To put that period of time into perspective, it’s been only five weeks since Graham said he opposed any federal abortion ban because he felt the issue should be left to the states.
It’s also been just 11 weeks since a newly energized conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in a landmark decision that stripped away half a century of abortion protections across the country.
“I think we should have a law at the federal level that would say, ‘After 15 weeks no abortion on demand, except in cases of rape, incest, [or] to save the life of the mother,’ and that should be where America’s at,” Graham said.
Graham’s federal abortion bill would ban abortions 15 weeks after gestation, although he and anti-abortion advocates have attempted to frame the proposed legislation as a “late-term abortion ban.”
“Late-term” is a political phrase, not a medical one, but it has been previously used to refer to the roughly 1% of abortions that occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy — not 15. These rare abortions might be sought to protect a pregnant person's health or due to fetal anomalies incompatible with life, per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“15 weeks is not ‘late term,’ particularly given the significant challenges to access around the country,” Christina Reynolds, a spokesperson for Emily’s List, a group that aims to elect women candidates who support abortion rights, wrote on Twitter. “And let's be clear: this is their first step to a full ban.”
One woman who said she discovered such a fetal anomaly in the 16th week of her pregnancy confronted Graham at his Tuesday announcement.
Graham’s bill would still give states flexibility to ban abortions before 15 weeks — as has happened in Oklahoma, where almost all abortions are banned from the moment of fertilization — but it would constrain other more liberal states.
“Let’s be clear about what a bill like this would do — it could put a ban on abortion in place in every state in our country, including blue states that have laws protecting abortion rights and access on the books,” Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. “This is about who gets to decide what’s right for our lives and our families. Should it be a person who is pregnant? Or Lindsey Graham and MAGA Republicans?”
Graham’s bill contains an exemption for victims of rape, but only if the pregnant person has obtained counseling or medical treatment for the rape at least 48 hours before seeking an abortion, as well as to protect the life of the pregnant person. Minors who are victims of rape or incest would also be exempt if that crime has been reported to authorities.
The bill would also carve out an exemption for pregnant people whose lives are in danger, but this would not apply to “psychological or emotional conditions.”
Graham said his flip-flop on leaving abortion to the states was due to Democrats introducing a bill that Republicans said went too far. “Our legislation is a counter to their proposal,” Graham said. “I hope we get to debate on it and vote on it.”
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, abortion has emerged as a major factor in November’s midterm elections with a surge in women registering to vote in many states. Republicans have been spooked by the apparent voter backlash, made evident by the high turnout and subsequent resounding defeat of a constitutional amendment to remove abortion protections in Kansas last month. As some GOP candidates even remove old language from their campaign websites in which they supported abortion bans, the Republican Party has instead been trying to keep voter and media attention on crime, immigration, and the economy — three subjects Graham himself named at Tuesday’s news conference.
The South Carolina senator framed his bill as a way to confront the abortion issue in the campaign season with a bill he feels will make Democrats look radical. “I'm sure this will come up and what I'm trying to tell my colleagues [is] that there is a consensus view by the most prominent pro-life groups in America, that this is where America should be at the federal level,” Graham said. “I don’t think this is going to hurt us.”
But Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told the Washington Post prior to the bill’s unveiling that she suspected Graham’s bill would serve as “the place to begin” because it could draw wide support and give their campaign “momentum.”
Democrats were quick to pounce on Graham’s bill, pointing to it as a harbinger of even stronger bills in the future.
“Senate Republicans are showing voters exactly what they would do if they are in charge: pass a nationwide abortion ban and strip away women’s right to make our own health care decisions,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Nora Keefe said.
With President Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, the bill currently stands no chance of becoming law, but Graham told reporters on Tuesday that he viewed this as the beginning of a long campaign.
"If we stay on this and keep talking about it, maybe less than a decade from now this will become law,” he said.
Anna Betts contributed reporting to this story.