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GOP playbook on abortion is to push Democrats on restrictions and contort their words

Democratic Senate nominee Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio landed in the line of conservative fire over his comments on abortion rights.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Democratic Senate nominee Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio landed in the line of conservative fire over his comments on abortion rights.

In response to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinionthat a majority of justices appear willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in this country, Republicans put out a memo to their senators advising them on how to respond.

It says, in part, according to Axios, which obtained the memo:

"Expose the Democrats for the extreme views they hold. Joe Biden and the Democrats have extreme and radical views on abortion that are outside of the mainstream of most Americans."

It's valid to ask Democrats, including the president, what, if any, restrictions on abortion they support, considering that 47 Democratic senators and President Biden supported the Women's Health Protection Act, which would remove any "medically unjustified restrictions."

The legislation, a reaction to the Texas law that essentially bans abortions after six weeks, failed earlier this year, but is likely to get another vote after this leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.

But Republicans and the conservative media that supports them have run with the playbook — and, at times, in misleading ways. Two examples of that cropped up in the days following the publication of the memo and the court's draft opinion.

We get into those in detail, but first let's set ...

The factual landscape

Roe and the subsequent Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld Roe, make it illegal for a state to ban abortions before the point of viability, or about 24 weeks, but that states could regulate abortions after that — with the exception of the life or the health of the mother as determined with "appropriate medical judgment."

Banning abortion outright is unpopular

The draft opinion — which can still change — showed that conservative justices at the Supreme Court support outright overturning Roe.

That is an unpopular position with most Americans, who support abortion rights with some restrictions. Here's what recent surveys said:

  • CNN/SSRS: 66% said they do not support overturning Roe, while 34% did.
  • The Pew Research Center: Just 8% said abortion should be illegal in all cases, no exceptions. Broadening it out, roughly 37% said it should be illegal in most or all cases. But even among that group, there are sizable portions that said it should be legal in if the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother (46%) or if it is the result of a rape (36%).
  • Monmouth University: Just 11% said abortion should always be illegal. Another quarter said it should be illegal with exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
  • YouGov: 24% said Roe should be overturned, while 55% said it should not.
  • Fox News: 27% said it should be overturned; 63% said no.
  • ABC News/Washington Post: 28% said Roe should be overturned, 54% said it should be upheld. (Just 16% said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.)
  • Gallup: 19% said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; 48% said it should be legal only under certain circumstances; 32% said it should be legal in all circumstances. And 47% said abortion is morally acceptable, the highest ever recorded in two decades of Gallup asking the question. (46% said it is not morally acceptable.)
  • Republican-led legislatures are where most of the action is right now, as they push the limits on restrictions and curtailing access, testing the Supreme Court to see what is acceptable and not.

    Abortions have become more rare in this country, dropping in 2017 to 13.5 abortions per every 1,000 women age 15 to 44, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion data. That's below the rate in 1973 when the Roe decision came out.

    The vast majority of abortion patients are poor — Guttmacher notes that as of 2014 data, 75% of women who had abortions had incomes below the poverty line.

    Almost nine-in-10 abortions took places in the first 12 weeks, or three months, of pregnancy, long before viability. Two-thirds took place in the first 8 weeks.

    Half of abortions — 54% — now take place with medication or the "abortion pill." Those abortions by pill take place usually just days after conception. So arguments about late-term abortions are often straw men, because late-term abortions are rare.

    People are split on many of these restrictions, including the Mississippi law – the subject of the leaked draft opinion — before the court currently that would restrict abortion after 15 weeks.

  • A Wall Street Journal pollfound 48% in favor of a ban after 15 weeks and 43% opposed.
  • An ABC poll, in contrast, found 57% opposed to a ban after 15 weeks.
  • A Marquette University Law School pollfound respondents said they would uphold a law that banned abortions after 15 weeks, by a 37%-to-32% margin.
  • This variation can be attributed to differences in the wording of questions — and that people don't have fully formed opinions on it, which means the numbers could move, people could be persuadable — and the messaging, then, really matters.

    With the facts established, let's look at ...

    The two examples

    The first leads to the other, and starts with an interview on Fox Newswith Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for the Senate. Ryan was asked whether he supports restrictions on abortion rights.

    Abortion rights activists attend a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday in Washington.
    Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    Abortion rights activists attend a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday in Washington.

    Here's the key part of the transcript:

    HOST: As senator, would you have any limits on abortion?

    RYAN: Look, I think what we had established in Roe is something that we can continue to work with and I think that those can be the parameters, but then again, if you get rid of what was established law, which was in many ways conservative, to keep that to establish stare decisis and make sure we appreciate the law, if we move away from that, you're going to get states like Ohio that has some of the most extreme laws in the whole country. If you're a young girl and you've been raped and incest, you can't–, the state, the government is going to force you to bring that baby to term, I just don't think that's a fundamental value.

    HOST: My question was about any limits to abortion at any point, you know, late term, anything?

    RYAN: Look, you've got to leave it up to the woman...–

    HOST: So no, is the answer.

    RYAN: ...you and I– well, you and I sitting here can't account for all of the different scenarios that a woman, dealing with all the complexities of a pregnancy are going through. How can you and I figure that out?

    HOST: Well, I appreciate your straightforward answer.

    Ryan could have been clearer about what restrictions he might specifically support, but he was largely reiterating Roe's tenets about the health of the mother being paramount. There was also the sense he wasn't comfortable — with two men on television talking about the subject — laying out what those might be.

    Follow ups with Ryan about how he would vote as a senator are necessary for the voters in Ohio. But the right quickly distorted Ryan's comments:

  • Bret Baier Exposes Tim Ryan on Abortion in the 9th Month
  • US Senate Hopeful Tim Ryan Supports Practically No Limits On Late-Term Abortion: 'You Got To Leave It Up To The Woman
  • And on.

    A Fox News White House reporter then used Ryan's comments, setting up a false premise, to press the White House on what restrictions Biden would support. White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried to dismiss the question, but the Republican National Committee then reduced and warped her answer into something that wasn't said.

    First, the full exchange, then the RNC's interpretation:

    REPORTER (Peter Doocy of Fox News): The President's position on choice has evolved over time, so just checking for his official position. Does he support any limits on abortion right now?

    PSAKI: Peter, the President has spoken — has talked about his position many times. He supports the right of a woman to make choices about her own body with her doctor.

    REPORTER: But I know that one of the Democrats that he endorsed and — who won their primary this week, Tim Ryan, said yesterday that he does not support any limits on abortion. Is that where the President's thinking is now?

    MS. PSAKI: The President has stated his view many times.

    REPORTER: So does the President support abortion up until the moment of birth?

    MS. PSAKI: The President has spoken about this many times, Peter. And I would refer you to his own comments about abortion and a woman's right to choose and make decisions about her body with her doctor, which is what any of those women would do.

    Here's theRNC's framing:

    REPORTER: "Does [Biden] support any limits on abortion?"

    PSAKI: No

    REPORTER: "Does the president support abortion until the moment of birth?"

    PSAKI: Yes

    No. Clearly, that's not what was said.

    But this is what happens in politics when it comes to abortion. There is common ground on what is a very important and nuanced issue, centering on when an abortion should take place.

    The overwhelming majority of Americans support keeping abortion legal — with restrictions.

    But once this subject enters the political arena, that common ground is ignored, reasonable solutions aren't found, and instead, it is weaponized, as a nation waits on how the Supreme Court will actually rule.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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