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What Republicans Are Missing on Abortion Politics, According to a Republican

Originally published by Jane Coaston for the New York Times

Republicans have struggled politically with the issue of abortion since the overturning of Roe v. Wade — a point proven several times over with anti-abortion measures failing in relatively conservative states. Just this month, Ohio added abortion rights to the State Constitution and Republicans lost control of the Virginia Statehouse.

Some members of the party have had enough. In South Carolina this year, State Senator Sandy Senn was one of three Republicans who, along with a fellow Democratic senator and an independent senator, filibustered efforts to severely restrict abortion in the state. The “sister senators,” as they call themselves, were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing a six-week abortion ban from taking effect. Ms. Senn says that she does not want women to have abortions but believes voters must have a say and that there must be a more moderate path on policy. “It should not be a bunch of old men in the South Carolina Legislature deciding their fate,” she told me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: How did you react to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and how did you think Republicans at the state level would react? Now looking back, thinking about it?

Sandy Senn: I just thought, “Dear heavens, they have to realize that even though they say equal protection is still in place, girls from one state are going to be treated differently than girls from another state, and especially girls in the Bible Belt are going to be treated more harshly than in other areas.” So I knew then that we had a serious problem, because at least in our state, we were going to have a hell of a challenge. And we did.

But I can tell you that, I think now, since there are so many variations of these bills, this is something that the federal officials need to take up. And barring it being placed on every state as a referendum issue, which it can’t in our state because we don’t have voter-driven referendums and we’re overwhelmingly male in our legislature, then what can we do?

To me, we now need to also take a look at the Equal Rights Amendment. Women really do not have equal rights now, because what the court has given, the court can take away. We always knew that, and now we definitely know it.

Coaston: What do you think other Republicans don’t understand about how women view legislative efforts to restrict abortion?

Senn: I think a lot of Republicans do understand, and they feel the heat, and they know that this is a losing issue. But they are so scared to lose their own seat that they vote in the way that they think the party wants them to vote. In reality, we lose elections because this is a losing issue and we lose people that are in the middle. People who had previously leaned to the right are now going to lean to the left.

Coaston: I know you talk about it in terms of control. What does that mean to you?

Senn: In case you don’t know, South Carolina — only West Virginia had fewer female representation. Now, we did pick up one female senator, but when we were voting on the ban, we only had 14.7 percent female representation.

(South Carolina is technically now 48th in terms of state legislature representation for women, ahead of Mississippi and West Virginia; both states have banned abortion with very limited exceptions, while South Carolina has implemented the six-week ban.)

Coaston: Especially when we’re thinking about Republicans and your belief that the party understands that they’re in the hot seat on abortion, it’s interesting the way you talk about the impetus being to control women.

Senn: There are a lot more women in politics now or trying to be and a lot more professional women who are educated. But these men are educated as well, and they know better. Their wives are screaming at them. So even when it came to having peace at home versus worrying about that job at the statehouse, they selected that job at the statehouse. So those are the ones that disappoint me greatly.

For those who really believe it is a religious issue — and those are generally nonlawyers who cannot seem to understand a separation between church and state or even a separation of powers — for them, I’m not as, I guess, mad, because it’s truly their belief.

We don’t want women to have abortions, but we have to have some sympathy, and we can’t judge. We have to give them a certain amount of time to get their lives together. And if we give them a certain amount of time, a lot of times they are going to select life. And those who can’t just simply can’t. But it should not be a bunch of old men in the South Carolina Legislature deciding their fate. And I mean “old men,” because there are a lot of them.

Coaston: How do you think Republicans should have responded to this moment? Dobbs sends the issue back to the states. How do you wish Republicans would’ve come at this?

Senn: I think Justice Roberts got it right. If they wanted to reverse that one particular case, they should have. But even Justice Roberts went ahead and voted with the majority. So I think that I stood, and still stand, at first trimester for a limit. My sister senators, some of them, they say longer. They’re more in line with how Ohio just voted.

(The “sister senators” who filibustered to block South Carolina’s near total ban on abortion are Margie Bright Matthews, a Democrat; Mia McLeod, an independent; and Katrina Shealy, Penry Gustafson and Ms. Senn, Republicans.)

But yet I’m getting accused of — and the Republican women are getting accused of — we’re just not Republican enough. And I’m like, “Are you serious? We’re at 12 weeks.” Even Tim Scott, who just dropped out of the presidential race, he was at, what was it, 17? At one point, it was 19, and then he backtracked to 17. Even Nikki Haley is softening up on this thing. So if they don’t see it as a loser issue, I’d be shocked.

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