March 15, 2024 - 2:30pm

Republicans are struggling to find a consensus on abortion policy.

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans who have publicly identified as pro-life now find themselves in the position of specifying exactly what that means — and calculating voter sentiment in the process.

Donald Trump, arguably the man most responsible for Roe’s overturning, supports a 16-week limit on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and risk to the life of the mother. It’s a proposal that would have been struck down under Roe, yet it’s still a far cry from the heartbeat bills and general bans being passed at state level.

Republicans tend to be more staunchly pro-life in states that are reliably red, which are concentrated in the Southeast and Midwest. Purple-state Republicans have slimmer majorities and thus see a greater risk of losing elections due to any negative impact of supporting abortion restrictions. In Congress, a proposed 15-week limit in 2023 caused uproar among GOP politicians, who feared it would hurt them electorally, and the bill didn’t make it to a vote.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the influential anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told Politico last year that her organisation was urging Republicans to rally behind a 15-week limit. The group, among other things, creates public scorecards for politicians, rating their stances on abortion. “We’ve been very clear to [Trump] and all the others that 15 weeks is the right line. You can go earlier if you want. The 15 weeks is the sweet spot,” she said.

Trump himself has been critical of state abortion restrictions — most notably Florida’s, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, which the former president called a “terrible mistake” in the press while the two were battling for the GOP nomination.

Abortion was blamed for the Republicans’ lacklustre performance in the 2022 midterms, and is now widely seen as a losing issue for the party. A 16-week limit would still allow the vast majority of abortions to take place: about 94% of abortions in the US occur at or before 13 weeks. A motivating factor, it seems, is to demonstrate compromise and consensus on a hot-button issue and to distance national Republicans from less popular state-level efforts to ban abortion at six weeks or earlier.

Ballot measures enshrining legal abortion access have passed easily even in a number of red states. But the issue isn’t particularly damaging for individual Republicans on friendly territory. DeSantis, for example, was reelected with a massive majority in 2022 after signing a 15-week limit and expressing a desire for stricter measures, and other Republicans in the state performed similarly well.

Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, are in lockstep support of legal late-term abortion. If Trump wins in November and Republicans have sufficient majorities in Congress, a 16-week limit resembling abortion in much of Europe is a strong possibility, while an outright abortion ban is not.


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.