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WASHINGTON — Leading groups opposed to abortion rights and their allies in Congress have been meeting behind the scenes to plan a national strategy that would kick in if the Supreme Court rolls back abortion rights this summer, including a push for a strict nationwide ban on the procedure if Republicans retake power in Washington.
The effort, activists say, is designed to bring a fight that has been playing out largely in the courts and state legislatures to the national political stage — rallying conservatives around the issue in the midterms and pressuring potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates to take a stand.
The discussions reflect what activists describe as an emerging consensus in some corners of the anti-abortion movement to push for hard-line measures that will truly end a practice they see as murder while rejecting any proposals seen as half-measures.
Activists say their confidence stems from progress on two fronts: At the Supreme Court, a conservative majority appears ready to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that has protected abortion rights for nearly 50 years — an outcome that was previewed late Monday when Politico published a draft opinion saying it was time to strike the precedent and "return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives." And activists argue that in Texas, Republicans have paid no apparent political price for banning abortion after cardiac activity is detected, around six weeks of pregnancy.
While a number of states have recently approved laws to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy — the limit established in the Mississippi legislation at the heart of the case pending before the high court — some activists now say those laws are not ambitious enough. Instead, they now see the six-week limit — which they call "heartbeat" legislation — as the preferred strategy.
"This is a whole new ballgame," Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life Action, one of the country's biggest anti-abortion groups, said in an interview. "The 50 years of standing at the Supreme Court's door waiting for something to happen is over."
A group of Republican senators has discussed at multiple meetings the possibility of banning abortion at around six weeks, said U.S. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who was in attendance and said he would support the legislation. U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, will introduce the legislation in the Senate, according to an advocate with knowledge of the discussions. Ernst did not respond to a request for comment.
One top advocate, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, has spoken privately with 10 possible Republican presidential contenders, including former President Donald Trump, to talk through national strategy. Most of them, she said in an interview, assured her they would be supportive of a national ban and would be eager to make that policy a centerpiece of a presidential campaign.
And Students for Life Action, along with nine other prominent groups, plans to send a letter to every Republican member of Congress pushing them to embrace a "heartbeat bill." The letter, which the group shared with The Washington Post, argues that a national 15-week ban would not go far enough.
"If we are not focusing on limiting early abortions, we are not really addressing the violence of abortion at all," Hawkins writes.
A nationwide abortion ban would be extraordinarily difficult to pass, particularly given the need for 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster under current rules. Such a measure would encounter resistance from nearly all Democrats in addition to a handful of Republicans, who might raise questions about its constitutionality.
The Senate is split 50-50, but with a handful of competitive races this year, neither party is expected to attain a filibuster-proof majority in the midterm elections.
A strict national ban is also likely to be impossible without an anti-abortion Republican president willing to sign it.