(WASHINGTON) — Confused yet on where the abortion debate stands? If not, you probably should be.
Three months after securing the biggest victory in their political lives at the Supreme Court, a close ally of former President Donald Trump and a major anti-abortion rights group proposed a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks.
The plan by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America included some exceptions for rape and incest, and got a nod from former Vice President Mike Pence, a hero of the cause.
Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vast majority of abortions occur by 15 weeks. In fact, 93% of abortions happen before 13 weeks.
That means that after decades of promising to end abortions, a major slice of the anti-abortion rights movement just rallied around legislation that would curb only a fraction of them. Why?
“It’s political opportunism by Graham, who is trying to give Republicans a place to stand,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist who runs the Arizona-based consulting firm HighGround.
“But it’s like standing in the middle of a highway,” he added. “There’s no base that’s going to support that.”
It’s an unexpected twist in the never-ending U.S. debate on abortion: As Republicans in statehouses, including those in Georgia, Indiana and West Virginia, embrace near-total abortion bans, strategists are warning these hard-line positions could spook more moderate and independent voters.
With midterm elections on the horizon, several GOP candidates have begun avoiding the issue with at least one — Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters — scrubbing his website of a previous declaration that he is “100% pro life.”
To political strategists like Coughlin, Graham’s proposal was clearly aimed as a lifeline to flailing conservative candidates, even as the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he had no intention of trying to get a floor vote on the bill.
“I think that’s where the country is at. So, I don’t mind talking about pro-life issues,” Graham said Wednesday, adding, “I think my proposal over time will be supported by the public at large.”
Polls show that a majority of Americans support upholding Roe v. Wade, which ruled a right to an abortion up until viability of a fetus, usually around 24 weeks. At the same time, support for abortion rights dwindle as a woman’s pregnancy continues.
Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told ABC News that it opted to swing behind Graham’s proposal as a way of setting a “federal minimum” that showed strong voter support.
The proposed legislation includes a provision that would still allow states to enact tougher restrictions.
“Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has consistently urged elected officials at the federal and state level to be as ambitious as possible to save unborn children while using the tools of democracy to debate and arrive at a consensus,” Carroll wrote in a statement.
Another benefit of Graham’s legislation to his fellow Republicans, some strategists say, could have been to turn the tables on Democrats by asking them to explain their support for second-trimester abortions.
As the CDC data show, such procedures are extremely rare and doctors say they can occur because of severe abnormalities with the fetus or because of risks to their own health.
Yet, as this week wore on, all of that nuance was lost.
GOP lawmakers in Washington and candidates in the field dodged questions on the bill, while Democrats cited a federal ban as extreme. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quipped that Republicans “think that life begins at the candlelight dinner the night before.”
Sarah Isgur, a former Trump administration official and now an ABC News contributor, said that at the end of the day, Graham’s political move just didn’t make sense.
“He’s dividing the GOP base even among pro-life Republicans, and he’s nationalizing a conversation that conservatives argued for decades they wanted decided at the state level,” she said.
Also, Republicans fare better when talking about issues like inflation and crime, she added.
“So why is Graham trying to keep abortion — an issue that clearly energizes Democratic voters more than Republican ones–at the top of the agenda?” Isgur said.
Either way, the underlying message from both parties this week to voters: Let’s not get too caught up in the details on abortion.
“I, for one, want to focus on the inflation numbers that came out today” and the possible railway strike, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina told reporters at one point.
“That’s what people are talking about,” he said.
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