At a time, efforts to advance a strict national ban in Congress quietly sparkled. After pushing for a nationwide “heartbeat ban” on abortion in the spring — which would have banned the procedure as soon as heart activity is detected, around six weeks into the pregnancy — Republican lawmakers and some proponents of the anti-abortion backed out of the idea. Some lawmakers are now pushing for a 15-week ban; others have abandoned any form of national abortion legislation.
“We are not elected as kings or dictators. We are elected to serve the will of the people,” said West Virginia State Senator Tom Takubo (right), who refused to back a near-total ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. “Even in the more rural and conservative parts of West Virginia, I still believe the majority thinks there should be exemptions for rape and incest.”
According to a March Pew Research poll, 69% of Americans, including 56% of Republicans, said abortion should be legal when the pregnancy results from rape.
The June Supreme Court decision to strike down the constitutional right to abortion immediately triggered strict abortion bans in Southern and Midwestern states, cutting off access to abortion for 1 in 3 women in across the country. Even so, many abortion advocates saw an opportunity to go further. In state legislatures, activists have teamed up with conservative lawmakers to push for extreme restrictions, including new bans on rape and incest without exceptions, and legislation that would prevent people from seeking care abortion across state lines.
But lawmakers have been forced to reckon with growing public backlash. Last month, voters overwhelmingly rejected an anti-abortion amendment in Kansas that would have removed abortion protections from the state constitution. And Democrats who support abortion rights recently won special elections in moderate districts, exceeding expectations.
“They saw what happened in Kansas,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in abortion. “You have people in parts of South Carolina who are shy about it — and they’re right to be.”
In South Carolina this week, a ban on impregnation with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest received support from 24 of 30 GOP senators, including the party leadership, but a small group of Republicans passed hours Wednesday and Thursday trying to persuade their colleagues to soften the language of the bill. Eventually, Republicans advocating a near-total ban dropped the more restrictive proposals because they couldn’t garner enough votes to pass them.
“People are very divided,” said Senator Penry Gustafson (R).
South Carolina Republicans fail in bid for near-total abortion ban
In the days leading up to Thursday’s vote, the senator said she was inundated with calls and emails from South Carolina weighing in on the bill from all sides. Gustafson, who did not support a ban without exceptions for rape or incest, said she must balance the views of her deeply conservative constituency with the views of residents in other parts of the state who would be affected by the project. law, especially women.
“You have to know your people and who you represent,” said Gustafson, who eventually backed a bill that largely mirrors the state’s existing six-week ban. “My vote directly reflects the will of my people.”
South Carolina state senator Tom Davis (R), who opposed the near total ban with no exceptions, said he expects abortion to be a major issue for voters in November.
“We don’t just hear people who feel passionately at the extremes…we hear a lot of people who are somewhere in the middle,” Davis said. “Where that goes remains to be seen at the polls.”
Although the near-total ban failed, South Carolina lawmakers managed to pass an amended bill that would significantly restrict access. This measure – a version of one already in force but blocked by the courts – prohibits abortion after six weeks and limits exceptions for rape and incest to the first trimester, requires the opinion of a second doctor in cases where a fetus is diagnosed with a fatal abnormality, and requires doctors who perform abortions in cases of rape or incest to send a fetal DNA sample to the police. The bill is transferred to the State House, which could examine it as early as next week.
A similar dynamic unfolded in late July in West Virginia, where Republican lawmakers introduced a near-total ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest as soon as they met for a special session.
Some version of this bill was expected to pass until two doctors who serve in the state Senate — Takubo and Sen. Michael Maroney (R) — lobbied for an amendment that would have removed criminal penalties for doctors. Others introduced an amendment to broaden the exceptions in the bill.
The West Virginia legislature has dissolved for August, after failing to agree on a version of the bill to move forward. Lawmakers have since been called back to Capitol Hill, where debate on anti-abortion legislation will resume next week.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) had been planning behind the scenes to introduce a ban on “heartbeats” in the Senate after the Supreme Court ruling, lending the gravity of one of the female stars the more prominent GOP to legislation that would have banned the procedure nationwide before many people know they are pregnant.
Although this bill has been drafted, there is no deadline for Ernst or any other senator to introduce it, according to several anti-abortion advocates familiar with the matter. Ernst did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Founder and Chairman of the Senate Pro-Life Caucus, said he had no conversations with lawmakers about introducing a bill like “heartbeat” in the House since the Supreme Court decision.
Instead, some anti-abortion advocates are hoping Republican lawmakers will rally behind a 15-week ban that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) is expected to introduce this fall, a proposal that has long been held up. denounced by many proponents of anti-abortion. movement because it would allow the vast majority of abortions to continue. Graham’s spokespersons did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some Republican lawmakers have expressed disinterest even in this less restrictive legislation.
Even before an anti-abortion amendment was resoundingly defeated in his home state, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) told the Washington Post that he wasn’t convinced there was a future for any kind of national abortion ban.
“I just don’t see the momentum at the federal level,” Marshall said in a July 25 interview, declining a request for a follow-up interview late last month. “I think the legislative priority should be with the states.”
A national ban would be extremely difficult to pass, requiring 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. Either of the proposals under discussion — a six-week or 15-week ban — would meet resistance from nearly every Democrat in addition to a handful of Republicans who support abortion rights. Neither party is likely to win the number of seats needed for a filibuster-proof majority in the midterm elections.
Some Republicans have become increasingly hesitant to discuss the topic of a national abortion ban during the campaign trail. In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters removed any mention of his support for a “federal personality law” from his website, legislation that would likely have banned abortion nationwide after conception. The Masters website now says he would support a ban on third-trimester abortions, about 27 weeks pregnant, which would affect a tiny percentage of abortions performed across the country each year.
At the state level, abortion rights advocates say gridlock in legislatures has provided an unexpected window for abortion access in some of the most conservative states – at least temporarily.
When the West Virginia legislature adjourned in late July without a ban, staff at the state’s only abortion clinic sat in the gallery and wept.
“That meant we could see patients next week,” said clinic director Katie Quinonez, who had prepared to call all scheduled patients to tell them they needed to have abortions elsewhere.
The Women’s Health Center saw 78 patients for abortion care last month, according to Quinonez, many of whom come from states such as Kentucky and Ohio, where strict bans are in effect.
“We never intended to be a state receiving abortion patients from states where abortion is illegal,” Quinonez said. “We expected to be one of those states.”
Before the law changes, she added, “we are trying to see as many patients as physically possible.”