mate change and helped pass an im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill, while Sen. Rob Port­man of Ohio was among 10 Re­pub­lic­ans who voted Thursday to ban dis­crim­in­a­tion against gay and les­bi­an em­ploy­ees.

(Gra­ham denied he was tak­ing up the bill to fend off chal­lenges to his con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials in 2014. “I came in­to the polit­ic­al arena pro-life, and I will leave pro-life. Wheth­er or not I leave next June or some oth­er peri­od will be up to the voters in South Car­o­lina,” he said.)

The an­ti­abor­tion move­ment’s case for the re­stric­tion on abor­tions is that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, but the ul­ti­mate goal is more sweep­ing: to push the needle to­ward over­turn­ing Roe v. Wade. That Su­preme Court de­cision leg­al­ized abor­tions un­til a fetus is vi­able out­side the womb, around 24 weeks. Only 1.3 per­cent of abor­tions oc­cur after 21 weeks, the bench­mark used by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

The Sen­ate bill makes ex­cep­tions for vic­tims of rape and in­cest and when the moth­er’s life is in danger, but not for fetal ab­nor­mal­it­ies. Severe and even fatal de­fects can go un­detec­ted un­til a routine ul­tra­sound at 20 weeks, right when the ban would be­gin. Kick­ing off the mes­saging wars, NARAL Pro-Choice Amer­ica began air­ing a na­tion­al cable spot on Thursday fea­tur­ing a wo­man named “Dana” who de­scribed her pain­ful de­cision to get abor­tion after dis­cov­er­ing fetal ab­nor­mal­it­ies after 20 weeks of preg­nancy.

“Once you start talk­ing about the real-life con­sequences on real life people, the con­ver­sa­tion shifts, and we can def­in­itely de­feat this le­gis­la­tion on these terms,” said Ci­anti Stew­art-Re­id, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Planned Par­ent­hood Ad­voc­ates of Vir­gin­ia.

Demo­crats view the bill as self-sab­ot­age by a party widely seen as too con­ser­vat­ive after an un­pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment shut­down over the health care law. After ham­mer­ing Cuc­cinelli as an ex­trem­ist who would out­law abor­tion and birth con­trol, Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe won by nine points among wo­men over­all and a stun­ning 42 points among un­mar­ried wo­men, ac­cord­ing to exit polls.

“One of the big takeaways from this elec­tion was that if Re­pub­lic­ans had half a brain, they’d stop mess­ing with Planned Par­ent­hood,” quipped McAul­iffe poll­ster Geoff Gar­in at a for­um Thursday or­gan­ized by the abor­tion-rights group, which spent $2.4 mil­lion on be­half of McAul­iffe.

Dawn Laguens, ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of the Planned Par­ent­hood Ac­tion Fund, de­scribed the abor­tion is­sue as a “de­coder ring” that sig­nals to voters that a can­did­ate is on the polit­ic­al fringe.

Per­haps. But when it comes to late-term abor­tions, Re­pub­lic­ans think they’ve re­defined what con­sti­tutes the fringy ex­treme.

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