MAGA Is Demoting the Pro-Life Forces It Once Coddled

Kari Lake’s appearance at Arizona State University last week was billed as a town hall, but it wasn’t really, because only representatives of young conservative groups were permitted to ask her anything.

Their questions were largely airy softballs about leadership, the border, and getting Republicans to turn out in November. Lake won applause for a casual threat of violence against trans women, saying that, if she had ever seen “a man” walk into a locker room while her daughter was changing, he wouldn’t have “walked out.” Later she spoke about the gun she bought her daughter for her 21st birthday: “I said, if anybody attacks you, unload that thing, baby. Unload it.” The crowd laughed appreciatively.

Only one question, from Danise Rees, president of the campus chapter of Students for Life, was at all challenging. As Rees noted, Lake had taken conflicting positions on Arizona’s 1864 abortion ban. Two years ago, Lake called it a “great law.” But last month, after a court ruling upholding the statute generated widespread outrage, she came out against it, and even lobbied Republicans to repeal it. Then she waffled again, bemoaning the state attorney general’s decision not to enforce the law.

Rees wanted clarity about where Lake stood. “We’ve seen both your opposition and your support for this law in the past,” she said. “Can you please define your values and tell us how you will remedy the doubts that pro-lifers have in you right now?”

Lake didn’t have a concise answer. She echoed Donald Trump on the need for exceptions in cases of rape and incest, which the Arizona ban doesn’t have. She suggested that if Republicans let the law stand, it would fuel liberal efforts to pass a ballot initiative enshrining abortion rights in the state Constitution. She spoke about her own love of motherhood and the merits of family policy in Hungary, a nod to the MAGA movement’s infatuation with the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban.

But the core of her argument was electability. “There’s so much on the line this election,” she said. “We’re either going to save our country, or the Democrats — I call them Communists — are going to drive us right to the ground.” Given the existential stakes, Lake insisted, Republicans can’t let themselves get “caught up” with wedge issues like this one.

It was a curious argument coming from Lake, who later offered a soliloquy against compromising the conservative movement’s principles. But it was a sign of how difficult it has been for the Republican Party to balance its base’s demand for abortion bans with the public revulsion when those policies are enacted.

Eight years ago, many Christian conservatives put aside their qualms about Trump in the hope that he would lay the groundwork for outlawing abortion. It was a bargain that paid off, at least in the medium term. But today, in purplish parts of the country like Arizona, that political equation is being turned on its head, as some on the right argue that they must put aside qualms about abortion so Republicans can win elections.

A protest of Arizona’s 1864 abortion ban.Credit…Jesse Rieser for The New York Times
Abortion opponents demonstrating outside the Arizona Statehouse.Credit…Jesse Rieser for The New York Times

Just this week, Arizona repealed its sweeping 1864 ban, a law that Trump said went too far and would be “straightened out.” It was the first state with a Republican legislature to back off its most draconian abortion restrictions since the fall of Roe. In Nevada, Sam Brown, a longtime abortion opponent running for Senate, has come out against a national abortion ban, and in February he gave a TV interview with his wife in which she spoke about the abortion she had before they met. Eric Hovde, a Republican Senate candidate in Wisconsin, once declared himself “totally opposed to abortion,” but now says women should have a “right to make a choice” early in pregnancy.

The Republican Party, of course, is still very much the party of abortion bans. This week, Florida, the third most populous state, began prohibiting the procedure at six weeks. In an interview with Time magazine, Trump said he wouldn’t try to stop states from prosecuting women who have had abortions, and refused to say whether he would veto a national abortion ban. If he wins in November, conservatives have plans to use the Comstock Act, a federal law from the same era as the Arizona ban, to restrict abortion nationwide. Idaho is already in the Supreme Court fighting the federal government’s attempts to make emergency rooms treat women with failing pregnancies before they’re on the verge of death. And in Louisiana, where almost all abortion is illegal, lawmakers are moving to criminalize the mere possession of abortion pills.

Still, in swing states, Republican Party leaders are trying to distance themselves from the anti-abortion movement, treating it much the way skittish Democrats once treated the movement for abortion rights. Back in the 1990s, Democrats relied on pro-choice votes, but haunted by old taunts about representing “acid, amnesty and abortion,” they held activists at a remove, and their leaders often expressed either disapproval or ambivalence about terminating pregnancies. Bill Clinton vetoed anti-abortion legislation and put pro-choice judges on the Supreme Court, but he also said the procedure should be “safe, legal and rare.” As late as 2005, Hillary Clinton called abortion a “sad, even tragic choice.”

Now, however, the Democratic Party is united in championing abortion rights, with the vice president recently making history by visiting an abortion clinic, and it’s Republicans who are flailing as they contend with a pro-choice backlash. It remains to be seen whether anti-abortion forces can acclimate to their new status as the embarrassing stepchildren of a coalition that once coddled them.

At the Arizona Capitol last week, when abortion opponents packed the House chamber to protest its vote to scrap the state ban, few blamed Trump or Lake, and some didn’t even realize the ex-president had opposed the law. After Lake’s event, however, Rees said she was disappointed in Republicans.

“I don’t think that it’s fair to expect pro-lifers to show up for you the second time around when you completely take a hands-off approach on pro-life issues,” she said. Still, she recognized that people like her don’t have another choice. “I think there’s going to be probably other reasons why pro-lifers go out to vote,” she said, “but I think it’s going to be a very reluctant vote.”

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