Strict abortion bans failed to pass in votes just hours apart in two conservative states this week, in the latest sign of the anxiety among Republicans that supporting strict limits or outright bans on abortion could risk a political backlash.
Anti-abortion advocates continue to press lawmakers to take a hardline position on the issue, but after the end of Roe v. Wade, there’s a growing divide between public opinion and longtime GOP goals on abortion.
The political concerns over abortion have been in stark display on the national stage among Republican presidential hopefuls, but the defeat of a “heartbeat” bill in Nebraska and a near-total ban on abortion in South Carolina on Thursday showed the same dynamics are playing out in state legislatures.
“Since [Roe v. Wade] was overturned, this is no longer an academic exercise, where Republicans could simply say, ‘I’m for life,’ and ‘I’m going to ban all abortions,’” said Vicki Ringer, director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.
“Now, the votes they take have real life implications on women and their families and doctors, and so it’s not easy to be flippant.”
The South Carolina state Senate rejected a near-total abortion ban after a bipartisan, multi-day filibuster by the chamber’s five female lawmakers. The vote marks the third time in the past year that the Senate has failed to pass a near-ban on abortions.
The bill would have banned abortion at conception, with exceptions for rape or incest through the first six weeks, fatal fetal anomalies confirmed by two physicians, and to save the patient’s life or health.
In an impassioned floor speech, state Sen. Sandy Senn (R) criticized the male lawmakers for trying to legislate women’s bodies.
Abortion laws “have always been, each and every one of them, about control — plain and simple. And in the Senate, the males have all the control,” Senn said. “The only thing that we can do when you all, you men in the chamber, metaphorically keep slapping women by raising abortion again and again and again, is for us to slap you back with our words.”
Sen. Mia McLeod (I) referenced a bill she introduced in 2016 as a member of the House, which would have put the same barriers on obtaining erectile dysfunction drugs as there were on abortion.
“I don’t believe senators or representatives need to be focused on abortion or erectile dysfunction,” McLeod said, but “if we are going to insist upon governing any of it, I’m going to insist we govern all of it.”
McLeod said the women of the legislature needed to send a message to all the women and girls of the state.
The legislation “clearly places the rights of a fetus over the rights of women and girls who will be forced by our male-dominated legislature to carry that fetus to term,” she said.
In Nebraska, a six week ban failed by one vote.
Sen. Merv Riepe, an 80 year-old longtime Republican, abstained from the vote to end debate on the legislation, effectively killing it for the rest of the legislative session.
Riepe previously supported the bill, but later filed an amendment that would ban abortions after 12 weeks because he said he wanted to give women more time to realize they are pregnant and make a safe decision.
After the vote, Riepe was personally called out by Gov. Jim Pillen (R) as well as anti-abortion advocates.
“I call on Senator Merv Riepe to make a motion to reconsider and stand by the commitments to Life he has made in the past,” Pillen said in a statement.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one the largest national anti-abortion groups, called Riepe’s abstention a “betrayal.” And local anti-abortion group Nebraskans Embracing Life called for him to resign.
Republicans are reaping wins after years of pushing to restrict abortions. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, GOP-led states raced to outlaw abortion.
While several Republican-led states have successfully pushed through abortion restrictions this year, the results have been mixed and legislators risk paying the price among a general electorate that largely favors legal abortion access.
The problems arose first when Kansans widely rejected a restrictive abortion ballot measure last August, then later when the issue became a driving force for Democrats during the November midterm.
The results have created a quandary for Republicans. Some in GOP leadership have been calling for a messaging reset on abortion, and anti-abortion advocates are calling out lawmakers for not pushing back hard enough on Democratic attacks.
In Nebraska, abortion rights supporters recognize the razor-thin margin of victory.
Scout Richters, senior legal and policy counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska, said she was surprised, but thankful to Riepe.
Richters said the ACLU is exploring options to permanently enshrine abortion protections, like a ballot initiative.
In South Carolina, Planned Parenthood’s Ringer noted the failure of the total abortion ban was only a temporary respite.
A six week abortion ban passed the Senate this winter and could still pass the House in the next two weeks before the end of the legislative term.
“We don’t take anything for granted and we’re on high alert every single day that the legislature is in session,” Ringer said.