The national limit on late-term abortion passed by the House of Representatives in June is a losing issue for Republicans, according to the conventional wisdom in the press and the Republican donor class. But there are two compelling reasons why the conventional wisdom is wrong.
First, nationwide polls indicate that Americans support a ban on late-term abortions. A Washington Post/ABC survey shows that by 64 percent to 28 percent, Americans favor limiting abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or earlier. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll similarly found that by 2-to-1 (59 percent to 30 percent) Americans support banning almost all abortions after the twentieth week of gestation. “One of the clearest messages from Gallup trends is that Americans oppose late-term abortion,” according to a report by the polling firm in May. A National Journal survey found a smaller majority of women (50 percent to 44 percent) and independents (53 percent to 39 percent) support the late-term ban. But the measure still garnered “plurality support across all income levels and even fared well in the suburbs.”
Second, the 10 most competitive 2014 Senate races are almost all in red states that are more conservative than the country as a whole. Of these 10 seats, 2 are held by Republicans (Kentucky and Georgia), 4 are held by retiring Democrats (West Virginia, South Dakota, Iowa, and Montana), and 4 are held by Democrats seeking reelection (Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina). Backing late-term abortion could be toxic for candidates in some of these states.
While walking between meetings and votes on July 16 and July 18 in the Capitol, the four red-state Democratic senators seeking reelection in 2014 commented on the proposed national late-term abortion limit for the first time, to The Weekly Standard. Both Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska said they would vote against the House bill if it comes up for a vote in the Senate.
“I always wait to see legislation, to see exactly what it says, but I would oppose that,” Hagan told me. “Yes,” Begich replied when asked if he’d vote against the bill banning late-term abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, or when a health problem endangers the mother’s life. “I’m pro-choice,” he said.
But Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, two Democrats who voted for the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban, said they didn’t know how they would vote. “I’ll have to look at it. I haven’t focused on it,” Pryor told me.
“I’m going to look at it. I’ve voted to end late-term abortions,” Landrieu said, referring to her vote for the partial-birth abortion ban.
“I do support, you know, the current constitutional outline which provides for decisions to be made which are very private in, you know, the early stages of pregnancy,” Landrieu continued. “So I’m going to have to look at that bill and make a decision. I’ve opposed late-term abortion, but 20 weeks is midterm.”
Self-identified pro-life Democratic senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Donnelly of Indiana didn’t say how they’d vote. North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp said during the 2012 campaign that she believes “late-term abortions should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother,” but she too declined to take a position on the House bill.
Senate Democratic leaders have sent conflicting messages about whether they will allow a vote on a late-term abortion bill, and a Senate version of the House bill hasn’t been introduced yet. But if it does come up for a vote, it will force senators like Pryor and Landrieu to make a tough choice: Vote “yes” and anger the most powerful Democratic interest group or vote “no” and put themselves at odds with a clear majority of voters.
“You can’t get much more radical than opposing legislation that would protect women and babies from brutal late-term abortion beyond the fifth month of pregnancy,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “Not only is opposing this common-ground measure a moral mistake, it is a political one as well, especially for vulnerable senators in solid pro-life states.”
“That senators like Mary Landrieu would even hesitate to affirm this modest legislation shows just how beholden to the abortion industry many in the Senate have become,” adds Dannenfelser, whose organization spent $11 million on the 2010 midterm elections. “As the 2014 elections approach, we will be working to ensure that constituents understand just how outside the mainstream these four senators have become.”