Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As one of the last two House Republicans who voted in support of women’s reproductive rights, I have a nuanced perspective on abortion.
During my time in Congress, I voted against defunding Planned Parenthood and against the 20-week abortion ban. That pleased pro-choice advocates. But parts of my voting record pleased pro-life advocates, too.
For instance, I voted for the long-established Hyde Amendment wording contained in federal spending bills. This language prohibits federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest and life or health of the mother. And I voted in favor of a bill that would notify parents if their minor child attempts to get an abortion across state lines, unless a judge intervenes to allow the minor to do so.
My voting record in many ways reflects the views of most Americans. Many people like me who self-identify as pro-choice feel abortion should be legal in most cases, but with responsible restrictions. Conversely, many self-identified pro-life Americans believe abortion should almost always be illegal, but with some exceptions, like rape, incest and life or health of the mother.
I vividly recall one House Appropriations Committee meeting where a Republican member intended to add Hyde funding language to the Homeland Security spending bill – but he wanted to omit the rape exception and revise the incest exception so that it would apply only to minors.
Understandably, Democrats on the committee exploded in anger, and I agreed with their opposition to the proposed changes. But some Democrats went even further, arguing against the agreed upon Hyde language for federal spending bills – language which had been law for over 40 years.
I stood up and lectured members from both parties for attempting to unravel what had been an uneasy, but mutually accepted, status quo. I told everyone to stop the madness: Republicans needed to abandon their planned revisions to the Hyde language, while Democrats had to refrain from trying to remove it altogether.
The abortion issue does not lend itself well to compromise, since neither side views the other as legitimate. But the original Hyde language, like it or not, was a kind of compromise. It was the price of peace. It allowed Congress to pass necessary federal spending bills, including a lot of important legislation completely unrelated to abortion.
The coming US Supreme Court ruling on abortion could change everything, in law and in policy. A leaked draft opinion last week showed that the high court could be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and upend five decades of precedent on abortion. Now, state and federal lawmakers who pursue policy around abortion and reproductive health know that their actions would have real consequences, rather than merely being legislative theater.
According to a Pew poll released prior to the leaked opinion, while most Americans believe abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances, significant numbers support some restrictions or limitations. The poll speaks to the uneasiness many Americans on both sides of the issue experience.
On one hand, most Americans want abortion to be, in the words of former President Bill Clinton, “safe, legal and rare.” On the other hand, many of those same Americans want some limitations on the procedure after viability and prohibitions on public funding consistent with the Hyde Amendment.
If the Supreme Court does, in fact, overturn or substantially curtail Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the GOP will be unprepared to deal with the political fallout. For now, Republicans are focusing their messaging on the leaked opinion rather than the substance of the ruling itself, which suggests and reflects an underlying fear to address the many impending and complex policy ramifications and questions.
The practical effect of Roe being overturned is that by returning abortion policy to the states, in at least 13 of those states abortion will be illegal in most cases. It will remain legal in many other states, while in still others, the legal status of abortion may be considerably less clear.
Expect chaos and an avalanche of restrictive and permissive abortion legislation at both the state and federal levels by Republicans and Democrats, respectively.
Less than one year after the Texas bounty payment law was enacted, the Republican-controlled legislature in Louisiana already is advancing a draconian bill criminalizing women who have abortions as well as the doctors who perform them and opponents argue it goes further than that, also criminalizing in vitro fertilization and potentially some forms of contraception.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are currently attempting to enact a measure enshrining some form of Roe v. Wade into federal law. Some will argue that the Democratic proposal under consideration in Congress goes beyond current law. Democratically controlled states will likely enact laws that go even further.
A whole host of policy questions and prescriptions will be raised. How will lawmakers deal with emergency contraception – the morning after pill – and medication abortion, like mifepristone, also known as RU-486? Will such medications be permitted to be mailed from states or foreign countries to women choosing to prevent or terminate a pregnancy in states where abortion is illegal?
Absent Roe, a Democratic Congress will attempt to establish legal abortion in federal law over the objections of states that outlaw abortion in most or all cases. Conversely, it’s possible that a Republican controlled Congress will attempt to prohibit and criminalize abortion over the objections of states that permit it in most or all cases.
And then there are the states, which will be empowered to write 50 separate laws controlling reproductive health and abortion matters. Undoubtedly, states will address the same issues as Congress on abortion and the opportunities for legislative mischief are too numerous to mention.
Perhaps the biggest change will be the underlying dynamics that drive abortion politics. As long as Roe remains the law of the land, pro-choice proponents will push back against what has been for 50 years an energized, motivated and angered pro-life movement. Rights once secured but abruptly taken away will anger, energize and motivate pro-choice proponents. If Roe is overturned, the pro-life victory will be the equivalent of the proverbial dog catching the car.
In Congress, the spotlight will shine brightest on the Senate’s two self-identified pro-choice Republican members, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, as well as the chamber’s only self-identified pro-life Democratic members, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. The hope will be that they are able to advance a bipartisan conversation on the issue – as difficult as that dialogue will be.
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All four senators have delicately navigated this issue while being out of step with their respective parties’ platforms – a feeling I know all too well. But while these four may be outliers within their own parties on the issue, they are not alone: 38% of Republicans think abortion should be legal under most or all circumstances and 20% of Democrats think it should be illegal under most or all circumstances, according to the Pew poll.
In the courts, in Congress and in state capitals across the country, the politics and the policy of abortion promise to be exponentially more contentious, complicated and consequential than ever before. With the backstop of Roe removed – or the goalie having been pulled – there will be no more cost-free political votes by legislators on abortion.
Consensus will be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find. But we have to try. The alternative would be never-ending partisan warfare on what is arguably the most deeply emotional and divisive issue of our time.