The new antiabortion law in Alabama, the strictest in the country, has divided Republicans and put them on the defensive on the issue. Until this week, Republicans had been playing offense by casting Democrats as extreme due to a recent New York law expanding access to late-term abortion.
In addition to not including exceptions for rape or incest, the law also allows a penalty of up to 99 years in prison for doctors who perform abortions.
The other top Republican in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), also parted ways with Alabama lawmakers on the issue, although he did not specifically weigh in on the new law. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020.
“Leader McConnell’s record has been clear for decades on this issue. He opposes abortion except in the instance of rape, incest, or the life of the mother in is danger,” McConnell’s spokesman, Doug Andres, said in a statement.
Republicans are wary of a reprise of 2012, when they lost two key Senate races in Indiana and Missouri after the party’s nominees in those states made comments about pregnancies resulting from rape. The debate over the Alabama law also comes at a time when Republicans are looking to make inroads with suburban women, a voting bloc that they lost when Democrats recaptured the House in 2018.
Among those criticizing the Alabama bill this week was longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who decried it as “extreme.”
Trump and the White House have been noticeably silent on the law, and Republican senators such as Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) facing tough reelection races next year have been hesitant to weigh in on it.
At his Thursday news conference, McCarthy said exceptions for rape and incest are “exactly what Republicans have voted on in this House. That’s what our platform says.”
President Trump said in 2016 that he would support changing the platform to include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. But the platform does not in fact include those exceptions. A spokesman for McCarthy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
McCarthy also declined to offer an opinion on whether the Alabama law should be struck down.
“Look I’m not an attorney. I’m not on the Supreme Court,” McCarthy said, adding that it was up to the justices on the top court to decide.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who supports abortion rights and is up for reelection next year in a state Trump lost in 2016, panned the Alabama law and predicted that the Supreme Court would ultimately strike it down.
“The Alabama law is a terrible law – it’s very extreme – it essentially bans all abortions,” she told CNN on Thursday. “I can’t imagine that any justice could find that to be consistent with the previous precedence.”
Collins last year voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, prompting pushback from Democrats who have made her seat a prime target in 2020. At the time, Collins defended Kavanaugh in a lengthy Senate floor speech, maintaining that she did not believe he would vote to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.