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If Republicans don’t back away from an anti-abortion agenda that includes strict bans, and shift to a more “compassionate” view of unwanted pregnancy, the overturning of Roe v. Wade could come to be the party’s death knell, says GOP Rep. Nancy Mace.
The South Carolina Republican has been amplifying her warnings since House Republican leaders held two votes on anti-abortion legislation to kick off their new majority in the 118th Congress. In an interview with The 19th, Mace said Republicans stand to lose support among independent women voters and droves of Republican women voters, for whom abortion has become a more prominent issue since strict abortion bans started blanketing the country.
“There are members of Congress up here that want to bring forth a bill to the floor that bans all abortions with no exceptions. That is not where the vast majority of people are in this country,” Mace said. “There’s a way to move forward to protect women’s rights and the right to life that should not be off the table.”
Mace has been outspoken on abortion. She says she is trying to lead her party to a more “centrist” view of abortion amid an internal GOP debate over how far to take its anti-abortion stance and concerns about repercussions at the ballot box. Her view is not one likely to be embraced by those who support abortion access; Mace is anti-abortion, and last year she celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court decision ending the federal right to the procedure. But Mace, who calls on her experiences as a mother of two and a teenage victim of rape, is urging Republicans to shift their message on abortion. She wants her party to welcome exceptions to bans and throw support behind policies that include expanding access to contraception and reproductive health care and addressing the nation’s backlog of rape kits.
“Since Roe v. Wade, Republicans, by and large, want to bury their heads in the sand, hoping that nobody is really paying attention. But that’s not what’s happening. Millions of women, millions and millions of women were outraged over it,” Mace said.
Mace says that the outrage, which was evident among her constituents in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, is what led to unexpected defeats for Republicans in the recent midterm elections. It’s impossible to know how much abortion swayed voters’ choices, but some things are clear: In every state where abortion was on the ballot in the form of a referendum, voters — even in conservative states — voted in favor of reproductive rights. And, in some states where GOP candidates heavily emphasized their anti-abortion stances, like Michigan, Democrats claimed sizable victories.
Mace said she isn’t opposed to abortion bans but wants to see Republicans widely support exceptions for victims of rape or incest. She believes most voters would support an abortion ban between 15 and 24 weeks. She wants to introduce legislation to expand access to contraceptives, including over the counter, and praised a state-level proposal out of South Carolina that allows pharmacists to prescribe them. She said a national conversation about abortion should also address the country’s embattled and overburdened foster care system.
“There needs to be an adjustment in the way that we talk about legislation and legislating. And the way that we show compassion to women, who may be in circumstances that you don’t understand,” she said, pointing to a pregnancy resulting from rape, for example.
“I’m pro-life but I’m trying to find some common ground here,” she said.
Despite her criticisms of Republicans, Mace still voted in favor of both measures put on the floor by Republican leaders, including a resolution condemning attacks on facilities that advocate against abortions. Another was a bill that compels doctors to provide life support for any infant born during an attempted abortion. Physicians and abortion-rights advocates say such circumstances are exceptionally rare and typically involve a fatal pregnancy complication for either the mother or the fetus. They advocate for patients and physicians to retain power over medical treatment for such infants.
Mace said finding common ground with Democrats may be crucial to the party’s prospects among women voters headed into the 2024 election, when Americans will vote on a president and decide control of Congress. Notably, Mace did not attend the first campaign event for 2024 candidate and former President Donald Trump held this weekend in her home state of South Carolina.
A national 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll last year of 20,799 adults found a sizable gender gap among voters on the legality of abortion. While 52 percent of men who identify or lean Republican said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, only 41 percent of Republican women did. And only 19 percent of women who identify as independent said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
“I think that Mace is right that the Republican Party right now as it stands, their anti-abortion stances, are not in line with Republican women and Republican-leaning independent women,” said Catherine Wineinger, an expert on gender and politics at Western Washington University. “And, I also think that she’s right that in the current climate, the continual push by the Republican Party on these anti-abortion measures could definitely turn off [these women voters], and they also will mobilize Democratic women and women on the left.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the nation’s largest anti-abortion groups, issued a statement criticizing Mace for suggesting that there is a compromise to be had with Democratic lawmakers on abortion. Her group asserts that Republican candidates would have won more if they had taken stronger anti-abortion stances.
“[F]ailure to take a strong, coherent stand and contrast it with the extremism of the other side,” Dannenfelser continued, referring to Democrats’ opposition of abortion bans, “is an abandonment of leadership.” Dannenfelser argued that for Republicans, declining to take a stronger stance on the issue was “a losing political strategy as we saw in the midterm elections.” Dannenfelser in the past has pointed to the political success of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who backed a 15-week abortion ban in his state and won his reelection race resoundingly.
Mace said Dannenfelser’s claim is “simply not true.”
“Anybody that says being more, having more abortion restrictions, would have netted us more seats and a majority isn’t being honest. … That is simply not true,” Mace said. “If that’s the route that the party takes, they will lose the majority and they will lose the White House. That is a fact.”
That Mace stands out among her caucus for publicly urging the party to adopt a more centrist message on the issue of abortion illustrates how far to the right Republicans in Congress, particularly Republican women, have shifted on the issue in the last 50 years, Wineinger said.
In the 1980s and 1990s, multiple Republican women in Congress still identified as “pro-choice Republicans,” Wineinger said. Even as recently as 2015, House Republican leaders backed away from a vote on a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy after what The Washington Post described as a “revolt by female GOP lawmakers.” Some of the lawmakers took issue with the proposal’s rape exception, which applied only if the victim reported the crime to law enforcement.
“I think it’s interesting that she has come out saying that the Republican Party needs to change its messaging around this issue, and include exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother. But she herself is definitely anti-abortion,” Wineinger said.
Grace Howard, who studies abortion policy and criminal justice at San José State University, said she is skeptical that the policies Mace supports contribute to women’s reproductive rights. Howard said that abortion bans’ exceptions for rape and incest still restrict women’s access to reproductive health care because proving the exception may be challenging or because there will be no providers left to offer care.
“The idea that she can find this awesome, workable middle ground, it’s not a middle ground at all,” Howard said.
“They’re still all ultimately based on allowing the government to dictate to people with the capacity for pregnancy and women generally, what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” she added.
Much of Mace’s legislative package around women and abortion remains under wraps. On Friday, she reintroduced the Standing with Moms Act, which would create “life.gov,” a national clearinghouse for information and resources related to pregnancy and adoption by ZIP code. She said more proposals will be unveiled in the coming weeks relating to contraception, the nation’s backlog of rape kits, foster care and more.
“A large percent of the entire country sits somewhere in the middle — no matter what side of the aisle they’re on. When you get up here [in Washington], there’s just this race to the fringes,” Mace said.
“I’m trying to show that there is a way to move forward, that it’s a fine balancing act.”
Asked if party leaders have been receptive to her criticisms and ideas so far, and are listening to the perspectives of women lawmakers like herself, Mace said it remains to be seen. For context, women make up just 16 percent of the House Republican caucus, compared with 43 percent of the House Democratic caucus.
“It’s hard to say at this juncture. It’s my hope that when I unveil this series of bills, that they will be taken into consideration and will move through the legislative process. And if they don’t, then we’ll know where they stand,” Mace said.