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Republicans struggle to respond to Alabama embryo ruling

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — A court decision prompting some Alabama fertility clinics to curtail IVF treatments shows how top Republicans are still struggling to navigate a post-Roe v. Wade world.

Candidates, including presidential contender Nikki Haley, are scrambling for coherent responses to last week’s state Supreme Court decision that declared embryos are children and those who destroy them can be held liable for wrongful death. Republicans are being pulled between social conservatives in their party and more moderate voters who could be decisive in a general election.

The irony is that US Supreme Court ending the nationwide federal right to an abortion in 2022 represented one of the most spectacular successes in the conservative movement’s history. But for many Americans, the loss of such constitutional protections they may have taken for granted has ever since offered a huge political opening to Democrats and abortion right campaigners.

Led by President Joe Biden, Democrats quickly branded the Alabama ruling as an example of far-right reverberations from the overturning of Roe, which abortion rights advocates say has emboldened ultra-conservative judges to issue ever more radical rulings.

The Alabama decision, which was accompanied by a concurring opinion by Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker warning against invoking the “wrath of a holy God,” could invite similar action in other conservative states and widen the patchwork nature of reproductive rights that increasingly depends on where in the country someone lives.

This latest battle – over deeply personal health care decisions and beliefs about when life begins – is inherently political since it was precipitated by anti-abortion activists who have been waging public campaigns on the issue for years.

But fierce partisan clashes are showing how the country’s ultra-polarized climate makes it hard to have sober debates on questions that, at their most basic level, encompass the nature of humanity itself. For many anti-abortion advocates, an embryo is already a life, effectively an unborn baby, and is entitled to the rights granted to children. But an alternative view is that an embryo is a mass of cells that could become a child but has not yet reached that point.

While the Alabama ruling does not outlaw in vitro-fertilization – a process whereby an egg is combined with sperm outside the ovaries – it’s had an immediate effect on some individuals undergoing an already emotionally grueling and expensive process as they try to become pregnant. Three fertility clinics in Alabama have already halted part of their IVF treatment programs amid legal concerns following the ruling, causing uncertainty for patients trying to start families.

Gabrielle Goidel, who has spent three months preparing for treatments, is now being forced to travel to Texas to go ahead after years trying for a baby. “I felt I had the opportunity to be a mom ripped away multiple times,” Goidel told CNN’s Jessica Dean on Thursday. “It just feels every time I try, the rug gets pulled out from under me and my husband. All we want is to be a family and have children and live the traditional American dream.”

Republicans dance around Alabama ruling

Democrats, building on the evidence of multiple elections since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, believe that running on promises to protect reproductive rights – and casting the GOP as a threat to those freedoms – can help them win over critical voters and rebuild Biden’s electoral coalition.

Biden’s campaign released a pointed statement Thursday evening highlighting the fact that Donald Trump had not yet commented on the ruling. The communication – which included the subject line “Trump’s Statement on Alabama IVF Ruling He is Responsible For:” and then a blank space – reflected Democrats’ glee at seeing Republicans squirm on an issue on which they firmly believe they’re more in touch with American voters.

Trump’s silence and the verbal gymnastics of Haley, his last-remaining primary rival, belie the treacherous political challenges of the transformed reality over abortion.

Haley made several attempts to answer questions about her position on the Alabama ruling in recent days.

Speaking on CNN’s “King Charles” on Wednesday evening, Haley said that she believed that “an embryo is considered an unborn baby.” The next day, when asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” whether she disagreed with the Alabama, the former South Carolina governor said yes, although she repeated that she personally believes an embryo is a baby. “I think that the court was doing it based on the law, and I think Alabama needs to go back and look at the law,” she said.

Despite the fear in Alabama that anyone who now destroys an embryo could face criminal charges, Haley – who has spoken about how she used artificial insemination – said that she didn’t want IVF treatments to stop. “We want to make sure whatever we do, that we have plenty of opportunities and availability for fertility treatments to go forward,” she said. “We don’t want fertility treatments to shut down.”

Haley’s fellow South Carolinian and former GOP presidential rival, Sen. Tim Scott – who is being talked about as a possible running mate for Trump if he wins the nomination – also underscored the political dilemmas that the Alabama decision presents for GOP candidates. “I haven’t studied the issue so I’m going to let Nikki Haley continue to go back and forth on that issue,” Scott told CNN.  

Trump’s avoidance of debates and questions from anyone but sympathetic interviewers means that he may be able to skip past the Alabama ruling for some time. The former president has made clear by his actions that he understands that abortion could be a disadvantage for him in a general election given that he constructed the Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe v. Wade.

His balancing act was threatened earlier this month when The New York Times reported that he has privately expressed support for a 16-week federal abortion ban, including exceptions for rape, incest or if the life of the mother is in danger.

If Trump did not have the shield of creating the generational right-wing majority on the high court, such a position – which is more moderate than restrictions some GOP-led states have enacted – might expose him to problems on his right in the primary. The idea of a federal ban also repudiates the Supreme Court’s ostensible argument that this is an issue that should be left to the states to decide.

Trump has insisted in public that he’d sit down with both sides of the abortion debate and find a solution that makes everyone happy. While his waffling might get him out of a temporary jam, it’s unlikely to wash in a general election and strains credulity that it could work in government.

And he appears locked into a contradictory position – simultaneously seeking to demand credit for the unassailable conservative Supreme Court majority that overturned federal abortion rights while seeking to avoid the backlash he caused.

“We also have to remember that we have to have people elected,” he told a gathering of religious broadcasters in Nashville Thursday night, attempting to strike that balance.

Biden moves to exploit GOP vulnerabilities

Biden’s campaign, which is showing increasing signs of sharpening its general election argument on issues from student loans to foreign policy, moved quickly to exploit Republican discomfort over the Alabama ruling. The president is acting on the basis of recent history that shows that abortion rights supporters have been able to harness the overturning of Roe to motivate voters in recent elections and ballot measures.

“Make no mistake: this is a direct result of the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House on Thursday. He said that the Alabama ruling showed a “disregard for women’s ability to make these decisions for themselves” that is “outrageous and unacceptable.”

Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement that the Alabama ruling was a consequence of the “extreme MAGA Reproductive Agenda.”

“Across the nation, MAGA Republicans are inserting themselves into the most personal decisions a family can make, from contraception to IVF,” she said. “With their latest attack on reproductive freedom, these so-called pro-life Republicans are preventing loving couples from growing their families. If Donald Trump is elected, there is no question that he will impose his extreme anti-freedom agenda on the entire country.”

Ever since the overturning of Roe, Democrats have believed the issue gives them a winning edge. While it’s too early to know how resonant this issue will be in the fall, the manner in which Republicans are reacting to the latest storm over reproductive rights suggests they could be right.

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