Opinion: Republicans are finding out that ‘pro-life’ means a lot of things to a lot of people

How the G.O.P. can come up with a new approach to the politics or the issue.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Abortion Free Utah and other groups listen to speakers at the Capitol as they celebrate the end of Roe v. Wade, on Saturday, July 2, 2022.

Electoral results since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision should tell a lot of people in the Republican Party something they absolutely do not want to hear: Even rank-and-file G.O.P. voters are not as pro-life as we might have thought when Roe v. Wade was the law of the land.

That trend was confirmed last month in Ohio — the latest sign that the Republican Party needs to figure out a new way of addressing abortion.

Many conservatives may call themselves pro-life, but in practice, that may be a more aspirational statement than an accurate reflection of hard policy views. Perhaps by figuring out what it now means to be pro-life — and recognizing that pro-life policy is easiest to sell only when it amounts to a ban on abortions later in pregnancy — Republicans can come up with a new approach to the politics of the issue.

Before Roe was overturned, the term “pro-life” covered a lot of ground — which was useful over decades in galvanizing a broad coalition willing to use abortion as a political cudgel. As Republicans are finding out today, “pro-life” means many things to many people.

Depending on which pro-lifer you talk to, “pro-life” could mean believing Roe was incorrectly decided and that under a correct interpretation of the Constitution, states were free to enact anti-abortion laws — though many states would not, and that was fine.

Or it could mean believing this but also being determined and committed to working to pass laws in every state banning abortion, possibly with multiple exceptions. Or it could mean believing Roe was wrongly decided and that federal law or the Constitution (or both) should ban abortions, perhaps with exceptions.

Or it could mean being pro-Roe but at the same time anti-abortion, or it could mean strictly opposing abortion in the second and third trimesters, with only cursory concern about Roe.

Understanding that “pro-life” can mean a variety of things should inform the way Republicans approach this issue. Right now, when many voters — again, even Republican voters — hear the term “pro-life,” their brains process it as denoting an extreme position. Maybe they think of states like Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma, which have imposed near-complete abortion bans.

This trend — in which “pro-life” equals “extreme” — is what Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio pointed to in explaining why voters in the state resoundingly approved a ballot measure enshrining a right to abortion in the state Constitution. As he put it, the pro-life side got clobbered because voters disliked both options, but they particularly disliked the state’s pro-life so-called heartbeat bill, which made abortion illegal beyond about six weeks of pregnancy, and voted to keep some forms of abortion legal.

As Mr. Vance posted on social media, “We have to recognize how much voters mistrust us (meaning elected Republicans) on this issue.”

He wrote, “Giving up on the unborn is not an option. It’s politically dumb and morally repugnant.” He’s still for advocacy that will change hearts and minds and private opinions that could, in time, result in changes in policy views.

But he also recognizes political reality. In that regard, he explained that a position like that taken up by Donald Trump has to become the G.O.P. default as a matter of policy.

Mr. Trump calls himself pro-life: He appointed three pro-life justices to overturn Roe. But he also avoided taking a strong position on, for example, a 15-week federal abortion ban and has harshly criticized the six-week ban in Florida that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law, calling it “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” And he has said that “exceptions are very important.” (In recent years he has identified three exceptions: rape, incest and protecting the life of the pregnant woman.)

This is one area where Republicans’ being so enraptured by Mr. Trump might actually come in handy for them. Echoing what he says on abortion might be salable in such a party, and unlike, say, the 2020 stolen-election proposition, it might actually be a winning message — or at least a less-losing message.

At the moment, it’s the only potentially favorable path G.O.P. candidates have as they head into 2024. Not for nothing, but Mr. Trump, with his squishy abortion position, is running well ahead of the rest of the field.

Nikki Haley has also been squishy. She often calls herself “unapologetically pro-life.” But she has also experimented with explaining her position in terms that conservatives, including staunch pro-lifers, find consistent and comprehensible, even if they disagree. As she put it at that debate, Roe was a bad decision, and federalism — letting each state decide its own abortion policy, as Ohio just did — is good.

Now, this certainly won’t satisfy Republicans who really believe in the Alabama-Arkansas-Oklahoma position. And it’s not clear that it will be magically successful in the near term, unless the G.O.P. can get all — or even many — candidates who use the pro-life label to sing from the same hymn sheet.

It’s also unlikely that the party is going to take the issue of abortion off the table entirely, as European conservatives (broadly) have. There is still too big a part of the Republican base that cares deeply about the issue.

But the party can triage. Focus first on a broadly winning position, which is banning later abortions. And at least for a few years, drop the legislating, especially where it gets into Ohio-like terrain. That is what the pro-life movement will be left with having to do anyway. If the Trump-Vance scenario comes to pass, the pro-life movement will be left with having to change hearts and minds to affect individual behavior based on (shifted) individual opinion rather than focusing mostly on changing laws.

Curiously, though it has been overlooked by many people in the party, it is what George W. Bush, the last Republican president before Mr. Trump, advocated when Roe was still the law of the land. In 2005, Mr. Bush, much more in line with Mr. Vance on abortion than Mr. Trump, said: “We will work with decency and respect to change hearts and minds, one person at a time. In doing so, we will build a lasting culture of life.”

That will need to be the focus for firmly pro-life Americans again.

Liz Mair has served as a campaign strategist for Scott Walker, Roy Blunt, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry. She is the founder and president of Mair Strategies. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.