Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is flanked by reporters on Capitol Hill on Dec. 19. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Pro-life Republicans who, for decades, have been outdoing one another to appear the most ideologically pristine are oddly mum. Given a chance to comment on the Alabama abortion ban, the culmination of decades of work by the antiabortion movement, they run away. And I am not speaking metaphorically:

Former Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock famously blew his chance to win the 2012 Indiana Senate race when he declared, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Mourdock’s comments became a flashpoint in the election and, GOP strategists believed at the time, spilled over to affect other races.

That memory was still fresh in the minds of some Senate Republicans on Thursday.

“When Mr. Mourdock inartfully said it’s ‘God’s will’ — remember that? — in a debate, there was a hue and cry,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Wicker, however, emphasized, “I’m very pro-life.”

“We’ll see what the courts do,” he added, referring to the Alabama law.

Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior Republican senator, also distanced himself from his state’s hard-line law.

“I’m not down there,” he said Thursday. “All I know is what I’ve read.” . . .

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), when approached, said he was late to a meeting and referred questions to his office. Aides to Gardner did not respond to a request for comment.

Gardner is one of two Republicans running next year in a state [Hillary] Clinton carried in 2016.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), another top Democratic target in 2020, dismissed the Alabama law as a state matter.

“That’s a state issue,” she said. “I’m focused on my work here.”

That’s simply pathetic. These Republicans have been shouting from the rooftops their fidelity to the absolutist position on abortion — or insisting rape and incest would always be exceptions — and now they cannot muster an opinion? They now face the logical conclusion of their crusade: They must either tell the extreme antiabortion advocates to buzz off, or they will align themselves with a position that about 60 percent of Americans disfavor — making abortion illegal in almost all cases. Well, what do they believe?

It’s simply not good enough for McSally to say it is a state issue. She owes it to voters in Arizona to say what she wants for her state; what she is willing to do to prevent the epidemic of abortion bans from hitting her state; how she is going to evaluate judges; and whether she really wants to let states decide to subject rape and incest victims to these laws. If she cannot make those calls, she doesn’t belong in the Senate.

And even if lawmakers say they support exceptions not included the Alabama law, they need to explain what are they going to do about such bans. Will they insist that federal judges pledge before confirmation to enforce those exceptions? Will they pass federal laws to override outright bans on abortion? Will they use their influence to demand bans be revoked?

For all their lip service to the antiabortion movement, most antiabortion House and Senate Republicans likely didn’t expect to ever have to defend a “victory.” They, like complacent abortion-rights activists, figured the Supreme Court was always there as a backstop, a way to infuriate and turn out antiabortion marchers but never putting the onus on state legislators — or themselves — to do more than trim around the edges of the issue (e.g., keep the Hyde Amendment in place, the Mexico City policy, insist and then retreat on defunding Planned Parenthood).

No Republican on the ballot in 2020 — for president, senator, representative, governor, state legislator or district attorney — should be able to sidestep the issue. They’ve pandered to antiabortion advocates for so many years, they now need to accept responsibility and endorse those same advocates’ handiwork — or acknowledge this was all a way to con right-wing voters.

Their hypocrisy is quite stunning, and some of these people’s moral reasoning is neither moral nor reasoned.

Well, women in Texas (or any other red state) can drive to or move to another state for abortions. Huh? They are fine allowing abortions (which they consider murder), just not in their state? And, of course, if you don’t own a car or cannot afford to travel or move, well, that’s too bad, I suppose.

Well, we won’t punish the woman for the abortion. What, she lacks the mental capacity to conspire to have an illegal abortion? They know darn well, as Trump found out during the 2016 campaign, that punishing women is verboten. Again, they really don’t have the stomach in most cases to send women to prison, even though that’s the logical result if you deem every fetus to be a “person.”

We will see how this fight plays out over the coming months and years, but we should underscore a few aspects of this dispute.

First, the most vulnerable women are being used as pawns in a legal strategy that weirdly imagines the most extreme facts make the best cases for the antiabortion side. That’s not only morally unsound, but legally foolish. It’s simply bizarre to bet that it is easier for judges to go around ordering rape victims to stay pregnant. It’s not clear why they gave up on the much more effective ploy in regulating abortion clinics out of existence.

Second, the antiabortion side seems to have given up winning hearts and minds of their fellow Americans. They now intend to use the brute force of the state and the threat of prison to force women to complete their pregnancies. And, of course, miscarriages — one of the most painful experiences in a woman’s life — will need to be examined to determine if they were, you know, really miscarriages. The intrusion into women’s bodies and lives that supporters of state bans on abortion are contemplating is quite stunning. The power these “conservatives” would give to the state is extraordinary, given their deep suspicion of everything government does.

Finally, Republicans in red states imagine there is no downside to their enacting such oppressive laws. Georgia, however, is already at risk of losing its film industry. The states that try banning abortion will face an obstacle in getting employees and businesses to either relocate to or stay in their states. And wait until those planning conventions and athletic events start feeling heat from customers, members, audiences, etc. not to go to Atlanta or Kansas City or Dallas, for example. I’m sure Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and other blue cities would be happy to have the business.

Read more:

Molly Roberts: Handmaids aren’t the avatar of the abortion rights movement

Catherine Rampell: Can corporations save us from the attack on reproductive rights?

Jennifer Rubin: You can tell which side is running scared on abortion bans

Megan McArdle: The Supreme Court should have never intervened on abortion