Dobbs at One Year: Political Parties Remain Entrenched on Abortion
On June 24, 2022, pro-life Americans witnessed the equivalent of a modern-day miracle when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the court’s majority opinion. With these words, decades of prayer, lobbying, and legislating were realized. For the first time since 1973, the American people, through their elected representatives, had the power to protect unborn children.
Much has transpired in the year since Dobbs. Many states — including Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia — have passed legislation to protect unborn children. Other states — including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington — have expanded their abortion laws.
In January 2023, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives used their new majority to pass the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, legislation that would require health care practitioners to provide the same life-saving medical care to babies born alive after an abortion attempt as they would any other baby born at the same gestational age. A resolution condemning violence against pro-life facilities was also passed the same day. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has refused to bring up these measures in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate.
Predictably, the abortion debate has largely fallen along partisan lines, with most Republicans in favor of extending protections to unborn children and most Democrats in favor of expanding abortion. At the one-year anniversary of Dobbs, both parties have had to grapple with the issue, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have had to go on record regarding their views on life. Public statements in the aftermath of Dobbs and the flurry of abortion-related legislation in the states have provided ample evidence of the guiding worldview of each party.
First, consider the public reaction from political leaders to Dobbs. Following the court’s decision, former President Donald Trump called it “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation.” Former Vice President Mike Pence also praised the decision, noting, “Today, Life Won. By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court of the United States has given the American people a new beginning for life and I commend the Justices in the majority for having the courage of their convictions.” Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-W.Va.), the chair of the Senate Pro-Life Caucus, stated, “I am grateful to God for His divine guidance in the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs.”
Conversely, Democrats were apoplectic about the court’s reversal of Roe. President Joe Biden denounced the decision, claiming it “casts a dark shadow over a large swath of the land.” A few days later, the president called for an exception to the Senate filibuster in order to codify a right to abortion. Former president Barack Obama also expressed outrage, tweeting, “Today, the Supreme Court not only reversed nearly 50 years of precedent, it relegated the most intensely personal decision someone can make to the whims of politicians and ideologues — attacking the essential freedoms of millions of Americans.” Likewise, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “Today’s Supreme Court opinion will live in infamy as a step backward for women’s rights and human rights.” Finally, Schumer expressed the sentiment of his Democratic colleagues, lamenting, “Today is one of the darkest days our country has ever seen.”
Second, the parties’ positions on abortion are evident in the types of legislation passed in blue versus red states. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed The Heartbeat Protection Act into law earlier this year. This new law makes abortion illegal after six weeks and prohibits state money from being used to finance agencies that provide abortions. The bill also prohibits the delivery of abortion-inducing drugs through the mail.
Nebraska and North Carolina both passed laws in May 2023 that protect unborn children beginning at 12 weeks. South Carolina also passed new pro-life legislation in May, prohibiting abortion after cardiac activity can be detected (around six weeks into pregnancy). Idaho has criminalized helping minors procure out-of-state abortions. And in Utah, a new law seeking to ban clinics from carrying out abortions is pending due to litigation.
Alternatively, blue states have expanded their abortion laws. For example, Maryland recently passed a law to enshrine abortion as a “fundamental right” in the state. Hawaii dropped its few pro-life protections by passing legislation that physician assistants can carry out medical and surgical abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy. Additionally, the new law repeals a requirement that abortions be carried out at a hospital or clinic. In April, Minnesota passed a law that provides legal protection for people traveling to the state for an abortion. Finally, Rhode Island enacted a law this spring that allows state funds to pay for health insurance that covers abortion for state employees and Medicaid recipients.
An uncomfortable reality for many pro-life conservatives is that for decades, many state legislators ran on a pro-life platform, knowing they could affect little change in state law so long as Roe was in place. After Dobbs, amid the push to enact pro-life legislation in many red states, many of these lawmakers showed their true colors. For example, in South Carolina, three Republican state senators successfully thwarted three attempts by the Republican supermajority to pass a bill that would protect unborn children at conception. Only after the governor called a rare special session was a six-week protection bill passed.
The same story played out in Nebraska. Republican legislators in the unicameral legislature needed 33 votes to end a Democrat-led filibuster on advancing a bill that would protect unborn children after an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity (at about six weeks into a pregnancy). Unfortunately, state Senator Merv Riepe (R) intentionally withheld his vote, voting “present.” Despite pleas from Governor Jim Pillen (R) to honor his pledge as a pro-life senator, Riepe refused, forcing the chamber to settle for a 12-week bill. “Pro-life has shades of gray,” Riepe said after the vote.
As the 2024 presidential election gets underway, abortion remains a key issue, and candidates will need to navigate a post-Roe political landscape that has thus far favored pro-abortion referendums. Thus, as the election nears, pro-life conservatives will need to simultaneously expose the extreme positions of the Left while holding ostensibly pro-life candidates accountable.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of Roe’s demise, pro-life Americans have much for which to be grateful. Dobbs and subsequent pro-life victories in the states are cause for celebration. But statements by top Democrat leaders and the raft of pro-abortion legislation in blue states remind us that the work to protect unborn children has only just begun.
Pro-life leaders must learn from the mistakes of the 2022 midterms (such as the tendency of some candidates to downplay their pro-life convictions) and focus on a few key messaging points, such as the humanity of the unborn and the Left’s extreme position of abortion through all nine months of pregnancy that exploits women and kills unborn children.
Rather than shying away from the issue, pro-life leaders should lead boldly, embracing the pro-life cause and explaining to Americans why protecting unborn children and their mothers is a good policy in line with the nation’s highest ideals. This won’t be easy, but great political and legislative victories rarely are. But a pro-life ethic pursued consistently and comprehensively can advance by God’s grace. For anyone who doubts this, just remember where we were a year ago — and how far we’ve come.
David Closson is Director of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.