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From the Center

Two important developments roiled the debate over reproductive rights last week: one that happened in the real world that you almost certainly heard about, and the other, which took place in Congress, that you might have missed. Both are critically important, albeit for very different reasons.

One of the most unsettling incidents in recent memory was the horrifying story of the 10-year-old Ohio girl who was forced to travel to a neighboring state to receive an abortion after being the victim of a pedophilic rape. Indiana state authorities and local media accounts verified the episode last week, forcing both pro-life and pro-choice advocates to confront the most excruciating outer limits of laws that would ban abortion in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade last month.

Some of the strongest abortion opponents believe that exceptions should not be allowed even in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. The Ohio law that forced a pre-adolescent pregnant girl to cross state lines instantaneously became the focus of national debate with pro-lifers forced to explain why they believe a child should be forced to carry a baby to term.

Large majorities of Americans support these exceptions (including significant numbers of voters who are otherwise opposed to abortion), so we should expect this case to be prominently featured in Democratic campaign commercials and speeches throughout the fall. The story itself is mortifying, but it’s likely to be of immense political benefit to candidates looking for real-world examples to motivate pro-choice voters to the polls. Republicans would rather talk about aspects of the issue on which they enjoy more popular support, like late-term abortions and parental consent. The Ohio matter is much harder turf to defend.

The other abortion-related incident with outsized political implications took place in the halls of Congress last Friday, when the House of Representatives passed legislation that would expand the protections for reproductive rights that had been provided under Roe. The reason this received relatively little attention is that the House passed precisely the same bill last year. Next week, for the third time in the last six months, the Senate will defeat it again.

As I’ve written before, pro-choice Republicans Susan Collins (R-ME) and Susan Murkowski (R-AK) have indicated that they would support legislation that codified Roe, but voted against a bill that expanded it. In an effort to break the gridlock and provide at least some legal protections to expectant mothers, Collins and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) have been working on compromise legislation. But Democratic leaders have ignored their work, opting to move forward with their preferred bill even though it has no chance of passage.

Congressional Democrats seem willing to compromise on many issues these days. They’re getting ready to vote for a middle ground on a high-priority China competitiveness bill. They appear ready to grudgingly agree to Senator Joe Manchin’s scaled-down health care legislation. And last month, they negotiated a compromise on gun legislation to pass their first bill on that contentious issue in almost thirty years.

But there is one topic on which they will not budge an inch. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had a succinct answer when asked about Collins’ and Kaine’s work: “We’re not going to negotiate a woman’s right to choose.”

What is the alternative? Senator Elizabeth Warren laid out the Democratic strategy last week, making it clear that her goal for codifying Roe is to elect two more Democratic senators in November who are willing to scrap the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass most bills.

“My view on this is to say to everybody, ‘just give us two,’” she said. But that strategy, however, only works if Democrats defy historical odds and hold onto the House, which appears highly unlikely based on the current political landscape.  In the meantime, Democrats in both chambers have prioritized bills designed to get Republicans on the record in opposition to force them to explain their positions to centrist voters on the campaign trail.

It is entirely possible that atrocities such as the Ohio case can mobilize huge numbers of pro-choice voters for Democratic candidates in November. But most polls show that inflation and other economic concerns are of much greater import to most voters. In the meantime, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why compromise legislation to protect impregnated pre-teens is so unacceptable.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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