Republicans Make Life a ‘States’ Issue’ at Their Peril
There’s a reason men like Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) are so popular: they lead without apology. After years of timidity from the Republican Party, they've been a refreshing change from the hand-wringing GOP who wilted under cultural pressure. For a while, it looked like Republicans had really leaned into this warrior mentality, refusing to be intimidated in the toughest of debates. Then Dobbs happened — and the old reflex of cowardice is back, threatening to undo every pro-life stand the party has ever taken.
If voters can smell fear, then Republicans stink. Doubt and hesitation have crept into the camp, prompting key leaders to step back from an issue that’s defined them for four decades: abortion. Almost a year into their mangled messaging, the GOP still hasn’t found the spine to articulate their position on life — or the Democrats’ position on death. Terrified that their platform will sink Republicans in 2024, strategists have been frantically advising candidates to ignore abortion after last summer’s Dobbs decision.
Unfortunately for the pro-life movement, the GOP has listened, collectively wussing out on a humanitarian crisis that’s defined them for a half-century. It’s a states’ rights issue now, they dodge. No, it’s a human rights issue, pro-lifers argue.
Caring more about their careers than innocent lives, weak-kneed moderates like New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu (R) are telling Republicans to clam up, claiming (wrongly) that “any conversation about banning abortion or limiting it nationwide is an electoral disaster …”
And that toxic line of thinking hasn’t just affected the party’s squishes but the more conservative wing too. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told voters that abortion is “a personal issue” that should be left to the states — a dramatic change from the days when she was addressing SBA List’s annual gala. Senators like John Cornyn (R-Texas) tried to explain that he was “proud of the votes” he cast on life in Congress, but quickly pivoted that he didn’t think it’s “appropriate now after Roe has been overruled to do this from Washington, D.C.”
In the pro-life movement, the shock over the GOP’s desertion has turned to outrage. “If you don’t understand killing children is a federal issue, you shouldn’t be running for federal office,” said Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America. Live Action’s Lila Rose piled on, “Imagine supporting a candidate who said that slavery was a ‘states rights’ issue,” she tweeted.
Even GOP stalwarts seem to be walking an unnecessary tightrope on an issue that Americans would agree with them on, if they bothered to talk about it. Fortunately, the head of the Republican National Committee doesn’t share those misguided views, telling her party to buck up and start leading again. “Polling shows that when the choice is between a Democrat who wants zero abortion restrictions and a Republican who supports protecting life, at 15 weeks, we win by 22 points,” Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pointed out in late April. A 15-week national pro-life standard wins over “72% of voters, including 60% of Democrats [who] support protecting unborn children.”
“We are the pro-life, pro-woman, pro-family party, and we can win on abortion. But that means putting Democrats on the defense and forcing them to own their own extreme positions,” she argued.
Others, like Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) are urging congressional Republicans to compromise on abortion, to find middle ground. To that, Family Research Council’s Mary Szoch fired back, “You can kill a baby, or you can’t. There is no middle ground.” Democrats aren’t negotiating on their position — taxpayer-funded abortion right up the moment of birth — “we shouldn’t either,” she argued.
To leaders like FRC President Tony Perkins, the fact that the GOP is even having this conversation is infuriating. After all, he pointed out, they’ve taken almost two dozen votes on federal bills to limit or regulate abortion in the last two congresses alone. What’s changed?
Absolutely nothing, FRC Action Vice President Brent Keilen insisted. “The science hasn’t changed. And so the policies that the Republican Party has stood for over the last decades that … are based off of the science, those positions should not change either. Just the past five years alone,” he noted, “we’ve had 21 votes at the federal level on pro-life policy. The majority of those were votes explicitly to protect unborn children at some level in the pregnancy. Some of them were to prohibit taxpayer funds from being used to subsidize abortion, and then a few others were related to the pro-life cause in other ways. … And those who voted for these said, ‘We do believe that the federal government does have a role to play in this.’ And there’s no reason that needs to change.”
When the Supreme Court struck down the bloody legacy of Roe v. Wade, they put the decision in the hands of America’s elected officials. But nowhere in the ruling did the justices limit that action to state leaders. “I’ll be very candid,” Perkins said. “It makes it sound as if it’s a political issue — that they’re concerned about the political fallout of this.”
For months, the GOP let the Democrats’ define their position of protecting life as “extreme.” But, as McDaniel warned, “When you don’t respond, the lies become the truth.” It’s time, she and so many other party leaders have said, to put the Left on the defensive. “We want to protect unborn children when they can feel pain. Where will you draw the line?” Once conservatives have the guts to do that, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “They will stumble all over themselves, or the Left will get mad if they have limits. So it’s a winning issue only if you fight back.”
Fighting back was never a problem before Dobbs, Perkins pointed out. Just a few years ago, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that would have stopped abortions after 20 weeks got 53 votes from GOP senators. “So the question again is: What’s changed in this post-Roe world? We’re talking about a federal law [which] would not usurp state laws that could be more conservative.” Florida, he reminded people, just passed a six-week threshold for abortion. Others have gone farther. But when you look at where the American people are, he continued, “67% of Americans believe that when a child feels pain … we should not have abortion beyond that.”
Of course, the irony of the Republicans’ punting abortion to the states in the name of electability is that life is one of the driving issues for their base. “If we do go down this path and say it’s completely a states’ rights issue,” Keilen warned, “what could it do to key voting blocs? You know, there are these groups of people that have been faithful supporters of the Republicans because of where they have stood on this issue.”
Conversely, he said, “[T]he standard position of the Democrat Party is only supported by about one in five Americans. So you have 80% of the country, according to recent polling, that opposes abortion for any reason up until the moment of birth at taxpayer expense. … So if you message on this, well, the vast majority of Americans are with you on this issue.”
Abandoning abortion isn’t the answer. Turning the tables on Democrats is. Back in the day, Szoch told The Washington Stand, protecting life “was often a bipartisan effort, with even current pro-abortion activist President Joe Biden supporting legislation like the Hyde Amendment, which protected taxpayer dollars from abortion.” Now, she says, “congressional efforts to protect the unborn have been completely one-sided, with Republicans leading the charge to stand up for the most vulnerable.” The GOP has even had to introduce legislation “protecting babies from the evil of infanticide,” and incredibly, almost no Democrats have joined them. “But what Democrats have supported, time and time again, is legislation to kill an unborn child up to the moment of birth — paid for with taxpayer dollars.”
Now that the Dobbs decision has given Republican legislators at the state and federal level the opportunity to defend life, the GOP cannot back down from this fight. “The unborn cannot speak for themselves,” Szoch insists, so “those in Congress must be bold enough to speak for them. Republicans need to be brave,” she said, “and call for the executive branch to enforce all existing laws protecting unborn children’s lives — this includes the distribution of the abortion drug, mifepristone, by mail. They need to call for the reinstatement of every executive action protecting life that President Biden has undone.”
“They need to fight until the day when people are no longer voting on which innocent human beings have the right to live and which ones can be killed. The Republican Party cannot become the party of ‘not in my state, but still legal.’”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.