National Republicans Need a Pro-Life Messaging Strategy

Published February 14, 2023

National Review

Deflecting the blame from himself for the Republicans’ midterm underperformance, Donald Trump asserted that “the ‘abortion issue’” was to blame, “poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother, that lost large numbers of voters.”

A number of strategists and politicians on both sides of the aisle share this view: The pro-life movement is an albatross around the neck of the GOP. With some combination of ignorance, malice, and motivated reasoning, these observers propose that Republicans should sideline the issue and trot out abortion-related talking points only when strictly necessary to retain the pro-life vote.

If they do so, they run the risk of alienating pro-lifers who expect far more from the GOP in a post-Roe context. But they’re also forfeiting an opportunity to draw a forceful distinction between the reasonable pro-life message and the unpopular view of their opponents.

Looking ahead to 2024, GOP leaders and candidates shouldn’t convince themselves they can succeed by playing defense. The central lesson of last cycle was this: Refusing to articulate a clear, positive position on abortion leaves a vacuum that abortion activists are only too eager to fill with falsehoods.

Consider the messaging battle surrounding care for pregnant women in life-threatening situations. Abortion activists have endeavored to convince the country that pro-lifers will let pregnant women die rather than permit abortions. Moderate voters in Midwestern states were willing to support pro-abortion ballot measures or oppose pro-life ones primarily out of fear that anti-abortion laws left no room for pregnant women to receive emergency medical care. When offered what they believe is an “all or nothing” choice on abortion, most voters will choose “all.” The medical-emergency argument is false and easy to refute, but after nearly a year, most Republicans have yet to offer a clear and convincing rebuttal.

It wouldn’t be hard to do. Every pro-life law in the country allows for medical care to preserve a mother’s life or prevent serious bodily harm. Procedures to resolve an ectopic pregnancy or placenta previa, for instance, never require abortion, which is a direct and intentional procedure to kill the unborn child. But this message has yet to make it to the American people, in large part because pro-life politicians have been too afraid to share it — and they have let the other side define them, to their detriment.

Congressional Republicans would be wise to learn from last year’s mistakes. The post-Roe landscape demands far more than a lukewarm “states only” pro-life strategy, and movement leaders have already clarified that such an approach will no longer be enough to merit their support. Rather than running in fear from the might of Planned Parenthood and NARAL, national Republican leaders should develop an equally powerful messaging strategy.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say that they want abortion to be totally illegal, to be permitted only when a mother’s life is at risk or she has been raped, or to be illegal after the first trimester. This super-majority has far more in common with the GOP platform than with Democrats, who oppose safety policies for chemical-abortion drugs and parental notification for minors seeking abortions and who favor a federal right to taxpayer-funded abortion, for any reason, throughout pregnancy.

Republicans, by contrast, favor enacting as protective pro-life laws as are politically feasible while continuing to advocate more protective policies down the road. If Democrats win elections on the basis of abortion, it is not because their platform is more politically palatable; it is because they misrepresent both their own position and that of the GOP while Republicans stay silent.

National GOP politicians serious about winning elections must use this coming session to draw that sharp distinction between the incremental pro-life strategy and the abortion absolutism of the Democrats. They must push relentlessly for votes on popular pro-life bills like the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Children Protection Act, along with more protective proposals like the Heartbeat Protection Act.

Republicans should also draw more attention to pro-life efforts to support mothers and families rather than cower in fear at the common refrain that “pro-lifers only care about babies until they’re born.” Decades of pro-life activism prove this wrong. What’s more, not a single abortion clinic offers resources to mothers who wish to avoid abortion. Rarely do GOP politicians share this information with the public.

The American people are hungry for a new conversation about abortion and for a set of leaders who eschew the vitriol that so often characterizes our debate. Republicans have the opportunity to showcase a generation of compassionate, forthright leaders who speak of how abortion harms the unborn child and the pregnant mother, who insist on protections for the child in the womb and on a culture that embraces mothers and families. It would be a mistake not to prioritize that message.

EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.

EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.

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