Opinion: How to keep Biden from riding reproductive rights to the White House

Published March 28, 2024

CNN Opinion

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court heard a case that could scale back the availability of mifepristone, one of two drugs used in medication abortion. The decision will likely underscore, yet again, how much work the GOP has before it to advance socially conservative goals without turning off voters in the political middle.

For decades, the relationship between the Republican Party establishment and advocates who showed up to pray outside abortion clinics or rally against Roe v. Wade was an instrumental one.

Republican leaders knew those — such as myself — who see abortion as an act of lethal violence against an unborn child would be unlikely to find a political home in the Democratic Party and could be a reliable source of votes if they could be energized with some platitudes about the sanctity of life. With Roe the law of the land, pro-life rhetoric that couldn’t be acted upon was cheap talk.

The weakness of that strategy became apparent in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe in 2022. Republican elected officials too often found themselves running scared from the topic of reproductive health, knowing their positions tended to be unpopular with the majority of Americans. Extreme proposals — like a bill introduced last year by GOP lawmakers at South Carolina’s House of Representatives that proposed the death penalty for women who have abortions — didn’t help. (The bill didn’t advance after losing co-sponsorship of several Republicans)

The recent Alabama Supreme Court decision on in vitro fertilization, which ruled that frozen embryos should be legally treated like children, was yet another topic elected officials tried to change the subject on as fast as possible. On Tuesday, aided by the state’s Supreme Court decision, Marilyn Lands, a Democrat who made reproductive rights a central part of her campaign, won a special election for an Alabama state House seat that had been held by a Republican.

And the mifepristone case — however it is decided — brings the topic of reproductive health and abortion back to the forefront in a presidential election year. While a majority of justices on the high court seemed skeptical of limiting access to the abortion pill during oral arguments Tuesday, the case underscores how relying on legal arguments to effect cultural change can backfire.

Too many Republicans are operating in a pre-Dobbs framework, where they can point to perceived progressive extremism on abortion — the fact that few elected Democrats will, for example, openly support restrictions even in the third trimester — or pivot to the border or the economy. But that strategy didn’t inoculate Republicans from an anti-Dobbs boomlet in 2022. The only thing worse than holding politically unpopular positions is not knowing how to defend them.

Part of the GOP’s struggle is because of shifting public opinion. The share of adults who believe abortion should be available for any reason at any point in pregnancy appears to be on the rise. But it is also because the Republican Party and the conservative movement have somewhat different goals and strategies.

Republican politicians know that the bulk of public opinion is skeptical or opposed to some anti-abortion tactics, such as restricting self-managed abortions, that conservative activists would like to see.

And many are unsure about what a consistent approach to human dignity might look like in law. After 50 years of being able to rely on Roe to provide cover, they are now in a cultural and political battle rather than a legal fight over whether the Constitution protects any right to abortion. Republican officeholders now have to back up their pre-Dobbs cheap talk with real pro-life action and rhetoric that can win hearts and minds — and some have been proven unable to do so.

Take Kellyanne Conway, longtime GOP pollster and former adviser to former President Donald Trump, who has been advising Republicans to trumpet their support of IVF and access to contraception.

She recently told a Washington, DC, health care event that Republicans should stop talking about Democrats being extreme on abortion and instead focus on consensus. She also said she doesn’t know many “pro-life” Republicans who believe an embryo is a human life.

But that belief is, of course, the fundamental premise that drives many social conservatives to have qualms about the way IVF is practiced in the United States, and to oppose the US Food and Drug Administration’s pandemic-era relaxation around the way abortion-inducing drugs are prescribed.

The Biden administration certainly knows Dobbs, the Supreme Court abortion pill case and related issues are some of the biggest political vulnerabilities for Republicans. Biden campaign officials and surrogates have told reporters they expect to use the ruling in Tuesday’s case to argue that “extreme MAGA” Republicans will be seeking to “control women’s bodies” by further restricting abortion.

If Republicans in Congress follow Conway’s advice to speak in generalities about consensus or respond with silence or change the subject, they’ll leave voters with questions about whether the charges leveled by the Biden campaign may be true.

A better way forward would be that advanced by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who published a memo in January outlining an approach around the issue of life that Republicans should take to heart.

His strategy would “develop and fight for a compassionate, pro-family agenda that counters caricatures of our beliefs and makes life easier for mothers and their children … put Democrats on the defensive about their extreme support for abortion … (and) tell the truth about what abortion is — the taking of innocent life.”

Rubio, whose name has been floated as the possible running mate of Trump, clearly understands that voters need to be reassured that Republicans take issues touching on reproduction and childbirth seriously, with a sense of the real concerns at stake.

Doing so would require the right to develop the ability to speak outside the right-wing echo chamber and to address the concerns of the type of voter who doesn’t necessarily consider themselves fully pro-life or pro-choice.

Improving US regulation of the IVF industry, which some scholars have called a “Wild West,” need not be a partisan fight. Similarly, many taxpayers may disapprove of the Biden administration’s move using public money to indirectly subsidize women seeking an abortion across state lines, or to fund infertility treatments for unmarried individuals through the Department of Defense.

But GOP politicians could commit to doing a better job explaining these objections and recognizing how little trust the public has in them on matters of reproductive health. A more candid, proactive approach, rather than hoping voters won’t notice the broader agenda sought by conservative activists, could help Republicans credibly advance their vision of a pro-life, pro-family America.

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.

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