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All Talk

There Is No “Moderate” Republican Position on Abortion

Donald Trump and Kari Lake are two recent examples of Republicans distancing themselves from extreme bans. Don’t believe the hype.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Kari Lake, Republican Senate candidate from Arizona, at the U.S. Capitol after a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on March 6

Arizona’s near-total abortion ban—an 1864 law recently deemed enforceable by the state’s Supreme Court, though not yet in effect—is rightly considered one of the most extreme bans in the United States. It has none of the familiar weeks-based rules; none of the exceptions for rape and incest. And in the past week, it’s become the latest ban for Republicans to try to distance themselves from on the campaign trail.

Headlines these days are full of Republicans allegedly “moderating, “downplaying,” or otherwise retreating from their staunch opposition to legal abortion. Donald Trump and Senate candidate Kari Lake of Arizona have publicly said the Arizona ban goes too far. These are calculated, hypocritical moves: Lake supported this exact ban when she ran for governor two years ago, and Trump’s position on abortion depends on whatever he thinks will do best for Trump. But more importantly, even if Lake and Trump were sincere in their criticism of Arizona’s law, that would not make their abortion positions moderate.

As Republican candidates and strategists this election season attempt to discard the appearance of extremism in favor of so-called moderate positions, it’s worth emphasizing that even these “moderate” positions were considered extreme not long ago. In the two decades before Roe was overturned, Republicans went from pushing 24-week bans to pushing six-week bans. In Texas, that narrowing took about 15 years. Not only did Republicans succeed in passing such severe restrictions, they made extreme anti-abortion laws the new norm.

To believe in the myth of Republican’s abortion moderation is to ignore very recent history. When Trump was president, he committed to sign a 20-week ban if it arrived on his desk. This was at a time when anti-abortion groups were still fighting to enact 20-week and earlier bans in the states, where they would be fought out in the courts for several years to come. If it is indeed true that Trump might favor a 15- or 16-week national ban (as he has suggested both publicly and privately), that would be even more restrictive than what he supported as president. Even by his own record, there is no moderation there.

To believe Republicans have taken more moderate views on anti-abortion laws, we would also have to believe that they hold coherent positions on abortion. They do not, as Trump exemplifies. His acolyte Kari Lake has never held political office, but her gubernatorial campaign in 2022 put her in the national spotlight as one of Trump’s MAGA heirs. Even over the course of a single campaign, Lake could not offer a position on abortion that made any sense. In the month of June 2022, Lake said she believed medication used for abortion ought to be illegal. She also said Arizona’s 1864 near-total abortion ban, still in a court battle at that time, was “a great law” that she was “thrilled” was on the books. Around four months later, Lake was instead claiming that abortion should be “rare and legal,” and she also said she supported a ban after 15 weeks. Now, with Lake running for Senate, she has said she opposes the Arizona state Supreme Court ruling that the 1864 ban is enforceable.

Trump has been even more successful in racking up headlines of his alleged backtracking. A video the former president posted last week was interpreted by many as dismissing the idea of a national ban, even though he never actually said those words. “If you actually listen to Trump’s statement on abortion, he doesn’t say ‘should’ be left to the states,” wrote Semafor’s Washington editor Jordan Weissmann. “He says ‘will’ be left to the state[s]. It’s just a statement of what the law is.” A few days after his non-announcement, when Trump was asked outright if he supported a national ban and answered with one word—“No”—CNN made it a push alert.

But say we ignore recent history and assume Republicans like Trump and Lake hold coherent positions. The critical plank of the “moderation” myth is that Republicans believe that abortion laws should be up to the states. This is how they were able to claim that they wanted Roe overturned but did not support a national ban. But as I argued one year ago, at a time when states are enacting total and near-total bans, claiming to be anti–national ban but pro–state restriction is a distinction without a difference. Even in states where abortion remains legal, some states are rushing to invent more abortion restrictions: In Kansas, where voters rejected a statewide ban through a ballot initiative, this session Republicans succeeded in passing a bill that would require abortion providers to record why each patient is having an abortion and report that to the state. (The governor vetoed this.) Republicans in the Tennessee state Senate joined the emerging trend of inventing and outlawing so-called “abortion trafficking,” passing a bill with which anyone who helps a minor have an abortion can potentially be criminally charged. Abortion is already nearly completely banned in the state.

Whatever “moderating” claims Republicans make about leaving abortion to the states, leading conservative groups, such as those who are part of the Heritage Foundation–helmed Project 2025, are openly advocating that Republicans institute a national abortion ban by reviving enforcement of the Comstock Act—a national abortion ban that these groups argue is already on the books. If that happened, it would be like the Arizona ban had gone federal, but worse. Trump isn’t openly acknowledging this zombie national abortion ban his supporters are arguing that he should enforce. When NPR tried to get him to elaborate his position on using the Comstock Act, Trump’s campaign simply refused. They tried to fall back on the nonsense talking points everyone else had dutifully repeated: “President Trump supports preserving life but has also made clear that he supports states’ rights.” (An email TNR sent to the Trump campaign asking the same question about the Comstock Act was still unanswered by publication.)

These conservative groups surely realize at this point that there is a media formula working in their favor. Recent history of anti-abortion laws is being shelved. And, as always, election years favor horse-race reporting: The nitty-gritty real-world implementation of abortion bans has taken a back seat to a political narrative in which an abortion ban is measured in how much it helps a candidate. Thus, few bother to ask what exactly enforcement of the laws like what Project 2025 is proposing would entail. Abortion bans are being treated as threats to reproductive freedom only insofar as they are indicators of electoral success or failure. When a candidate appears to shy away from a total ban, only to land on restricting abortion out of existence, to even call this a change in position is a stretch. It is still a willingness to outlaw abortion, the same as it has been for decades, only now hair-split, for the sake of a campaign narrative, into meaninglessness. This is what the real “pivot”-to-moderation narrative on abortion is about: getting people to stop actually talking about abortion.