Democrats hoping to use abortion rights to delineate themselves from Republicans in this year’s midterms may have to start reconsidering that strategy. Over the weekend, the West Virginia state legislature became the first Democratic-controlled body to pass a 20-week ban on abortion, and did so by overwhelming margins.
In the house, where Democrats control 53 seats to the Republicans’ 47, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act passed 85–15. In the senate, where Democrats have a much larger stronghold, with 24 out of 34 seats, the bill passed 29–5.
Democrats have largely opposed 20-week bans on abortion, along with most other abortion restrictions, but the news out of West Virginia shows some fragmentation on defending something that’s substantially out of the mainstream.
A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that 64 percent of Americans support prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks, compared with 28 percent who oppose the idea. A Huffington Post/YouGov survey’s results were similar, with a 59–30 split.
The issue could be put to the test in West Virginia’s Senate election this fall. As Democrats hope to hold retiring senator Jay Rockefeller’s seat this year, likely Democratic candidate and current secretary of state Natalie Tennant has already received the backing of EMILY’s List, an organization that supports pro-choice female Democratic candidates and opposes 20-week bans.
Yet the other West Virginia Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, says he supports the 20-week ban in West Virginia, and has expressed interest in such a bill at the federal level, though he harbors constitutional concerns. (He would be the first Senate Democrat to support the bill.)
The likely Republican candidate, Representative Shelley Moore Capito, has voted for a U.S. House bill that put in place a late-term abortion limit. EMILY’s List denounced Capito’s vote and put her on its “On Notice” list. It doesn’t seem to be hurting her much: Capito led Tennant 49 percent to 35 percent in a February Rasmussen poll.
But West Virginia isn’t the only place where Democrats are starting to question their defense of late-term abortions.
Last year, the party cheered a Texas state senator into stardom for filibustering a bill that prohibited abortion after 20 weeks, and she’s now a high-profile gubernatorial candidate.
But even Wendy Davis has somewhat distanced herself from the very issue that propelled her to national prominence. She raised some eyebrows last month when she appeared to suggest that she supported a 20-week ban by itself, saying it had been other provisions in the bill that led to her filibuster. Later, in an attempted clarification, her stance on the matter became more unclear, although she said her position remained the same. Regardless, Davis’ once enthusiastic and widely celebrated stance had been tamped down in recent months as her campaign finds it was out of step with Texas voters. Her campaign materials mention a filibuster she led over education funding, but don’t mention abortion at all.
Legislation similar to the West Virginia bill has been signed in ten other states, all under Republicans legislatures and governors. For now, advocates on both sides will have to wait and see if West Virginia becomes to first Democratic-controlled state to follow that same suit. Democratic governor Earl Ray Tomblin has not stated whether he will sign or veto the bill currently waiting on his desk, but has raised concerns about whether it’s compatible with the U.S. Constitution.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.