For weeks, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has been condemning his fellow Republican presidential candidates for their extreme abortion stances, claiming that their refusal to offer exceptions for cases of rape and incest will make them unelectable. Yet Graham’s own record on abortion stands as a testament to anti-choice extremism—a detail media outlets have largely overlooked.
Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s headquarters last Thursday, Graham veered off the day’s dominant subjects of discussion—foreign affairs and Israel—to once again call out his rivals with extreme anti-choice platforms that include no exceptions for abortions in cases of rape and incest. Noting the positions of many of his colleagues, Graham asked, “How many of you believe we’ve got a problem with young women as Republicans?”
“How about abortion?” the senator continued. “I believe that you can be pro-life and win an election. But if you are going to tell a woman who has been raped she has to carry the child of a rapist, you’re losing most Americans.”
“Ted Cruz doesn’t have an exception for rape or incest,” Graham added, claiming that if Cruz were to be the nominee for the general election, Democrats would use the issue to try to swing voters to their side. “It will be about the nominee of the Republican Party telling a woman who has been raped, you gotta carry the child of the rapist,” Graham said. “Good luck with that.”
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And some in the media cheered. At the Huffington Post, although it was noted that Graham was anti-choice, the outlet nevertheless ran with a headline claiming he had “just told a room full of donors to get real about rape and abortion.” Other outlets offered less laudatory coverage, but still no mention of Graham’s own extreme positions.
It wasn’t the first time. In late October, Graham made the same accusation about Republicans’ hardline stance against abortion exceptions during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “Anybody with that position will get creamed” in the general election, Graham told host Joe Scarborough. “I appreciate your passion for the pro-life issue but you’re outside the mainstream and you cannot get elected,” pointing to the “83 percent of the American people [who] feel like that goes too far,” he added.
Although it’s easy to pass over or take for granted Graham’s well-established history as an anti-choice advocate, his record is critical to understanding that the candidate’s attacks on his rivals in no way make him a more moderate option. Graham’s attempts to position himself as less extreme than other Republicans in order to appeal more broadly to voters and funders must be considered within the context of his background when it comes to reproductive health.
This June, Graham re-introduced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in an attempt to pass a federal 20-week abortion ban. The bill, which was based on the discredited theory that a fetus can feel pain at this point in a pregnancy, had passed earlier in the year in the House but ultimately failed amid heated debate over the measure’s burdensome exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
In a statement condemning Graham’s ban, Dr. Mark DeFrancesco, president of the American Congress of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, explained that the measure had dangerous ramifications. “As an OB-GYN, I know firsthand the reasons why women may need abortion care after 20 weeks, and I have seen the pain that many of these women are in when confronting these decisions,” said DeFrancesco.
“Yet this ban would force physicians to deny services, even to women who have made the difficult decision to end pregnancies for reasons including fetal anomalies diagnosed later in pregnancy or other unexpected obstetric outcomes. This is simply cruel,” continued DeFrancesco.
Graham’s version of the act contained no exceptions for fetal abnormalities—a point that Politico noted “threaten[ed] to hand political ammunition to Democrats trying to knock off GOP senators in purple and blue states that will decide Senate control after the 2016 election.”
Graham’s penchant for anti-abortion legislation does not stop there. On top of his long anti-choice voting record, during his time in the Senate the presidential candidate co-sponsored several extreme “personhood” bills such as the Life at Conception Act and the Right to Life Act, which would have granted legal protections to a fetus by redefining it as a person; would have consequently implemented a ban on abortions; and could have forbidden the use of many forms of contraception, including the pill and IUDs.
In 1999, Graham co-authored an early version of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which made it a crime to kill or injure a fetus “at any stage of development.” Although not explicitly anti-abortion in nature, Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT), bragged to CNN in 2003 that a later version of the measure nevertheless “undermines abortion rights.”
As Imani Gandy has explained for Rewire, fetal homicide laws, or feticide laws, can be exploited by anti-choice proponents in order to push the aforementioned “personhood” agenda—and pregnant people are often caught in the crosshairs. In many places, states push “efforts to criminalize the behavior of pregnant women and prioritize the rights of the ‘unborn’ over the rights of women,” Gandy pointed out, often leading states to take action against women struggling with drug use.
“Such approaches demonstrate a woeful lack of understanding about drug addiction and prenatal and maternal health, but underscore concerns that when it comes to pregnancy, the trend seems to be to do whatever it takes to protect the ‘unborn child’ at every stage of development, even at the expense of the woman carrying it,” explained Gandy.
Graham has also voted against allowing the very same kinds of exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother in various proposed measures and amendments that he is now criticizing other Republicans for opposing. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America’s candidate report, during his time in the House, Graham repeatedly voted against efforts to ensure Medicaid recipients could access abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother was in danger.
Media outlets should take Graham’s attempts to paint his rivals as too harsh on abortion with a grain of salt. When a candidate whose views on abortion are as extreme as Graham’s highlights how out-of-touch his opponents are with the U.S. public on the topic, it may be time to re-examine where each candidate stands and what moments of clarity from a candidate are worth praise.