Some pro-life lawmakers urge new approach amid electoral results

shutterstock 1743370412 Voting booths on Election Day. | Credit: vesperstock/Shutterstock

Amid electoral struggles since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some pro-life lawmakers are considering changing how they approach the issue of abortion — but many of them are still divided on what the best strategy is.

This November, the pro-life movement suffered a string of losses in an election cycle that was heavily focused on abortion policy: They lost a referendum fight in Ohio by a 13-point margin, Kentucky voters opted for a pro-abortion Democrat in the gubernatorial race by a 5-point margin, and Democrats narrowly defeated Republicans to control both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly.

Some pro-life lawmakers are trying to moderate their position on abortion in response to these results, but others are doubling down on their pro-life stances. 

A moderate shift on abortion for some politicians

“We can’t save lives if we can’t win elections,” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, told CNA. 

“If pro-life Republicans want to actually save lives, they have to learn to read the room,” Mace said. “We need to listen to women. Roe’s repeal changed the playing field and the conversation, and too many are stuck in the policies and arguments of the past.”

Mace, who has urged Republicans to moderate their positions on abortion, has criticized pro-life bills that do not include exceptions for rape and incest and bills that establish reporting requirements for rape victims who seek an abortion. She testified against a near-total abortion ban in South Carolina because of the lack of exceptions in the initial proposal.

“We need to talk about commonsense abortion restrictions, but the conversation doesn’t end there,” Mace added. “We need to discuss access to prenatal care, adoption services, counseling for women considering abortion, and other resources like my bill to establish, which gives women access to information that encourages them to choose life.”

Similar electoral concerns are also being expressed within the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, who co-chairs the caucus, told CNA that Republicans should shift their focus away from federal policies and “stop talking about any kind of regulation at the federal level and [instead] leave it to see what states do.” 

Harris, who is Catholic, said that most voters are more concerned about “the economy,” “personal security,” and “international issues” than they are about abortion right now and that Republicans should not “make [abortion] a focus” on the campaign trail. He said: “There is a middle ground and I think we should seek the middle ground,” arguing that most Americans “don’t believe that abortion should be legal throughout pregnancy, especially through the third trimester.”

“We’re not for complete bans on abortion,” Harris added. “We’re for reasonable regulation, consistent with the majority of Americans.”

Harris, as Mace did, noted that pro-life lawmakers need to emphasize that the movement is “not only for the babies but for the women as well.” He also referenced the work of pro-life pregnancy centers, saying that many women in a crisis pregnancy “need help and they don’t always need abortion.”

This approach has also permeated the Republican presidential primary battle, with former President Donald Trump sidestepping many abortion-related questions and refusing to commit to a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Trump is the current frontrunner by a large margin. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis initially dodged the question as well but ultimately said he would support a 15-week ban. Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has said she would also support the ban but has emphasized that it would not be her focus and is unlikely to pass. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has said he would not sign a 15-week ban and said it is a state issue. 

Other pro-life lawmakers intend to double down

Despite the concerns from some of his colleagues, Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, told CNA that the pro-life position is “not only the right issue, but it’s also a winning issue,” urging other Republicans to “in no way be discouraged” and instead “redouble our efforts.” 

“[The] Dobbs [ruling] empowered the federal government, as well as state governments, to defend life,” Smith, who is also Catholic and co-chairs the Pro-Life Caucus, said in rejecting the notion that this should only be handled at the state level.

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Smith said Republicans should “robustly call out the Democrats,” adding that “all but one voted for abortion until birth twice” and said that any pro-life lawmaker who “thinks that they should talk about something else … like inflation” should recognize “that doesn’t work.”

“That’s the absolute false lesson to learn,” Smith said. 

Smith argued that Americans “aren’t as pro-abortion as the pollsters suggest” and accused Democrats of supporting “taxpayers paying for abortion until birth,” which he called “extreme and outrageous.” 

Regarding the recent electoral losses, he said: “The problem is that they have distorted so well” and that “lying and deception sometimes has its moment of victory.”

“Our advertisements need to become much more focused and need to hold these extremists to account,” Smith added.

Where Smith did align with his colleagues in some regard was in a new approach to messaging the pro-life position, saying the pro-life lawmakers need to “underscore how pro-woman we are” and that this “needs to be conveyed with compassion.” But, he added, “don’t do that in lieu of defending your position.”

The changing electoral climate for pro-life Democrats

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Republicans were not the only party to suffer electoral defeats for their pro-life stances. The last self-identifying pro-life Democrat in the Virginia General Assembly, Sen. Joe Morrissey, was ousted during his Democratic primary by a whopping 40-point margin in a campaign that was heavily focused on abortion.

Pro-abortion Democrats won a narrow majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, which will prevent Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin from passing new restrictions on abortion. The governor and many legislative Republicans ran on supporting a 15-week limit. 

“[My pro-life views] cost me my position, but you know what, I stuck to my values and my principles and I’m good with it,” Morrissey, who is Catholic, told CNA.

Morrissey was the only Democratic lawmaker in the General Assembly to support legislation that would have prohibited most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Lashrecse Aird, who defeated Morrissey in the primary, focused much of her campaign on abortion.

“If you’re not all in 100% pro-abortion as a Democrat, you’re going to be persona non grata in the party,” Morrissey warned, adding the party now embraces “abortion up until the point of delivery.”

Despite the results, Morrissey said pro-life Democrats should “stick to your values [and] stick to your core beliefs” but added that most will not do so because they “will get primaried” and be “out of a job.” The senator said he would consider running as an independent in a future race.

Morrissey also suggested the pro-life movement change its messaging strategy, arguing that “you can’t have the word ban in your message” and that the promotion of a 15-week limit on abortion should be phrased as being “in favor of abortion up to 15 weeks” rather than using the word “ban.”

Abortion is likely to remain a focus in national and statewide elections over the next few years as lawmakers continue to debate the country’s future on abortion-related issues in a post-Roe country. Nearly a dozen abortion-related referendums could appear on statewide ballots next year. 

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