Graham introduces bill to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks

Melina Mara/Pool via REUTERS
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, September 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON – Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday introduced a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy nationwide, the most prominent effort by Republicans to restrict the procedure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

“I think we should have a law at the federal level that would say, after 15 weeks, no abortion on demand except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother,” Graham said at a news conference. “And that should be where America is at.”

Graham’s measure, which stands almost no chance of advancing while Democrats hold the majority in Congress, comes just weeks after he and most Republicans defended the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe by arguing that allowing states to decide on abortion rights would be the most “constitutionally sound” way of handling the issue.

On Tuesday, Graham vowed that if Republicans took back the House and the Senate in the midterm elections there would be a vote on his 15-week abortion bill.

“Abortion is a contentious issue,” Graham said. “Abortion is not banned in America. It is left up to elected officials in America to define the issue . . . States have the ability to do [so] at the state level, and we have the ability in Washington to speak on this issue if we choose. I have chosen to speak.”

Graham was joined at the news conference by several antiabortion leaders, all women. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced a version of the bill in the House on Tuesday as well. Senior GOP aides in the House have indicated the bill would be a top priority for them if Republicans take back the majority.

The name of the bill – which includes the nonmedical phrase “late-term abortions” – drew sharp criticism from abortion rights activists. Used almost exclusively by antiabortion activists, the phrase is generally understood to refer to abortions between 21 and 24 weeks of pregnancy or later.

“15 weeks is not ‘late term,’ particularly given the significant challenges to access around the country,” Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List, wrote in a tweet.

While most people undergo abortions earlier in pregnancy, 15-week and 20-week abortion bans disproportionately affect patients with fetal anomalies, which are often detected at a 20-week anatomy scan, along with those who take longer to realize they are pregnant. These kinds of bans will also affect more people in a post-Roe America as abortion clinics struggle to accommodate a swell of patients from states where abortion is now banned.

The White House criticized the bill, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying it is “wildly out of step with what Americans believe.”

Other Democrats swiftly responded to reports of Graham’s efforts with anger and vowed that the measure would go nowhere. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the bill the “latest, clearest signal of extreme MAGA Republicans’ intent to criminalize women’s health freedom in all 50 states and arrest doctors for providing basic care.”

“Republicans are coming after your rights,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Tuesday. “We have already seen the devastation, the health-care crises, that these extreme abortion bans have caused: patients who are unable to get a prescription filled, doctors who are unsure if they can do their jobs – forced to wait until patients get sicker, until their lives are in danger, before they can take action. That’s what we’re seeing in Republican states right now. And it is a nightmare they now want to impose on every single corner of our country.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who is locked in a tough reelection bid, said she would block any efforts in the Senate to advance a nationwide abortion ban.

“We don’t need any more male politicians telling women what we can and can’t do with our own bodies,” she tweeted.

The timing of Graham’s announcement is curious – two months before the midterm elections, after abortion has already shown to be a galvanizing issue for some Democratic voters. While Republicans generally have praised the ruling overturning Roe, many have preferred not to focus on the issue ahead of the midterms.

Most notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) all but rejected the measure.

“I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level,” McConnell said later Tuesday, when asked about Graham’s bill. Graham had said he had not spoken to McConnell about the bill.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a U.S. Senate hopeful, immediately called out his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, whose spokeswoman dodged answering whether Oz would support Graham’s bill. Republican Senate candidates Herschel Walker in Georgia and Blake Masters in Arizona said they would support the legislation, while Joe O’Dea in Colorado and Tiffany Smiley in Washington said they would not. Representatives for about half a dozen other GOP Senate incumbents or candidates did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday on the proposed 15-week ban.

“There’s a narrative forming in America that the Republican Party and the pro-life movement is on a run. No, no, no, no, no, no,” Graham, who in the past favored a 20-week ban, told reporters. “We welcome the debate. We welcome the vote in the United States Senate as to what America should look like in 2022.”

Asked if his bill had exceptions for cases in which fetal abnormalities appear later in the pregnancy or if a child is stillborn, Graham said he did not know.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Tuesday that he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of votes on something like Graham’s bill but that he didn’t think anybody had “given a lot of thought to it yet.”

“Right now, I think the individual states are coming up with their own political consensus around that issue,” Thune said.

Last month, Kansas voters soundly rejected a referendum that would have allowed state lawmakers to regulate abortion, the first time state voters had decided on such an amendment since Roe was overturned. Last week, South Carolina Republicans fell short in their bid for a near-total abortion ban in the state. Planned Parenthood announced last month that it plans to spend a record $50 million in an effort to elect abortion rights supporters across the country this November, banking on the belief that abortion will help turn out Democratic voters.

Several red states already have stricter bans in place. Abortion is now banned or mostly banned in 15 states, while laws in several others are in various legal limbos. Last month, Indiana passed a near-total abortion ban, the first to do so after Roe was struck down.

Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, many Republican lawmakers and advocates had been pushing for a strict nationwide “heartbeat” ban on abortions, which would have outlawed the procedure after cardiac activity is detected, at about six weeks of pregnancy. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) had been planning behind the scenes to introduce the legislation.

But months after the landmark abortion ruling, those plans have quietly fizzled. While that bill has been drafted, there is no timeline for Ernst or any other senator to introduce it, according to several antiabortion advocates close to the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Instead, some leading antiabortion advocates are hoping that Republicans will rally around a 15-week ban, long denounced by many in the antiabortion movement because it would allow the vast majority of abortions to continue.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said she expects that Graham’s bill will be “universally accepted,” offering a path forward that a variety of Republican senators can support.

“I think the place to begin is where Graham is beginning,” Dannenfelser said in an interview before Graham’s bill was released. “Graham is the momentum, and it will increase when he introduces [his bill].”

Some Republicans are not so sure. Since the Supreme Court decision, many have said publicly that they think legislating abortion should be left to the states.

Even before an antiabortion amendment was resoundingly defeated in his home state, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) told The Washington Post that he doubted that there was a future for any kind of national abortion ban.

“I just don’t see the momentum at the federal level,” Marshall said in a July 25 interview. “I think the legislative priority should be at the states.”

A nationwide ban would be extremely difficult to pass, requiring 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. The measure would encounter resistance from nearly all Democrats in addition to a handful of Republicans who support abortion rights. Neither party is likely to gain in the midterm elections the number of seats necessary for a filibuster-proof majority.

Republicans have been forced to reckon with a growing trove of data suggesting that abortion could be a decisive issue in the midterms, motivating Democratic and independent voters far more than was widely expected. Candidates who support abortion rights have overperformed in recent special elections, while key battleground states have seen a spike in Democratic and independent women registering to vote.

Some Republicans have grown increasingly hesitant to discuss the subject of a national abortion ban on the campaign trail. Masters, the GOP Senate nominee in Arizona, removed any mention of his support for a “federal personhood law” from his website, legislation that probably would have banned abortion nationwide after conception. Masters’s website now says he would support a ban on abortions in the third trimester, at about 27 weeks of pregnancy, a far more popular position.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America applauded the change in a news release, saying that Masters “rightfully centered his position on what is achievable at the federal level.”

Abortion rights groups have seized on the looming threat of a national abortion ban, hoping to mobilize voters around the issue all over the country, including those in states where abortion rights are protected.

“For anyone who is in a state where abortion is not yet restricted or banned, we especially want to tell those voters, ‘This is everybody’s issue. It could come to your state, too, if they’re voting against efforts to protect abortion,'” said Jacqueline Ayers, senior vice president at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.