WASHINGTON — In the days since Alabama’s passage of the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, national Republicans have tried to distance themselves from its most controversial provisions that would outlaw abortion even in the case of rape or incest.
Now, there are clear signs that is changing. Secret talking points obtained by VICE News show national Republicans are preparing to defend the law, which has not yet taken effect, but will almost certainly be struck down by the courts. The law, which only allows abortions if a pregnancy poses a "serious health risk" to the mother, was passed last week by Alabama legislators in hopes of mounting a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade.
According to the document distributed by the largest GOP ideological conservative caucus in the House, conservative leaders are urging members to defend the Alabama law, using the justification that an abortion would be committing more violence against a woman who was raped or survived incest.
“Committing a second violent act with abortion to a woman who has already been victimized by an act of rape or incest could physically or psychologically wound her further,” the document states. “Every single child should be afforded the opportunity to live, regardless of how they were conceived.”
The document was produced by the Republican Study Committee, a longtime caucus consisting of conservative House Republicans, who met Tuesday to discuss this and other matters. Entitled “Messaging in the Minority,” the document offers “messaging guidance” on “our pro-life platform” and contains a note stating it is “strictly OFF-THE-RECORD” and not to be printed or reproduced by/for media.”
Roughly 70% of House Republicans are members of the Republican Study Committee, with more than 140 members listed as dues-paying members on the group’s website.
A spokeswoman for the Republican Study Committee declined to comment.
The guidance advises that Alabama’s law is “bold new pro-life legislation.” “Unfortunately, the media is attempting to use these new developments to create ‘gotcha moments’ for Republicans and a divide within our party,” it states.
It is clear, however, that the divide is not a media creation, as anti-abortion groups have been putting pressure on congressional Republicans to rethink the exemptions.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told VICE News that he has not seen the talking points, but that he does not support abortion laws without exemptions in the case of rape and incest. But he said other Republicans are free to have their own opinions.
“I believe in pro-life. I believe in the protection of children. I do not believe in infanticide, I believe in three exemptions only: Life of the mother, rape and incest,” he said. “Members run and take positions. It's a personal position, and they have to stake out their own personal position, just as I have.”
McCarthy is the only GOP leader who is not a member of the RSC, with Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney and Vice Chairman Mark Walker and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Gary Palmer all listed as members.
It’s not clear whether any members of leadership were at the meeting in the Capitol where the messaging guidance was discussed. A meeting agenda obtained by VICE News noted that they also discussed a Scalise-sponsored anti-carbon tax bill and a Palmer measure that would strip some federal funding from airports that do not comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington, a former member of GOP leadership and a current member of the Republican Study Committee, said she was not at the meeting but that she does not support the messaging contained in the document.
“I've always supported that exemption,” she told VICE News. She would advise her colleagues that, “I think we stay focused on what we're doing at the federal level and the states; that's the laboratories of democracy.”
The document notes that some Republicans may disagree with aspects of the state law but that it is important for the GOP to present a unified front on the bigger issue.
“While some Republicans may disagree with the timing and/or particular legal strategies being implemented with the various state measures, it is critical our members speak with clarity and conviction about the broader issue of the sanctity and inherent value of every human life,” the document reads.
Other Republicans welcomed the discussion. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, who has been an anti-abortion advocate for decades and has drawn controversy for trying to narrow the definition of rape to “forcible rape,” noted that he thinks there’s a political upside to messaging the issue in new ways.
“I am for, to the maximum extent possible, protecting life,” said Smith, who is not a member of the RSC. “What I want to do is have that debate on the floor. Stay tuned.”
Democrats, however, are sure to jump on the talking points. The party is having a reckoning of its own, with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos on Tuesday bowing out of a fundraiser for anti-abortion Democrat Rep. Dan Lipinski under pressure from the left.
Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-choice Caucus, said Republicans may try to distance themselves from the state laws, but it will not work.
“It's not for a bunch of Republican, mostly male members of Congress to be telling rape victims what is or is not in the best interest,” said DeGette. “The state laws are outrageous. They hurt women … I think the fact that National Republicans are trying to run away from them is not going to work.”
Here are the talking points:
Cover: Demonstrations were planned across the US on Tuesday in defense of abortion rights, which activists see as increasingly under attack. Alabama is among about 14 states which have adopted laws banning or drastically restricting access to abortion, according to activists. (Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)