Why the GOP Isn’t as Pro-Life as You Think

How a core Republican principle got complicated.

Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

Republican Reps. Renee Ellmers, of North Carolina, and Trent Franks, of Arizona.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call; Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Last October, Reince Priebus gave a speech with a conspicuous omission. Just 33 days before the midterm elections, the Republican National Committee Chairman headed to George Washington University to give a speech on the issues that bring Republicans together. Priebus ticked off a lengthy list of policy proposals that all the party’s candidates could highlight, noting that they could work for anyone, “whether you’re running for governor in New England or Congress in the South or statehouse in the West.”

The speech was highly detailed. The chairman praised specific pieces of legislation and touted the construction of the Keystone Pipeline and the passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment as issues that could unite GOP politicians. On these points and many others, Priebus was clear as glass. But on one enormous issue, the chairman was oddly opaque.

“As Republicans we’re pro-family; and we’re also pro-life,” he said, according to the transcript of his prepared remarks. “So when a woman faces an unplanned pregnancy, society should offer our support and compassion. She should know that adoption is possible. Our laws should be improved to make adoption an easier path for families who want to open their homes to children.”

And that was it. The GOP is pro-life, the chairman said, so the GOP supports making adoption easier. Priebus didn’t add anything beyond that. He couldn’t have, given the reference to the party’s New England gubernatorial candidates, almost all of whom are pro-choice. As the last 24 hours have shown, anti-abortion votes are a dicey prospect for some Hill Republicans. And the Keystone Pipeline just might have broader support among Washington Republicans than the pro-life movement.

That’s not to suggest that GOP is about to become pro-choice. (That would be ludicrous.) When it comes to American politicking, the GOP is unquestionably the best hope of the pro-life movement. Priebus wrote an op-ed for LifeSiteNews that appeared on Thursday—the same day as the March for Life—that celebrated the GOP’s support for legislation restricting abortion. “We must do everything we can to protect life and defend the rights of those who can’t yet defend themselves,” he wrote. And he described himself as “a pro-life chairman of a pro-life party.” That’s true. But it’s also complicated.

When it comes to abortion, the party’s platform is unequivocal. “We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children,” it reads. But here’s the thing: Plenty of prominent, powerful Republicans don’t buy that. A few weeks after Priebus’s George Washington University speech, pro-choice Republicans had a strong showing in the midterm elections. Charlie Baker, for example, won the governor’s race in royal blue Massachusetts by two points. And Bruce Rauner, a pro-choice, Romney-esque gubernatorial candidate, walloped Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn by nearly 5 percentage points in Illinois. In Nevada, pro-choice Gov. Brian Sandoval sailed to re-election and would likely win warm backing from national Republicans if he challenged Sen. Harry Reid. In the Senate, two Republicans—Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois—have the same score of 40 percent on the National Right to Life scorecard as Reid. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, is just 10 points ahead of them.

It’s instructive to contrast the Republican Party’s inclusivity on the issue with the Democrats’. There’s a steady trickle of Democratic state legislators joining the GOP because of the issue—see Washington state Sen. Mark Miloscia and Missouri state Rep. Linda Black—while national Republicans went out of their way to make pro-choice midterm candidates like Massachusetts’ Richard Tisei and Oregon’s Monica Wehby feel welcome in the party.

It is almost as if Republicans are taking the advice that Sen. John McCain dished out shortly after the party got spanked in the 2012 elections. The Arizona Republican went on Fox News Sunday and said that the party should “leave the issue alone” because it hurts them with young voters and women. His basic point was that Republicans should talk about how they’re pro-life, but avoid actually doing anything about it.

At the moment, this seems to be the House Republican leadership’s strategy. National Journal reported that Rep. Renee Ellmers told her colleagues that voting for the 20-week ban could hurt them with millennials. They proceeded to pull the bill at the last minute, and House leadership is currently scrambling to rewrite the language of the 20-week ban in a way more amenable to some members.

Some Hill Democrats praised the decision to scuttle the bill. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, said she thinks the move is a sign the party is changing.

“I believe that they’re coming to a realization that America is a pro-choice country, that the majority of Americans realize that Roe v. Wade should stand,” she said. “So I think they’re having a conflict within their own Republican conference.”

“There are two parties within the GOP,” she added.

Rep. Trent Franks, the Arizona Republican who sponsored the bill, sounded chagrined.

“There’s no animosity or anger on my part, whatsoever, toward anyone,” he said. “I only hope now that all of us, especially on the pro-life side, will come together and do what’s necessary to move forward to affect this critically important goal of protecting pain-capable babies and their mothers from this atrocity of very late-term abortion on demand.”

He added that he was sure the bill would have passed overwhelmingly if it had gotten a vote. That’s probably true, but it never got that far.