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Conservative Republican women have led the fight to restrict abortion

Democrats like to say Republicans are waging a ‘war on women.’ That erases the conservative Republican women who have been working to ban abortion.

Antiabortion advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington in June 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Editors’ note: We are reposting this piece, originally published Sept. 9, 2021, in light of news that the Supreme Court is circulating a draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Last week, the Supreme Court allowed the most restrictive abortion bill in the country to go into effect since Roe v. Wade codified abortion as a constitutional right. Many in Democratic circles say that men shouldn’t make laws about women’s bodies.

That’s part of a broader pattern of overlooking Republican women’s influence in American politics. But in fact, Republican women play a prominent role in restricting abortion. For instance, the law at the center of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade was introduced by state Rep. Becky Currie, a registered nurse and member of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Republican women support conservative abortion laws

Republican women elected in the past 20 years are more conservative than their earlier counterparts; at times they’re even more conservative than Republican men. In Congress and in state legislatures, Republican women actively support abortion restrictions and are especially likely to introduce such bills when the ideological distance between Democratic and Republican women grows — a distance that has been growing as the parties, in general, grow more polarized. According to our research, only the Republican and Democratic female legislators in California, Colorado and Arizona are more ideologically distant than those in Texas.

In Texas's S.B. 8 abortion law, conservatives adopted progressives' playbook — and used it against them

Women were involved in passing the Texas abortion legislation

Few Republican women (nearly all of whom are White) serve in the Texas legislature, but in 2021 they wrote or co-sponsored more than half of the 32 abortion-restriction bills introduced in the Texas House and 10 of the 15 in the Texas Senate.

First-year Republican woman — and the most conservative woman in the Texas House — Rep. Shelby Slawson introduced the House version of the six-week ban, H.B. 1515. All six Senate Republican women and all but two House Republican women co-sponsored the bill. She may have been chosen based on optics. Republican leaders often ask women to be the face of abortion policy, in part to disrupt the idea of a Republican “war on women.”

Conservative women lead abortion interest groups

Women lead many interest groups that provide lawmakers with model legislation designed to overturn Roe in the courts. Many legislators welcome these model bills, which reduce the time and effort needed to draft bills. Interest groups pay close attention to federal court dynamics when drafting model bills, particularly in the Supreme Court. As a result, model legislation has led to a significant increase in restrictive abortion laws over the past few years.

Janet Porter, founder and president of Faith2Action, wrote the “heartbeat bill” on which Texas’s S.B. 8 is modeled. The so-called “godmother of the heartbeat movement,” Porter has worked since 2010 to enact antiabortion bills. In Ohio, Porter was pivotal in passing the first “partial birth abortion” ban, a 24-hour waiting period, and a parental consent requirement. She lobbied for Ohio’s first six-week ban in 2011, followed by efforts in North Dakota and Arkansas in 2013. Since 2018, 11 states introduced six-week abortion bans, all based on Porter’s bill, though none went into effect.

Women are commonly the leaders of prominent antiabortion interest groups. Carol Tobias serves as president of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s oldest and largest antiabortion group. Charmaine Yost and Catherine Glenn Foster have led Americans United for Life, which champions itself as the pioneer in antiabortion state-based model legislation strategy. Americans United for Life offers dozens of model bills, including a 20-week gestational ban; a 24-hour waiting period between consultation and abortion procedure appointments; onerous facility requirements, sometimes called TRAP laws; and requiring that fetal remains be disposed of by either internment or cremation.

Women judges support abortion restrictions

Interest groups like the Federalist Society maintain lists of people they encourage Republican presidents appoint to the federal courts, aiming to fill those positions with judges that they consider the right kind of conservative to serve. These lists include women who will overturn Roe v. Wade and allow restrictions on abortion, even early in pregnancy. For instance, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the Seventh Circuit, where in three years she became one of its most conservative judges before joining the Supreme Court in 2020. Barrett was a key vote in the court’s 5-to-4 decision that allowed S.B. 8 to take effect.

Other conservative female judges have reliably voted to allow abortion restrictions. Sandra Ikuta wrote the Ninth Circuit’s decision barring taxpayer-funded health clinics from making abortion referrals. Jennifer Walker Elrod co-wrote a Fifth Circuit opinion, joined by the three other women, allowing a ban on a second-trimester abortion procedure. Edith Jones was one of three judges on the Fifth Circuit who permitted S.B. 8 to take effect. Joan Larsen and Alice Batchelder, both on the Sixth Circuit, voted to uphold multiple restrictions, including a 48-hour waiting period and a ban on abortions after a Down syndrome diagnosis, respectively.

This term, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could kill Roe v. Wade — or let it die slowly

More states are following Texas’s lead

According to one study, of the abortions that were performed in Texas in 2018, 85 percent would be illegal under S.B. 8. While some seeking abortions will go to Oklahoma or elsewhere, the law is expected to have uneven effects, disproportionately affecting immigrants, people of color, and people of low socioeconomic status. These populations already faced shrinking access to reproductive health care after a 2013 Texas law forced many clinics to close, leaving behind abortion and contraception deserts.

Other states plan to follow Texas’s example. South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem said she is considering introducing a version of its law in her state, and legislators in Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and Florida have said they too will introduce identical legislation. That’s not surprising; among many factors that determine whether a state adopts abortion policy, one is whether federal courts have upheld a particular law’s constitutionality.

Americans disagree profoundly over whether these policies benefit or harm women. But there’s no mistaking that conservative women join conservative men shaping abortion policy.

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Rebecca J. Kreitzer (@RebeccaKreitzer) is an associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Abigail A. Matthews is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

Emily U. Schilling is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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