ATLANTA – With no immediate hope of overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion, Republicans around the country are increasingly pushing legislation to restrict the procedure, and Democrats say they'll make the GOP pay in coming elections.
From statehouses to Congress, Republicans have advanced a range of ideas: banning nearly all abortions beyond the 20th week after conception; making abortion clinics follow regulations for surgical care; mandating that clinic physicians have admitting privileges at local hospitals; requiring women to get ultrasounds before terminating a pregnancy.
The issue, which is figuring prominently in early 2016 White House race maneuvering, energizes social conservatives who influence many Republican primaries and drive GOP success in nonpresidential years when the electorate is older, whiter and more conservative. And some Republicans say more moderate voters will support their agenda in the wake of the murder conviction against Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor who jurors determined killed babies who'd survived the procedure.
But Democrats and abortion-rights advocates say Republicans already have overreached — the noticeable uptick in restrictions began with GOP gains in 2010 elections, before Gosnell's prosecution began — and that moderate voters have other priorities.
"Defense workers are being furloughed, student loan interest rates have doubled and these Republicans insist on a relentless pursuit of more restrictions on women's freedoms," said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democrats' national congressional campaign for 2014. "Swing voters are by their very nature moderate; they want solutions, not ideological warfare."
The House of Representatives adopted a 20-week ban in June. It has no chance of passing the Democratic-run Senate. A top anti-abortion lobbyist, National Right to Life Committee president Carol Tobias, told The Associated Press that her organization is working on a bill with the office of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is a high-profile possibility for the 2016 presidential race.
North Carolina's newfound legislative supermajority wants to regulate clinics more heavily. Pat McCrory, the Republican governor announced late Friday he would sign an updated abortion regulation bill if it reaches his desk, saying a legislator had addressed concerns about restricting a woman's access. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called his GOP legislature back into session to consider a 20-week ban and sweeping regulatory changes after a Democratic filibuster derailed the measure and drew national attention last month. The legislature passed the bill Friday, and it's headed to Perry's desk.
Rick Santorum, a failed 2012 presidential candidate who's considering another run, has traveled to Texas to lobby for the bill. Perry, meanwhile, is among several anti-abortion governors mulling a presidential bid. Scott Walker in Wisconsin recently signed a bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions, though a federal judge blocked the law. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal has signed several more restrictive bills, including two these year.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which works on reproductive health issues including abortion-rights, states this year have enacted at least 43 new laws that restrict or further regulate abortion. That comes after more than 120 new laws, several held up by federal courts, the previous two years.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, "There's a political price for Republicans trying to roll back the clock," and some of the legislative debates have already drawn comparisons to Republican losses in 2012, when controversial or scientifically inaccurate statements from Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock grew into a national liability.
Israel predicated abortion would be an issue again in the 2013-14 elections that will determine who controls Congress and dozens of statehouses during the final two years of Democratic President Barack Obama's term. He mentioned 12 Republicans who represent districts that Obama won last year and four more where Republican Mitt Romney won by less than 2 percentage points. Hogue said it could matter in the North Carolina Senate race, as well, particularly if state House Speaker Thom Tillis ends up as the GOP challenger to Sen. Kay Hagan. The first-term senator took to her Twitter account recently to blast Raleigh Republicans. "Women are watching," she wrote.
Democrats need 18 more seats to run the House. Republicans must net a six-seat gain to control the Senate.
At the National Republican Congressional Committee, spokeswoman Andrea Bozek suggested the best GOP strategy would be to shift the conversation to Obama's health care law, key parts of which the president has delayed. "Let's be clear: It's the House Democrats who are extreme on women's health care," she said. "That law is something women are extremely concerned about, and that's the politically toxic issue for Democrats."
Polls on abortion have long suggested nuanced divisions in public opinion. In a May Gallup poll, 26 percent of Americans said the procedure always should be legal; 20 percent said outlaw it in all cases. Fifty-two percent, meanwhile, said it should legal under some circumstances, implying acceptance of legal restrictions. Yet fewer – 42 percent – feel it's morally defensible to end a pregnancy, while 49 percent said it's morally wrong.
A Pew Research Center poll in January, 41 percent said Democrats better represent their views on abortion; 36 percent opted for Republicans on the issue.
"The country is not willing yet to ban all abortions, but they do want a lot more limitations," argued Tobias, the National Right to Life chief. She said tighter clinic regulations and the "fetal-pain bills," the mid-pregnancy bans based on the presumption that a fetus can feel pain at that point, are "very reasonable ... protections for the unborn child and their mothers."
The Supreme Court holds that states can ban most abortions at the point a fetus could survive once born. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has opposed fetal-pain proposals. The group notes that medical professionals date pregnancy from a woman's last menstrual period, not conception or fertilization. The Congress says viability occurs about 24 weeks from the start of a pregnancy and that the most comprehensive study of fetal pain "concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester," which begins with week 28.
Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead predicted Gosnell trial and conviction will prove a turning point. "The other side just talks about the rights of a woman to do what she wants with her body, but they never about the child within that body," Armistead said. "The middle ground will yield to the conservative side the more hard evidence we see that we're dealing with a life inside the woman's body."
Yet voters' ambiguity leaves at least a few Republicans wincing at making abortion a top issue. "Everyone already knows the Republican Party is the pro-life party," said New Hampshire's Steve Duprey, an RNC member who supports abortion rights.
The national party's analysis of the 2012 election loss, released in March with considerable fanfare, didn't mention abortion. But it acknowledged characterizations of the GOP as "narrow minded," ''out of touch" and a party of "stuffy old men" – labels used in focus groups of former Republican voters. Abortion, Duprey said, fits into that critique: "The more strident we sound, the more difficult it becomes" to expand.
But Tobias promised the issue won't go away any time soon. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid does what's expected and doesn't bring an abortion bill to the floor, she said, "We'll just ask the House to vote on it again in 2014."