Rich Lowry: The Republicans can’t run and hide on abortion

(Shuran Huang | The New York Times) Anti-abortion demonstrators celebrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court on Friday overruled Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion after almost 50 years.

The Republican Party only had about a half-century to prepare for the end of Roe v. Wade yet is still scared and confused now that the late, unlamented decision is no longer with us.

It may be that the media is exaggerating the extent that the Dobbs decision has changed the trajectory of the midterms, but there is no doubt that it has energized Democrats and that pro-lifers suffered a signal defeat in a Kansas referendum in early August.

Some Republicans seem to think they can run and hide from the issue, a cowardly tack that won’t work. To the extent that Republicans are vague and non-responsive, Democrats will eagerly fill in the gaps with Handmaid’s Tale-level dystopian accusations of extremism.

Other Republicans apparently believe that they can act as if it is still the pre-Dobbs world when staking out maximalist positions -- for instance, bans with no exceptions for rape or incest -- had no significant downside because such proposals would never take effect. No more. Most places, this is politically deadly overreach.

The answer here is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, simple, if not necessarily easy. Pro-life Republicans should say that they ultimately seek sweeping protections for unborn life but realize that they have to do much more public persuasion and, in the meantime, support a compromise proposal of some sort, say a gestational limit of 15 weeks.

For pro-lifers, this falls painfully short. But it would be in keeping with the trajectory of successful past campaigns of moral and social reform -- settle for progress in the right direction, occupy politically defensible ground, and then advance over time.

Meanwhile, abortion restrictions are under assault for allegedly not providing broad and clear enough exceptions for the health of the mother. In a viral video out of South Carolina last week, a Republican state representative said he regretted voting for a heartbeat bill, banning abortion after about six weeks, after he heard an excruciating story of a 19-year-old denied care for her miscarriage.

According to Rep. Neal Collins, a doctor told him the usual standard of care would have potentially involved removing the fetus immediately. But the heartbeat bill supposedly prevented that, and the woman went home to expel the fetus on her own and assume enormous health risk.

The South Carolina law, though, like most such restrictions around the country, stipulates that the prohibition “does not apply to a physician who performs a medical procedure that, by any reasonable medical judgment, is designed or intended to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent the serious risk of a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

This should have been ample warrant for the young woman to get the appropriate care (and she did end up returning to the medical facility for the requisite treatment). This looks like a case of a bad reading of the law causing unnecessary medical distress and creating a horror story with considerable political resonance.

In a paper on health exceptions, the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute notes: “It would be prudent for state medical boards, state medical societies, state boards of pharmacy, hospital quality committees, and hospital attorneys to provide more detailed guidance to doctors on how to reach a determination that abortion is necessary. Tragically, this type of guidance appears slow in coming.”

It’d also help if Democrats stopped lying about these laws, although that’s not going to happen. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the other day that the Texas pro-life law will “block medical providers from providing life-saving and health-preserving care,” a blatant falsehood. The Texas law has a clear life-of-the-mother exception and explicitly excludes treatment for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies from its definition of abortion.

At the moment, though, such falsehoods are carrying the day. To find their footing, Republicans will have to be courageous and shrewd, two qualities so far in short supply.

Rich Lowry Courtesy photo

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

Twitter, @RichLowry