The precedent of Roe v. Wade has often offered a shield to politicians in both parties when it comes to discussing abortion, allowing them to take up their preferred label — “pro-choice” or “pro-life” — without wading into the details.
But the leak this week of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark ruling has cracked that shield, forcing many lawmakers and candidates to explain how they approach abortion morally and politically.
The court has warned that the ruling is not final, but with a post-Roe world seemingly on the horizon, Republicans face new pressure to define exactly where they stand on issues like full abortion bans, exceptions for rape or incest, and criminal penalties for abortion.
Democrats, for their part, have few immediate judicial or legislative options and must figure out a long-term political answer, which means confronting head-on an issue many in the party have long treaded carefully around.
We took a look at the different camps in each party that are emerging ahead of the midterm elections:
The Republican absolutists
For the Republicans most devoted to the decades-long effort to ban abortion, the news that Roe could soon fall opened the floodgates of more restrictive legislation.
In Louisiana, state lawmakers advanced a proposal that would classify abortion as homicide.
In South Carolina on Tuesday, Gov. Henry McMaster, when asked by local reporters if the state should push for a more aggressive measure than its current 20-week ban, said, “The more we can protect life in South Carolina, the better it will be for everybody involved.” Asked if there should be exceptions to an abortion ban, McMaster said, “I believe not.”
Other anti-abortion Republicans tried to rile up the party’s base. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida wrote on Twitter, referring to protesters outside the Supreme Court, “How many of the women rallying against overturning Roe are over-educated, under-loved millennials who sadly return from protests to a lonely microwave dinner with their cats, and no bumble matches?”
Such comments didn’t quite align with the approach recommended by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. According to a memo obtained by Axios, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm advised its members to “be the compassionate, consensus builder on abortion policy.”
Roger Severino, vice president of domestic policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, “All discussions of abortion should focus on compassion for the child and the mother.”
From Opinion: A Challenge to Roe v. Wade
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Severino, who served as director of the civil rights office of the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration, said the country had a “long way to go to make abortion unthinkable.”
“The hard work is to get from where we are to where we want to go, and what intermediate steps it may take,” Severino said.
Republicans who support exceptions, or some abortion rights
McMaster’s model isn’t the only way to be anti-abortion in South Carolina.
Senator Lindsey Graham, another Republican from the state, has long been a champion of the federal Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks with exceptions, including for rape, incest and saving the life of the mother. He reiterated his support for that legislation this week.
To Graham’s left are his Republican colleagues Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have long described themselves as supporters of abortion rights. “It rocks my confidence in the court right now,” Murkowski said of the draft opinion.
She told my colleague Emily Cochrane: “It was not the direction that I believed the court would take based on statements that have been made about Roe being settled and being precedent.”
Collins told Times reporters, “My goal is to codify what is essentially existing law,” specifying that she meant Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Democrats have put forward such legislation, which is set for a vote next week, but Collins opposes the bill because it does not have provisions allowing Catholic hospitals to decline to perform abortions. The legislation is all but certain to fail.
Democrats vowing to fight — but with limited ammunition
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, spoke to protesters outside the Supreme Court the day after the news broke to rally support for abortion rights.
“I am here because I am angry, and I am here because the United States Congress can change all of this,” she said. “Angry but committed.”
On Friday morning, Warren told CBS News that the next step was to hold a vote on Democrats’ abortion rights bill. “We want to get everybody on the record,” she said.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, expressed the same sentiment at a Thursday news conference. Pressed on Democrats’ strategy, he said everything would be decided after the Senate vote.
“Which side are you on?” he said of Republican senators. “You can’t duck it anymore, which they’ve done for a very long time.”
He added, “Once we have that vote, we’ll look at the best way to get things done.”
But the reality behind Warren and Schumer’s forceful words was that Democrats currently have few options in Congress. While they narrowly control the Senate, they do not have the votes needed to codify abortion rights, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said this week that he still opposed any changes to the filibuster.
That has left Democrats and abortion-rights groups looking ahead to the midterms, hoping that the abortion fight will turn their fortunes around in a hugely challenging year for the party.
“It is Republicans across the country who are vowing to criminalize abortion, and Republicans who have fought to take away our freedom to make our own health care decisions,” said Ronja Abel, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List. “Democrats are united in understanding abortion is on the ballot this election, and the only way to prevent states from enacting cruel and punishing laws taking away our freedoms is to elect a pro-choice Democratic majority.”
The State of Roe v. Wade
What is Roe v. Wade? Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme court decision that legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 ruling was announced on Jan. 22, 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a modest Midwestern Republican and a defender of the right to abortion, wrote the majority opinion.
Democrats wondering what went wrong
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, speaking at Planned Parenthood’s headquarters in Los Angeles on Wednesday, asked why Democrats who control Washington weren’t doing more.
“I’ve felt this enormous sense of frustration,” he said. “Like, where the hell is my party? Where’s the Democratic Party?
“Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely?” he added.
Newsom pressed Democrats to develop a counteroffensive to combat misinformation from Republicans, not just on abortion but also on issues like critical race theory.
He praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian, saying she had delivered, but he lamented that the Senate wasn’t picking up her momentum. He said he understood that President Biden was “doing all he can to deal with a hundred different crises,” but argued that Democrats needed to do more.
“Yes, they’re winning,” Newsom said of Republicans, who have enacted legislation across the country on a spectrum of conservative priorities. “They are. They have been. Let’s acknowledge that. We need to stand up. Where’s the counteroffensive?”
A protest and its observers
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Sarahbeth Maney told us about capturing the image above on Tuesday:
A couple of hours into photographing an abortion rights protest in response to the Supreme Court’s potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, it became apparent that the protesters outside the court were predominantly women.
I wandered across the street, to the outskirts of the protest, because I noticed men in suits walking past and holding up their phones to capture what was going on from a distance.
After lowering their cellphones, they stood there for a moment and talked with each other, which was when I made this photo. Although their faces are not in the frame, I think the image is revealing about the public and American politics.
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