Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio may soon leap into the abortion fray. According to The Weekly Standard, Rubio is considering sponsoring Senate legislation that would ban abortions 20 weeks after fertilization. Although Rubio’s support for a 20-week ban is not definite, one of his advisors wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post last week, “I expect an announcement when he gets back to D.C. next week.”
Rubio would be wise to avoid the 20-week abortion ban. It would be poor political strategy and poor public policy. Although supporting such a measure might help Rubio with conservatives, it would likely hurt him with women and Hispanics – and damage his national prospects.
However, women’s health issues represent a political minefield for Republicans. Missouri’s Todd Akin lost his Senate race in part because of his comments about “legitimate rape,” while Indiana’s Richard Mourdock lost his Senate race after saying that a pregnancy resulting from rape was something “God intended to happen.” Rick Perry’s recent efforts to curtail abortion in Texas have reinvigorated state Democrats. Even with Perry on the verge of announcing “exciting future plans,” Rubio wades into this debate at his own peril.
In practical terms, any proposal by Rubio targeting abortion has zero chance of becoming law. It would never pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and President Obama has pledged to veto such legislation anyway. USA Today has noted that state measures banning abortions after 20 weeks are“constitutionally dubious” and that several have been put on hold by courts. What’s more, abortions after 20 weeks are extremely rare; they account for only 1.5 percent of all abortions. So Rubio’s sponsoring a 20-week ban would amount to little more than high-profile posturing.
Twenty-week abortion bans are based on the disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain after that point. But researchers for the American Medical Association say that fetal pain is unlikely to occur before 29 weeks. And women who choose to have a late-term abortion often do so because that is when they discover fetal abnormalities or face serious health risks. No wonder that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have denounced Texas’ proposed restrictions on abortions as setting a “dangerous precedent” for medical care.
Rubio’s support for abortion restrictions would put him at odds with Hispanic voters. Though a study by the Pew Center found that a slight majority of Latinos believe that abortion should be illegal, more relevant data comes from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. They surveyed Latino voters, and found strong support for a woman’s right to choose. 74 percent of Latino voters said that women should have the right to make their own private decisions about abortion without political interference. 68 percent of Latino voters were willing to disagree with church leaders on this issue. These striking numbers suggest that Rubio is unlikely to gain traction on the abortion issue with Hispanics.
True, supporting a 20-week ban on abortion might help Rubio bolster his conservative credentials. Yet he risks alienating women, independent, and moderate voters, all of whom are crucial to winning a national election.
Any proposed ban on abortion would also amount to a betrayal of Rubio’s belief in limited government. It’s hard to imagine a better example of government intrusion into people’s lives than a bill that would regulate a woman’s uterus and a fetus.
Rubio would be well advised not to support a 20-week ban on abortion. Women’s reproductive rights should be a private matter between a woman and her doctor – not between a woman and her doctor and a junior Senator from Florida.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.