How the Alabama abortion law is roiling Democratic and Republican politics
WASHINGTON – The divisive issue of abortion is not only widening the gulf between Democrats and Republicans, it’s also sowing division within the parties.
Republicans are split over whether laws restricting abortion should make exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest – a fissure brought to the fore by a new Alabama law that would make performing most abortions a felony.
Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio and Mississippi have also passed bills effectively banning abortion this year. A similar measure awaits signature by the governor of Missouri.
Democrats, for their part, are struggling with whether there’s still a place for anti-abortion Democrats in the party as abortion rights activists vow to defeat legislators who stand in their way.
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The intraparty struggles are emerging as both sides expect to use the abortion issue to fire up their base for 2020.
“What we know is that President Trump and his allies have made abortion care and reproductive rights a key issue in 2020,” Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told reporters last Wednesday as she outlined how abortion-rights groups plan to build on their mobilization efforts that helped elect supporters in the midterm elections.
“We will keep this momentum going and make the wave of 2018 look like a ripple in 2020,” Wen said.
After Republicans’ 2018 losses in the House and in state legislatures that were partially fueled by female activism, the GOP saw a chance to turn the tide at the beginning of the year when newly empowered New York Democrats passed protections that included allowing abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the fetus isn’t viable or the women’s health is threatened.
In President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address – the first time Trump brought up abortion in a joint address to Congress – he described the legislation as allowing a baby “to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”
Abortion rights advocates countered that abortions later in pregnancy represent less than 2% of procedures and usually occur when there's a serious problem with the pregnancy.
Now, Democrats think they have the upper hand as states pass increasingly restrictive laws aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision that upheld a woman’s right to abortion.
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After Alabama this month approved a near-total abortion ban, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates denounced the law.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said that if she were to be elected president, she would only nominate Supreme Court justices that will uphold Roe v. Wade.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg denounced the law as "ignoring science" and "punishing women," while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sent an email to supporters directing them to a link to help fundraise for several abortion rights groups.
"We will not stand for it," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
In reaction to the Alabama law, Trump tweeted that he backs exceptions not included in the new law to still allow abortions in the case of rape and incest.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., likewise said he supports those exceptions, along with one to protect the life of the woman, although he incorrectly told reporters that they are included in the Republican Party’s platform.
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A coalition of groups that oppose abortion are advocating for the GOP to explicitly come out against the exceptions. The groups, led by Students for Life of America, wrote to Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel on Wednesday asking the party to “reconsider the decades-old talking points.”
“We understand that issues like rape and incest are difficult topics to handle,” the letter said. “Nevertheless, it is our view that the value of human life is not determined by the circumstances of one’s conception or birth.”
McDaniel, who personally favors the exceptions, said in response to the groups’ letter that she welcomes “any discussion” about the issue.
“This stands in direct contrast to the Democrat Party, which has stated that there is no room for pro-life voters in their ranks,” she said in a statement.
Democrats faced their own balancing act this week when Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, the head of House Democrats' campaign arm, pulled out of a fundraiser for Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the few remaining Democrats who oppose abortion.
“I’m proud to have a 100% pro-choice voting record, and I’m deeply alarmed by the rapidly escalating attacks on women’s access to reproductive care in several states,” Bustos said in a statement.
But she also said that she will still work “to protect our big tent Democratic caucus.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that Bustos chairs will support Lipinski just as much as it backs other incumbents, according to a DCCC aide familiar with the situation.
Lipinski, in a statement, said Democrats "cannot afford to push pro-life voters out if we want to be united in defeating President Trump, expanding our House majority and winning the Senate.”
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At a Capitol Hill rally Thursday organized by female lawmakers and members of the Pro-Choice Caucus, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., trumpeted the fact that the caucus represents a majority of House members for the first time.
And Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said her organization – along with dozens of partners around the country – will keep mobilizing until “those who oppose us no longer hold their seats in Congress or the state legislatures.”
Meanwhile, a new poll shows most Americans aren’t looking for change on the national legal landscape.
About two-thirds of those surveyed by Quinnipiac University this month support Roe v. Wade. And while 40% said the Supreme Court should make it easier for a woman to get an abortion, a near-equal share of 36% said the court should make it harder.
“Americans are in agreement,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the poll, “on upholding one of the country’s most contentious rulings.”
Contributing: Rebecca Morin, USA TODAY and Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser