Published April 18, 2023
The Republican Party’s fumbling response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade has caused some in the party to plead for a surrender. Disappointing midterms returns, a string of lost referenda and party in-fighting has led some right-wing commentators to tell the pro-life movement — in no uncertain terms — to get with the program and move on.
But at least one presumed presidential hopeful didn’t get the memo. Last week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Heartbeat Protection Act” into law. Observers were quick to write his political obituary; it’s an aggressive move in the one of the most pro-choice red states. But it confirms his reputation as a principled conservative willing to expend political capital to achieve meaningful victories.
The law won’t go into effect until a pending state Supreme Court case is decided. If it does take effect, it will ban abortion in Florida after six weeks’ gestation, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Crucially, it will also offer a broader array of social safety net spending to aid women facing unexpected pregnancies.
If given truth serum, the governor would probably admit this wasn’t his ideal time to pick this fight. Signing the bill took some political bravery — the same bravery DeSantis showed in taking on “woke” multinational corporations, Covid-era conventional wisdom and various apparatchiks of an elite consensus. But, like the other fights, DeSantis’s decision could demonstrate that rank-and-file elected Republicans don’t need to be afraid of the abortion issue.
A six-week ban is an aggressive move, especially in a state that is more fiscally conservative than socially so. But 97.9 percent of abortions in Florida took place in the fifteenth week of gestation or before, so the fifteen-week ban signed by DeSantis last year was largely symbolic. For the pro-life movement, additional steps had to be taken — and were.
Crucially, the recently signed six-week ban includes explicit exemptions for the hard edge cases that can put some pro-lifers on the back foot rhetorically. Republicans need to learn to speak openly about these exemptions to diffuse common lines of attack. The Florida law underscores the need to be crystal-clear about the difficult circumstances of rape and incest that merit a prudential exemption to pro-life legislation, including laying out an easily understood standard of care for women facing potentially life-threatening complications.
It also pairs restrictions on the supply of abortion with funding that could reduce the perceived demand. The bill earmarks $25 million for a statewide network of non-profit pregnancy support organizations. Ensuring that pregnant moms have ready access to child care assistance, financial supports, and daily necessities like formula and diapers is an essential aspect of building a pro-life climate.
The pro-life stance has undoubtedly fared poorly on ballot initiatives. Faced with the choice between an excessively strict or an excessively lax approach to abortion law, voters in Kentucky, Kansas and other states have expressed a desire to err on the pro-choice side. Stressing those common-sense exemptions and committing to meaningful supports will tamp down some frequent pro-choice attack lines.
Being pro-life may not be the albatross around the neck of Republicans politicians some of the faux-realist political minds think it is. A Harvard-Harris poll taken in the wake of the Dobbs decision found 49 percent of respondents thought their state should allow abortion either up to six weeks or in cases of rape and incest. DeSantis himself has paired staunchly conservative culture war stances with moves on environmental protection and teacher pay that appeal to the center, and he’s not the only Republican to find similar success.
Just a couple hours north from Tallahassee, Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed a similarly strong pro-life law and won re-election by eight points against an opponent widely thought to be formidable. In Ohio, a formerly purple swing state like Florida, Governor Mike DeWine also signed a ban on abortion after six weeks and was re-elected by twenty-five points. Texas governor Greg Abbott signed laws widely restricting abortion and expanding support for centers that provide aid to pregnant women, and won re-election by eleven points.
No one would argue that Republicans should be putting abortion at the top of their electoral pitch. But they shouldn’t run away from it either. The political courage of the Heartbeat Protection Act should remind figures with national aspirations that the marriage between the pro-life movement and the Republican Party can still be mutually beneficial. The approach to both protecting unborn life and supporting mothers being taken in Florida, alongside Texas and Indiana before it, offers Republicans firm ground to stand on. They’d be wise to take it.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.