RICHMOND, Va. – Almost instantly after most abortions were banned in Texas, Democrats were decrying the new law as unconstitutional, an assault on women's health that must be challenged. But the reaction from many Republicans on the other side hasn't been nearly as emphatic.
Though some in the GOP are celebrating the moment as a long-sought win for the anti-abortion rights movement, others are minimizing the meaning of the Supreme Court's Wednesday midnight decision that allowed the bill to take effect. A few are even slamming the court and the law.
“I’m pro-life,” said Republican Glenn Youngkin, a GOP candidate for governor in increasingly Democratic Virginia, where the only open governor's race in the nation is coming up in November. When pressed on the Texas law by a reporter, he quickly noted that he supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s life is in danger — exceptions notably not included in the new law.
The mixed reactions illustrate the political risks for the GOP as their anti-abortion allies begin actually achieving goals they have long sought. Americans are hardly of one mind on the issue, and loudly defending the nation's toughest curbs — in Virginia or political battlegrounds like Georgia, Arizona or Florida — in next year's midterm elections won't be hazard-free.
“It is going to be a very motivating issue for women who haven’t typically been single-issue pro-choice voters,” said Republican pollster Christine Matthews. That includes suburban women and independents in swing House districts and competitive governor’s races who in past elections didn’t believe Roe v. Wade was truly under threat, Matthews said.
The new Texas law represents the most significant threat yet to the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision establishing the right to an abortion. Surveys suggest that ruling still has broad support — 69% of voters in last year's elections said Roe v. Wade should be left as is, compared with just 29% saying it should be overturned, according to AP VoteCast, a poll of the electorate.
Democrats and abortion-rights advocates, who have sometimes been frustrated by voters taking access for granted, vowed Thursday to use the moment to wake people up. They promised to go after not just GOP candidates and office holders who support the Texas measure and others like it but also corporations that support them. Some reignited calls to end Senate filibuster rules to give abortion access a better chance at passage in Congress.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would soon vote on codifying Roe v. Wade into law, though chances in the Senate are all but nil.
Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe already has been making abortion a key issue. He points to secretly recorded video in which Youngkin tells a woman posing as an abortion opponent that he supports defunding Planned Parenthood but can't talk about it publicly because “as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”
On Thursday McAuliffe warned that if Youngkin wins and Republicans take over the state House ”there’s a good chance that we could see Virginia go the way of Texas.”
The Texas law prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks and often before women know they're pregnant. Rather than be enforced by government authorities, the law gives citizens the right to file civil suits and collect damages against anyone aiding an abortion.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, tweeted that she wanted her office to compare her state's laws with the new Texas one "to make sure we have the strongest pro-life laws on the books in SD.”
But such views were hardly universal in her party.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster this year signed a restriction requiring doctors to perform ultrasounds checking for cardiac activity and prohibiting abortion if it's found, unless the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, or the mother’s life was in danger.
Asked Thursday if he would support a Texas-style bill, such as one without exceptions for rape and incest, McMaster said he viewed South Carolina’s law as “superior.”
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called the Texas law “extreme and harmful.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell downplayed the Supreme Court's action as “a highly technical decision."
Indeed, the conservative-majority court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Texas law. The justices instead refused to block its implementation and issued a brief statement saying the decision “in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts.”
The justices' role ensures that the court's makeup will be part of the revived political debate. Liberal lawmakers backed by advocates who helped power President Joe Biden to office want to expand the number of justices to rebalance power.
“Democrats can either abolish the filibuster and expand the court, or do nothing as millions of people's bodies, rights and lives are sacrificed for far-right minority rule,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter.
While a majority of American support Roe v. Wade, abortion opponents have typically been more likely to let the issue determine their votes. According to AP VoteCast, just 3% of voters in the 2020 presidential election called abortion the single most important issue facing the country, but they leaned resoundingly toward Republican President Donald Trump, 89% to just 9% for Democrat Biden. In a separate question, 18% of voters called Supreme Court nominations “the single most important factor” in their presidential votes. Those voters leaned toward Biden by a relatively narrow margin, 53% to 46%.
A June poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most Americans think abortion should be limited after the first trimester, but about 6 in 10 said it should usually be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. More than 8 in 10 said it should be legal in cases of rape or incest.
The poll found that younger adults are especially likely to support legal abortion. Sixty-three percent of those under age 45 said abortion should usually be legal, compared with 51% of those 45 and older. Still, even young adults support some limits on abortion based on the time of pregnancy, with majorities across all age groups saying most abortions should be illegal by the third trimester.
Emily Swanson in Washington and Meg Kinnard in Houston contributed to this report. Burnett reported from Chicago.