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Ahead of US midterms, Republicans grapple with abortion messaging

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Abortion rights advocates Alie Utley and Joe Moyer celebrate winning a referendum in Kansas in August 2022./AFP
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Sep 14, 2022 - 01:10 PM

WASHINGTON — Two months before the US mid-terms, part of the Republican camp has changed course on abortion, aware that too extreme a position could cost them dearly in the crucial vote in November.

The decision by the very conservative Supreme Court to overturn the national right to abortion last June has put the question front and center in political debate across the country.

The Democrats, led by President Joe Biden, have been weakened by galloping inflation and a slowing economy, but they now hope to save a few seats in Congress by mobilizing voters in defense of abortion rights.

A recent vote in the very conservative state of Kansas, a primary in the state of New York and various polls showing that up to 60 percent of Americans favor the right to abortion, are giving them reason for hope.


But on Tuesday, influential Republican senator Lindsey Graham upset the apple cart by introducing a bill that would ban abortion across the United States after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The announcement sparked immediate outcry in the Biden camp, since it would also limit the framework in force in progressive states, such as California or New York, by several weeks.

The text “would strip away women’s rights in all 50 states,” said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.

It would also to leave in place the abortion bans adopted by a dozen conservative states since the Supreme Court’s decision, like the one voted on Tuesday afternoon by the West Virginia assembly.

‘Life or death’ 

More moderate than many Republican proposals on the subject, Graham’s bill gives conservatives the opportunity to soften their messaging to voters, who mostly favor the right to abortion.

Graham, a close ally of former president Donald Trump, praised the merits of his own measure, insisting that he was offering a solution of ‘consensus’ on the question.

The Republican Party “realizes that abortion rights is a much stronger mobilizing force in the 2022 midterms among Democrats and independents than they anticipated,” said Wendy Schiller-Kalunian, a political scientist at Brown University.

So in some places, the Republicans are discreetly changing course. In South Carolina, a bill that would have banned women from having abortions with very few exceptions failed after several elected Republicans joined Democrats to vote against it.

“The fact is, I do not want anyone in this room making life and death decisions for me, my daughter, my granddaughter, and for that fact anyone,” said state senator Katrina Shealy by way of justifying her vote.

In the campaign for seats on the national level, Republican candidates have also changed their tune.

In the hotly contested state of Arizona, Republican Blake Masters until recently compared abortion to “genocide”.

The Senate candidate now only mentions bans for “very late-term abortions”, a position he claims to share “with most Americans”.


This change in strategy, however, sits uneasily with elements of the conservative camp. Some on the religious right believe that abortion should be outright banned across the country, and have rallied around bills to that effect.

Others fear that the flurry of messaging will confuse their base.

In the halls of Congress on Tuesday, most Republican senators preferred to avoid broaching such a politically charged subject.

“Senator Graham released it without circulating it” among Republicans, said Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri — the first state to ban abortion after the Supreme Court decision end of June.

During his weekly press briefing, the very influential leader of Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, also refrained from endorsing Graham’s plan publicly, preferring to refocus the debates on a theme where the Republicans believe they have the advantage: inflation.

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