The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Buyer’s remorse could be creeping in for GOP on abortion

A viral video of a South Carolina GOP state legislator crystallizes the dilemma the party faces, as do multiple electoral indicators

South Carolina state Rep. Neal Collins (R) on Aug. 16 expressed regret for supporting an abortion ban during a committee hearing in Columbia, S.C. (Video: South Carolina State House)
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The signs are disparate, inconclusive and perhaps not fully applicable to the 2022 midterm elections. But virtually everything since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade back in June suggests Republicans have a political problem on their hands now that they’ve obtained their long-sought goal of being able to severely restrict and even ban abortion.

And if you look closely, you’ll see signs of potential buyer’s remorse creeping in.

To the extent Republicans rethink their extremely restrictive posture on abortion in the days ahead, a South Carolina state legislator might have provided a crystallizing moment last week.

At a hearing, state Rep. Neal Collins (R) recounted the arduous journey faced by a 19-year-old thanks to an abortion ban he himself supported. Collins said the woman’s fetus was not viable, but that attorneys told her doctor they couldn’t extract it because it still had a heartbeat — the standard set in the bill supported by Collins that had gone into effect just the week before.

“They discharged that 19-year-old,” Collins said. “The doctor told me at that point there is a 50 percent chance — well, first she’s going to pass this fetus in the toilet. She’s going to have to deal with that on her own. There’s a 50 percent chance — greater than 50 percent chance that she’s going to lose her uterus. There’s a 10 percent chance that she will develop sepsis and herself, die.”

Collins added: “That weighs on me. I voted for that bill. These are affecting people.”

It’s a dilemma previewed long before the Supreme Court’s momentous decision, including in this space. In many states, Republicans passed restrictive laws and what’s known as “trigger laws” that would ban almost all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, and with stringent rules for exceptions to protect the mother’s health. Those measures worked well as messaging exercises, but now they will be law. And polls show those ideas are broadly unpopular.

Since the Supreme Court’s action, the evidence has pointed almost exclusively in one direction: that Democrats have been buoyed by the abortion issue taking on new prominence.

The conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial board summarized it in a piece after the New York special election, titled “The GOP’s Abortion Problem.”

“Republicans are on the backfoot because they’re talking about abortion as if Roe were still the law, when it was easy to favor a total ban because it didn’t matter,” it wrote. “Now the policy stakes are real, and Republicans will have to make clear what specific abortion limits they favor and why.”

Republicans have been slow to do that. But there are signs that they recognize the peril of this issue’s sudden salience, and they’re charting divergent courses when forced to take positions.

In the New York special election, for instance, Republican Marc Molinaro said he opposed a federal abortion ban. Some GOP Senate candidates, particularly in the West, have effectively endorsed allowing abortion early in a pregnancy. Colorado Senate candidate Joe O’Dea has said abortion should be banned only after 20 weeks. Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt endorsed banning abortion after 13 weeks. Arizona candidate Blake Masters called his state banning abortion after 15 weeks “a reasonable solution” after previously calling abortion “demonic” and likening it to genocide.

Efforts to reckon with rape, incest and other exceptions are less evident but are lurching forward in some red states. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) has said he prefers the state to have them, but he has yet to press the issue with the state legislature. West Virginia’s state legislature added the exceptions after Democrats forced a vote on an amendment, though the final version of the bill remains uncertain. And Indiana Republicans split over an effort to nix rape and incest exceptions from their bill, leaving them in.

It’s too simple to say Democrats’ sudden signs of hope in their effort to keep Congress are exclusively the result of the abortion issue. It’s also possible this issue creates a Democratic turnout edge in primary and special elections that won’t be replicated in the general election, when more casual voters are more likely to vote.

What’s pretty clear, though, is that Republicans are in the kind of pickle the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted. They’ve now got this power to do something they’ve long said they aspired to do — and which their base demands — but which creates potential problems for them and their very real ambitions of reclaiming power in Washington. In many cases, as the video of state Rep. Collins shows better than just about anything, they’re now contending with the consequences.

At the very least, it’s a complicating factor. Now they must decide how much they fear that factor, and whether they can do anything about it without alienating the voters they’ve spent decades firing up about what was then a much more abstract — and apparently advantageous — issue.