Not many Republican elected officials these days argue for a right to abortion. The pro-choice wing of the party is a shriveled thing, as is the once-strong pro-life wing of the Democratic party. But there is still a spectrum of opinion among Republican politicians, as among Republican voters. A few congressmen are passionately pro-life. Others oppose abortion, but do not consider it one of their top issues; some have adopted a pro-life position for political convenience. And some just haven’t thought through the issue at all.
Representative Renee Ellmers (R., N.C.) appears to fall in this last camp. In the last Congress, she voted for a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks with an exception for rapes that had been reported to law enforcement. Over the last few weeks, though, she has complained bitterly about this very same bill, suggesting that it is terrible politics. She said that social issues turn off Millennial voters, oblivious to polling data that showed them more supportive of the bill than their elders.
And she has also attacked the requirement that rapes be reported to qualify for the exception. She said, falsely, that this provision of the bill had changed. She promised that if it stayed, she would vote for the bill but also issue a press release expressing her disappointment. And even while saying she would vote for the bill, she demanded that her colleagues not hold a vote.
She and several other Republicans who feel the same way succeeded in getting House Republican leaders to delay a vote on the bill, which was supposed to be held Thursday, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the day of the annual March for Life.
It was reasonable for those leaders to worry about the prospect that several female Republicans, including ones who call themselves pro-life, would denounce the legislation as extreme. It was reasonable as well for them to worry that holding a vote when a significant fraction of Republicans were up in arms about it would do lasting damage to the party’s unity, including on future social-issue votes.
But it will do more lasting damage if the leaders do not move soon to hold a vote on the bill. To prepare for a vote, they will have to do something they have clearly failed to do so far: explain to their backbenchers why the bill is written the way it is and talk through the issue. The leaders should convey to them that holding a vote is not only the demand of pro-life groups and voters, but strategically imperative. The bill has strong majority support: Quinnipiac found as much even while mentioning the reporting requirement. And the alternative to promoting the bill is not to “stop talking about this divisive issue,” but to talk about it in the terms Democrats prefer (Republicans want to ban all abortions today).
The case for having a rape exception in the bill is not strong: We are, after all, talking only about late-term abortions. Other pro-life legislation focused on the second half of pregnancy has managed to make it all the way into law without such an exception; the partial-birth abortion ban on the books does not have one. If an exception is deemed necessary for political reasons, though, it needs to be written in a way that does not convert it into a loophole so big that the bill no longer protects any unborn life. If the critics can come up with a better way to do that than to have a reporting requirement, let them do so.
To mollify pro-lifers upset about the delay, Republicans held a vote on a bill to end taxpayer funding of abortion. If they resolve this issue as they should, they will follow that vote with one on the 20-week ban. The upshot of this kerfuffle will then be that pro-lifers will get votes on two bills instead of one, that constituent phone calls will remind Republican officeholders that many people are passionately pro-life, and perhaps even that Republicans will start highlighting the fact that on both questions it is the Democrats who are taking an extreme and unpopular view.