The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lindsey Graham’s abortion bill is hypocritical — and dangerous

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Capitol Hill on Sept. 13. (Tom Brenner/For the Washington Post )

Only months ago, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham wanted states to write their own abortion rules. Now, he has changed his mind: States should still write their own abortion rules, but only if those rules are harshly restrictive.

The South Carolina Republican introduced a bill Tuesday that would impose a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks — with the narrowest of exceptions for ending pregnancies that result from rape or incest and for procedures necessary to save the life of the mother. The hypocrisy is obvious coming from a legislator who insisted in May that the Supreme Court, when it handed down Roe v. Wade in 1973, committed a “power grab” by depriving local officials of the ability to decide when and whether abortion should be legal. Yet there was Mr. Graham on Tuesday, announcing his desire for Congress to grab the power to set abortion policy from those very local officials.

Unsurprisingly, his news conference was full of falsehoods and nonsense. Flanked by women — “This makes me look better already,” he quipped — Mr. Graham claimed his bill would place the United States “in line with the science and the civilized world.” Yet the science behind his arbitrary 15-week threshold is dubious; there’s no consensus on when a fetus begins to experience pain, the point at which Mr. Graham says abortion should be restricted. And his assertion that “47 of the 50 European countries” have similarly strict abortion rules is bogus. These societies Mr. Graham apparently considers “civilized” may have strict gestational limits on paper. But in practice, most of their legal regimes governing pregnancy termination are forgiving. Generally, exceptions for things such as economic hardship and fetal abnormalities mean that women can get abortions after topline time limits pass, so long as they surmount some bureaucratic obstacles.

What’s more, even if a hard-and-fast 15-week rule would align the United States with its peer democracies, Mr. Graham’s bill would not impose a consistent, nationwide policy. His legislation would allow conservative states to continue setting standards as draconian as they desire — which they’ve already started to do. Laws such as Mississippi’s, under which abortion is banned almost entirely, would be permissible. Those types of strictures don’t put the United States in line with most of Europe; they put it in line with parts of the developing world, many of them not democracies at all, where maternal mortality rates are soaring, just as researchers predict they could here.

Republicans have claimed ever since the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the decision merely makes room for a flourishing of a different kind of choice, whereby voters can choose through their representatives the abortion rules under which they want to live. Mr. Graham’s proposal presents an alarming alternative vision, in which there is little individual or community choice at all. In a tepid response to the bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated that other Senate Republicans are more reluctant to abandon their previous position.

For now, that is. The politics of abortion post-Roe are only just shaping up. Antiabortion crusaders will pressure GOP lawmakers for national restrictions for years to come. The real test of Republicans’ oft-stated commitment to federalism is only just beginning.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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