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Abortion has Republicans navigating political landmines in search of cover


by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current

Nevada’s top Republican candidates, some endorsed by national anti-abortion rights forces, are eschewing a chance to potentially slash the 24-week limit on terminating pregnancies in Nevada by nine weeks, a position that could confound pro-abortion rights voters energized by the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress. 

“I think it will harm anyone that wants to get pro-life votes,” says anti-abortion rights activist Janine Hansen, an Independent American who says she’d personally prefer state to federal action. She says some pro-abortion rights voters would rather stay home than cast a ballot for a candidate who waffles on abortion. “For a lot of people, that is the issue.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed federal ban of abortion after 15 weeks, introduced earlier this month, is dividing Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail.

Campaign publicist Lisa Mayo DeRiso, who primarily represents Republicans, says candidates who reject the 15-week national ban “are very smart. Republicans want limited government. We don’t want a big federal ban. We want state law to take precedence. They are appealing to Libertarian, nonpartisan, and Independent voters. Those are ‘limited government’ activists.”

The right to choose an abortion has been settled law in Nevada for 30 years, rendering the issue little more than a sideshow in most elections. But it’s never retreated from the political stage. 

It has been weaponized by opponents and used as a litmus test to gain support, but its codification 30 years ago permitted the state’s pro-abortion rights majority to set the issue aside and elect pro-abortion rights Democratic Gov. Bob Miller and anti-abortion rights U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, also a Democrat. 

In the same vein, former Gov. Brian Sandoval was at ease as a pro-abortion rights Republican. 

But as so-called ‘personhood’ initiatives and other anti-abortion rights efforts emerged, voters became more attuned to abortion politics. 

In 2005, a sloppy answer from Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate Jim Gibson on Face to Face with Jon Ralston, a cable TV program in Las Vegas, about what he would do if Roe v. Wade were overturned, was publicized throughout the state and may have cost Gibson, a Mormon, the primary to Dina Titus the following year. Gibson is currently chair of the Clark County Commission.

Demonstrators at an abortion rights rally in Reno, Nev. on May 3, 2022. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Now, with the Supreme Court’s disposal of nearly a half a century of federal precedent and a surfeit of anti-abortion rights initiatives floating at state and national levels, the issue has the spotlight. 

“That is an issue that doesn’t need to be in politics,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo told reporters earlier this month, when asked about the ban.

Lombardo said he will fight the ban and uphold Nevada law permitting abortion until 24 weeks. “It’s the vote of the people within the state of Nevada, and I will support that.”

Lombardo, who leads Sisolak by 1.5 percentage points, according to polling from Real Clear Politics, is not the only Republican candidate seeking cover under the “settled law” umbrella. He is joined by U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, who is in a tight battle with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.  

Nevada’s Hispanic voters, many of whom are conservative, could decide the Senate race.  Cortez Masto, a Latina, surrounded herself with Hispanic women at a news conference just after the Supreme Court repealed Roe.

Laxalt, who referred to the nearly 50 years of abortion precedent under Roe v Wade as “a joke,” has refused to directly answer questions about the proposed federal ban.

Lombardo and Laxalt are endorsed by the National Right To Life Committee, which supported Graham’s ban and appeared at the news conference announcing it. 

Caroline Mello Roberson of NARAL Pro-Choice America spoke out against Adam Laxalt and in favor of reproductive rights at an event Sept. 9, 2021 in downtown Reno, Nev.
Caroline Mello Roberson of NARAL Pro-Choice America spoke out against Adam Laxalt and in favor of reproductive rights at an event Sept. 9, 2021 in downtown Reno, Nev. Image: Jeri Chadwell / This Is Reno

NRLC’s president Carol Tobias commended Graham “… on behalf of unborn children and their mothers,” saying the legislation. “would prevent cruel and painful abortions from being performed on innocent children.”

Laxalt’s and Lombardo’s opposition to the ban not only put them at odds with NRLC but also in the position of supporting a state law that allows abortion up to nine weeks later than the proposed federal ban. 

An anti-abortion rights activist who asked not to be named for fear of professional retribution said of the 15-week ban that she “would be for it, from a practical policy perspective,” adding it would “give women more of a runway to understand their situation and provide them with resources to understand their options” than an outright ban favored by hardcore anti-abortion factions.

National Right to Life supports pro-life candidates and understands that pro-life candidates we support may have varying views on the best way to protect unborn children.– Statement from National Right to Life Committee

“This is a canard,” says Melissa Clement, executive director of Nevada Right to Life. “You and I both know there are not the votes in the House and there are not the votes in the Senate. And there isn’t a president that is going to do anything but veto a ban.” 

