You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Wishful Thinking

So Trump Is Dodging Questions About a Federal Abortion Ban. Hold Your Applause.

Some people think the GOP is retreating from abortion bans because they’re unpopular. If only.

Donald Trump speaks into a microphone.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 27, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Republican legislators are still spearheading draconian, unpopular abortion bans. One popular media narrative portrays these extreme bans as a liability for the party—a “runaway train” provoking “political backlash.” When the bans fail, they are cast as “a reflection of the growing unease among Republicans over the political popularity of strict bans.” National Republicans, meanwhile, are said to be backing away from these extreme bans: Even Trump, some coverage claims, won’t back a federal ban (earning him the ire of anti-abortion groups).

This is a reassuring narrative. But it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: When you look closely at which abortion bans are described as extreme and which bans are called compromises, it’s clear that if the Republican Party is backing away from near-total abortion bans, it is proudly supporting bans with only minor allowances. Both the anti-abortion judges Republican presidents have put on the courts and Republicans’ tolerance for those within their party so extreme as to be election deniers suggest a party ready to steamroll over any dissent: Whether abortion bans are popular or not, Republicans are counting on getting their way.

Although Republican presidential candidates, like Trump, won’t say whether they personally would back a federal abortion ban, it would be dangerous to presume that’s a political calculation due to broad support for abortion access—or that this reticence will last. The idea of a federal ban was unthinkable until very recently. That we are considering this question is a sign of how thoroughly anti-abortion groups have gained ground for even unpopular abortion laws.

When Senator Lindsey Graham introduced his 15-week federal ban in the Senate last September, what pushback the ban got from Republicans was disingenuous and self-serving. Some positioned the push for a national ban as problematic because it compromised their already-dubious talking point after Dobbs that abortion is a matter left to the states. Some fretted that it would draw voters’ attention back to abortion generally and harm them at the ballot box. There was little to no pushback at the idea that 15 weeks was too extreme to support. This makes it all the more bizarre that 15-week bans are now being characterized as a retreat from extremism. (Wisconsin Republican Representative Derrick Van Orden suggested this would be a compromise with “radical” Democrats, on a conservative radio show last month.) Either way, such claims of moderation serve the interest of both the Republican Party and the anti-abortion movement.

Then there’s the tactic of saying a federal ban is “unrealistic,” as Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley did in her “Consensus on Abortion” speech in April at a Susan B. Anthony List gala. Haley wasn’t saying she didn’t support a federal ban because it was too extreme but because the Senate lacked the votes and, contrary to what was said by people she called “fearmongers,” Haley added, “no Republican president will have the ability to ban abortion nationwide, just as no Democratic president can override the laws of all 50 states.” Is this supposed to signal a willingness to compromise? As the governor of South Carolina, Haley proudly went on, she signed every anti-abortion bill that crossed her desk, including a 20-week ban. Does 20 weeks sound moderate? Recall that when Texas state Senators Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte filibustered a proposed abortion ban 10 years ago, gaining national attention for this dramatic 13-hour standoff, what was at issue was a 20-week ban.

When candidates and other elected officials make statements about not supporting a federal ban, like Trump and Haley, that’s typically because the post-Roe talking point they are supposed to be adhering to is to leave abortion to the states. So let’s look at the states.

One unquestionably strict law is West Virginia’s near-total abortion ban, passed shortly after Roe was overturned. This ban requires that a rape is reported to police within 48 hours to qualify for a rape exception, and was designed to shut down the one abortion-providing clinic in the state. It reportedly passed “only after moderates pushed to eliminate any criminal penalties for doctors.” Is preferring not to jail doctors considered an exclusively “moderate” position now?

In North Carolina, Republicans considering exceptions to a 12-week ban for rape and incest were said to be finding “middle ground,” in a bill described as “not nearly as severe as bans that have been embraced by conservative states.” But, to state the obvious, you can only characterize North Carolina’s bill as “not nearly as severe” because of how popular these near-total bans have become among Republican legislators. (The governor has vetoed the bill, but the legislature appears likely to have the votes to override him.) Then there’s South Carolina, where a near-total ban was recently defeated. The news was reported as a “failure” of “strict” laws. This bill failed in part due to the state’s five women senators, who have been hailed for protecting abortion from severe bans. But two of those senators have voted for six-week bans, and a six-week ban may still pass in South Carolina in a special session called in part to do just that. In Florida, we have a two-for-one indication: Governor and presidential-hopeful Ron DeSantis just signed a six-week ban.

In 2022, many of the 50 anti-abortion restrictions that passed, across the United States, were near-total bans, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which concludes, “Combined with the implementation of pre-Roe laws and trigger bans that had been enacted in previous years, these laws have restricted abortion access for millions of people.” That’s the reality, popularity or political feasibility or number of votes gained or lost be damned: There are millions of people who are denied an abortion in this country already. The people forced to give birth, the people whose doctors are telling them to carry dangerous, wanted pregnancies to term, the people who risk criminalization by requesting packets of mifepristone and misoprostol for medication abortion through the mail—these are all just a preview of what Republicans are working toward.

Look how quickly after Dobbs we’ve landed in this reality: Extreme restrictions on abortion are now so common that once unthinkable laws can be framed as compromises or even wins. News that some Republicans are unwilling to sign onto near-total bans should not be dignified with the narrative that the party as a whole is backing away from abortion bans. And when national Republicans dodge questions about a federal ban only to say they prefer to leave it to the states, while those states are pushing bans even more extreme than the current federal ban up for debate, we should absolutely interpret this statement as the candidate supporting these extreme state bans. Finally, while those bans may indeed be unpopular with the state’s voters, it’s worth remembering that states with near-total abortion bans are also some of the most gerrymandered states. These days, you can be a Republican officeholder who “embraced election denialism” and not only get reelected but even get a promotion. Voters may say they want their right to an abortion back, but what voters want is no protection against this party’s extremism.