In 2019, Tennessee state Senator Richard Briggs, a heart surgeon turned politician, voted for a near-total ban on abortion, in a law that was designed to be triggered if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned. Despite being listed as a cosponsor of the bill, Briggs put remarkably little thought into his vote. As ProPublica reports, “Briggs admits he barely read the two-page bill forwarded to his office.” The lawmaker, ProPublica also notes, “never thought it would actually go into effect.”
Anti-abortion politics was an easy enough game for Republican politicians like Briggs—just so long as Roe was the law of the land. Lawmakers could happily say they were pro-life, decry abortion as murder, and pass a few restrictive laws without much fear of either real-world consequences or significant political backlash. Republican politicians were in the fortunate position of criticizing the status quo by offering hypothetical alternatives that couldn’t be evaluated.
But after the Supreme Court overturned Roe in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Organization decision last year, Briggs and other legislators woke up to the reality that they had passed laws that were exceptionally cruel, and which would lead to women dying. As a heart surgeon, Briggs was especially sensitive to complaints from fellow doctors. Briggs has now joined that small contingent of Republicans who are having second thoughts about the anti-abortion prohibitions they once supported. Briggs is pushing to add clear exceptions for rape, incest, the health of the mother, and severe fetal anomalies to the Tennessee ban.
Briggs isn’t the only Republican doing a partial about-face on abortion. Politico reports, “GOP lawmakers pushing for changes to their state abortion laws are pitching them as both good policy and broadly supported by the public, pointing to polls that show their near-total abortion bans are wildly unpopular.” Representative Nancy Mace of North Carolina recently warned that her fellow Republicans are being “tone-deaf” in pushing for anti-abortion laws (although she contradicted herself by voting for two such laws put forward by the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives).
There’s plenty of evidence the pro-choice side is gaining traction in national politics—especially after the GOP suffered a disappointing midterm election in large part due to a backlash against Dobbs. In The New York Times, veteran legal reporter Linda Greenhouse offered an optimistic assessment:
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The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
Abortion is surely not going away as an issue in politics. But it will be just that: an issue, like food safety, reliable public transit, affordable housing and adequate energy supplies. All these, and countless others, are issues in politics, too. We need these things, and if the government won’t provide them, we assume at least that the government won’t stand in the way of our getting them.
The problem with Greenhouse’s account can be seen in her pronoun: “we.” It’s true that a strong majority of Americans can be included in that “we.” Upwards of 80 percent of Americans want abortion to remain legal in some or all circumstances. But there’s still a significant minority—which amounts to a majority of voting Republicans in red states—who aren’t part of that “we.” As Ronald Brownstein points out in The Atlantic, the GOP has suffered no penalty over abortion in states such as Texas and Ohio, although the party took a drubbing in purple states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In the red states, the anti-abortion movement is strong enough to veto any GOP moderation on abortion. In fact, even the very modest exceptions that lawmakers like Briggs are proposing are likely irrelevant in heavily conservative states. As The New York Times reports, while states like Mississippi have legal provisions offering exceptions in extreme circumstances, “in the months since the court’s decision, very few exceptions to these new abortion bans have been granted.” The newspaper adds, “Instead, those with means are traveling to states where abortion is still broadly legal or are obtaining abortion pills at home because the requirements to qualify for exceptions are too steep. Doctors and hospitals are turning away patients, saying that ambiguous laws and the threat of criminal penalties make them unwilling to test the rules.” The overwhelming legal hostility to reproductive freedom in red states makes any proviso allowing for exceptions irrelevant. Medical workers don’t want to test laws that could put them in jail if they are second-guessed by a hostile prosecutor and jury.
Further, Republican defections from anti-abortion orthodoxy are already meeting with a backlash from the base. As Politico reports, “Anti-abortion groups are butting heads with an unexpected opponent as state legislative sessions begin this month: Republican lawmakers.”
Roe was overturned because a small but disciplined anti-abortion movement was able to gain a stranglehold over the Republican Party. This faction used its power to push for extremist judges to overturn Roe. There’s scant evidence that this anti-abortion movement has demobilized in the wake of Dobbs. Even as a small number of lawmakers like Briggs are backtracking on abortion, the anti-abortion movement as a whole feels emboldened to push for further restrictions.
Speaking recently on the syndicated radio program, conservative host Pat Miller said:
Our work as a pro-life movement is far from over. If a young lady can hop in a car in Fort Wayne and in an hour and a half she can be in a place in Michigan or in just under 3 hours, she could cross the line into Illinois and achieve what she was able to do with abortion clinics here in Indiana. The fight is far from over.
Republican Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, a guest on the show, agreed with this sentiment.
As Miller’s comments indicate, the anti-choice movement isn’t satisfied with any federalist solution that leaves abortion to state legislatures to decide. Rather, the anti-choice movement is pushing for tighter restriction on both travel between states and on the shipment of drugs for medication abortions. In The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein notes that medication abortions already make up a majority of abortions and there are increasing efforts by anti-abortion activists to push for a nationwide restriction. The Biden administration has used executive action to allow for wider protection of medication abortion. This has made the issue much more salient and contentious.
As Brownstein observes:
Although the red states have largely walled themselves off from Biden’s efforts on medication abortion, conservatives have launched a multifront attempt to roll back access to the pills nationwide. Students for Life has filed another citizen petition with the FDA, arguing that doctors who prescribe the drugs must dispose of any fetal remains as medical waste. In a joint letter released last week, 22 Republican attorneys general hinted that they may sue to overturn the new FDA rules permitting pharmacies to dispense the drugs. In November, another coalition of conservative groups filed a lawsuit before a Trump-appointed judge in Texas seeking to overturn the original certification and ban mifepristone.
Marilyn Musgrave, vice president for government affairs at an anti-abortion organization named after Susan B. Anthony, told Brownstein, “It is totally unacceptable for a presidential candidate to say, ‘It’s just up to the states’ now. We need a federal role clearly laid out by these presidential candidates.”
Republican politicians are right to be uneasy about their party’s sweeping anti-abortion stance. It’s both politically unpopular—and extremely cruel. But the GOP as a party remains in the thrall of anti-abortion extremists. That fundamental reality won’t change soon.