Hansen, Clement’s longtime ally in the anti-abortion rights effort, says although she supports states’ rights and opposes Graham’s proposal, it is a “perfectly appropriate compromise,” especially in a state like Nevada, where existing law is unlikely to be undone by a vote of the people. 

‘Pro-life lens’ 

Lombardo, a Catholic who has described himself as a “pro-life individual,” struck a decidedly anti-abortion rights tone during the Republican primary. Asked during a televised debate whether he’d support restrictions on emergency contraceptives, waiting periods before ending a pregnancy and parental notification laws, Lombardo responded “yes, absolutely,” and noted that if elected, he would view everything via a “pro-life lens.”

He has since backed off.

“I support the existing laws that are in the state of Nevada,” Lombardo says in a misleading ad that attempts to make his campaign spokesperson’s assertion that he won’t change abortion law appear to be the conclusion of news media.

NRLC is advocating for legislation that would outlaw abortion pills like mifepristone and misoprostol, which are used in more than half of all abortions.

“National Right to Life supports pro-life candidates and understands that pro-life candidates we support may have varying views on the best way to protect unborn children,” NRLC said in a statement to the Current. 

After the Dobbs ruling, Lombardo said that if elected, he would repeal Gov. Steve Sisolak’s executive order protecting people who seek abortion care in Nevada. He has also backed off that position.

Lombardo’s evolution on abortion is detailed in broadcast ads, but DeRiso says viewing options, including ad-free services, have changed the way voters watch TV, rendering ads less impactful. 

“If abortion is your hill to die for, on either side, you’re going to really be paying attention to those ads and they may determine how you vote. But if that’s not what you’re worried about, if you’re worried about your kids’ education, and prices and all the other things families are dealing with, no, I don’t think that’s on your radar.”

Abortion rights, she says, is low priority for most voters. 

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, a candidate for governor, spoke at the seventh annual Basque Fry in Gardnerville. Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group

While Lombardo says he supports the existing laws of the state, if elected, he’d have the platform to support a referendum limiting abortion rights, as well as impose restrictions on access.

He has said he supports a 13-week ban at the state level.

Laxalt has refused to take questions about abortion, but wrote an op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal supporting a state referendum limiting abortion to 13 weeks. “I also believe that most Nevadans agree with that position,” Laxalt wrote.

“The law in Nevada was settled by voters decades ago and isn’t going to change,” Laxalt’s campaign spokesman Brian Freimuth said in a statement to news media

Republican House candidates April Becker and Mark Robertson oppose the proposed federal ban at 15 weeks. 

“Given the recent Supreme Court decision returning the issue of abortion regulation to the states, I do not believe it is constitutional for abortion policy to be determined at the national level; therefore, I would oppose Senator Graham’s legislation,” Becker, the Republican challenging Susie Lee in Congressional District 3, said in a statement. 

“The right to ‘Life’ is not granted by humans, but rather is an endowment by our ‘Creator,’” says Congressional District 1 Republican candidate Mark Robertson’s website. “Aborting an unborn life is an affront to the Creator.”

But not enough of an affront to support a federal ban at 15 weeks.

“The people of Nevada have spoken,” Robertson said when Graham introduced the measure. “I will oppose any bill in Congress that takes power from the People and gives it to the Federal government.”

The sleeping giant 

More than half of voters said the Dobbs ruling is more likely to cause them to cast ballots in the midterm elections, according to a Wall Street Journal poll. A majority said they opposed bans at 15 weeks of gestation. 

For the last 30 years, far more Americans have supported first trimester abortion (about 60%) than second trimester (about 25%), according to Gallup. That waning support for later procedures is shaping the 13- and 15-week bans being floated by Republicans. 

Demonstrators at an abortion rights rally in Reno, Nev. on May 3, 2022. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

But will those bans satisfy the segment of the conservative base that views every abortion as murder?

Days before the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs ruing, NRLC issued model state legislation that would outlaw abortion except when necessary to prevent the death of the mother.

Now, with a majority of Americans disapproving the court’s ruling and politicians walking back more stringent pro-abortion rights positions, NRLC is lowering its standards, writing in a statement it “supports both state and federal bills protecting unborn children capable of feeling pain at 15 weeks from excruciating dismemberment abortions.” 

A Fox News poll conducted in late April, before the Dobbs decision, asked respondents “…about a law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in the case of medical emergency – would you favor or oppose that in your state?”  More than half (54%) favored such a law and 41% opposed it.

Clement of Nevada Right to Life seems disinterested in compromise, unless it includes not only a time limit but parental notification provisions, as well.   

“We have 9-year-olds getting abortions without their parents’ knowledge,” she says. “The question is never ‘do you support legalized abortion for all nine months, at any age without parental consent.”

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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