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Lindsey Graham’s and Republicans’ effort to redefine “late term”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Sen. Steve Daines as a member of the House of Representatives. This version has been corrected.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) newly proposed, nationwide 15-week abortion ban doesn’t appear to be going anywhere right now. Not given that Republicans — including Graham — recently defended the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade by espousing the value of letting states set their own policies. And not given that Republican leaders already had plenty of reason to worry about the electoral fallout of that decision.

But Graham’s bill is crystallizing one political dynamic: It represents the latest salvo in a growing effort to redefine what constitutes a “late-term” abortion.

Graham avoids explicitly claiming that anything post-15 weeks is definitionally “late-term,” but has certainly gestured in that direction.

The bill is titled the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act.” A version he has introduced in previous congresses, banning abortion after 20 weeks, was titled the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” He has added the “late-term” part to the title, even as he’s moving the window earlier.

Graham’s office added in a news release: “Graham noted that over 55,000 abortions at 15 weeks gestation or later occur each year in the United States, and the most recent state-level data shows that the majority of late-term abortions are performed for elective reasons.”

Graham doesn’t say that all abortions at or after that point are “late-term,” but that’s certainly the impression such language leaves.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), one of the few Republicans to publicly support Graham’s bill thus far, added: “I’m proud to co-sponsor Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill to stop painful late-term abortions after 15 weeks.”

To be clear, there is no precise definition of a late-term abortion, and many medical providers and scientists reject the phrase because they feel it is misleading. The very presence of the phrase in the discourse is viewed as loaded, pseudoscientific and even wrong when applied so early, given a term is usually around 40 weeks. And very few abortions are performed past 20 weeks (the usual window for those who employ the “late-term” phrasing), relatively speaking — around 1 percentmany of them due to fetal abnormalities, health risks to the pregnant person or difficulty accessing the procedure earlier.

The reason for this focus is readily apparent. The abortion issue is now cutting against the GOP, as its lawmakers have moved to severely restrict and in some cases outright ban the practice. And the party has increasingly zeroed in on a potential rebuttal: Democrats and their alleged support for “late term abortions.” (Democrats often avoid placing a time frame on precisely when they feel abortion should be illegal, noting that abortions later in pregnancy are very rare.)

For years, abortion rights opponents have generally linked “late-term abortions” to time frames of 20 weeks or later. But as certain states have pursued 15-week bans — the time frame in the Mississippi law used to overturn Roe — Susan B. Anthony List this year repeatedly used that threshold in their advocacy around “late” and “late-term” abortions.

As with Graham, these statements don’t directly say that any procedure past 15 weeks is late-term. Graham announced the bill Tuesday with the head of the group by his side.

Other Republicans facing voters in the 2022 election have also moved in this direction, as they’ve sought to distance themselves from past comments on the issue and to place the focus on Democrats.

Arizona GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters likened abortion to “genocide” earlier in the 2022 campaign. But he now says banning abortion in Arizona after 15 weeks is a “reasonable solution,” and in a new ad says he supports a “ban on very late-term” abortion.

New Mexico gubernatorial nominee Mark Ronchetti — who once labeled himself “strongly pro-life” but has since dropped the “strongly” — has more directly tied the two. In a recent ad, he says, “We can end late-term abortion, while protecting access to contraception and health care.” Right as he says these words, the screen reads: “Limit Abortion to First 15 Weeks.”

For now, it mostly seems that Republicans and their allies don’t want to talk about federal abortion legislation — even in the terms Graham is pushing. But sometimes bills are introduced more as messaging exercises than anything else. With Republicans helpless to stop many of their allies from pursuing sweeping bans at the state level, there is obvious benefit in trying to force Democrats to spell out which abortions they would ban, to take focus off which exceptions Republicans would allow.

And with states like Virginia and Florida either considering or passing 15-week bans specifically, there is obvious benefit in trying to redefine what those 15-week bans really mean — or just to push the party toward something you feel might be easier to sell.

Even if that means rewriting the definition of a word that you defined in the first place.

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