Kari Lake and her fellow Republicans can't run from Arizona's draconian abortion ban

Pretending to be moderate is a lot harder when Democrats can just roll tape showcasing Christian right radicalism

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 11, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Kari Lake, Republican Senate candidate from Arizona, leaves the U.S. Capitol after a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Kari Lake, Republican Senate candidate from Arizona, leaves the U.S. Capitol after a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

As far as symbols of what the GOP intends for American women, the revival of an abortion ban that predates women's suffrage could not be more fitting. The Arizona Supreme Court decided on Tuesday that the state should enforce a law outlawing all abortions, under criminal penalty of two to five years imprisonment, "unless it is necessary to save her life." The law was passed in 1864, which was not just before Arizona was a state, but 55 years before women obtained the right to vote. The symbolism of that, plus the electoral implications going into a presidential election, means this news is explosive even beyond the high levels of outrage that meet every Republican ban on abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022. 

Anger from the majority of voters over the loss of abortion rights isn't dissipating like Republicans thought it would, and now GOP politicians in the Grand Canyon State are scrambling. The most prominent of these, of course, is election denier Kari Lake, who, while still refusing to admit she lost the race for governor in 2022, is running for Senate. She wants everyone to think she's unhappy that Arizona women's medical care will be determined by a law written while many doctors were still rejecting germ theory. Claiming to "oppose today's ruling," Lake called on the actual governor, Democrat Katie Hobbes and "the State Legislature to come up with an immediate common sense solution."

This, however, is not what she was saying when she was running for governor in 2022, and lordy, there are tapes. Specifically tape of her, during a debate, championing the 1864 law. 

"I think the older law is going to go into effect," Lake said, insisting "life begins at conception" and bluntly stating, "I don't think abortion pills should be legal." 

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Lake is far from alone in terms of being caught in her contradictions. Despite all the GOP claims to oppose the 1864 law, on Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked an effort to repeal the law. So far, they're being silent as to why, but it's not hard to suss out: The loud denunciations of the court's decision are bad faith political theater. In actuality, Republicans plan to go forward with resurrecting an abortion law that predates modern medicine. 

This conundrum is going to haunt Republicans throughout the election. It's hard to explain prior disingenuous claims equating abortion to infanticide, while currently spouting "but hey, sometimes it's okay" stances. Former Gov. Doug Ducey misleadingly claimed that the court ruling "is not the outcome I would have preferred," contrasting it with a 15-week ban he signed in 2022. A local talk radio host immediately pointed out that Ducey's law reified the 1864 law

It's true: Ducey's law explicitly states that it does not "[R]epeal, by implication or otherwise, section 13-3603," which is the 1864 law. As pro-choice activists pointed out at the time, this was no accident. The 15-week ban was always a stalking horse for a total ban. The point was to give the Supreme Court an excuse to overturn Roe, at which point Ducey and his allies expected the pre-suffrage bill would kick in, banning abortion at any stage. 

Rep. David Schweikert stepped into a similar trap, tweeting, "I do not support today’s ruling" by claiming, "This issue should be decided by Arizonans, not legislated from the bench." He immediately was reminded that he was ecstatic about the Roe overturn. 

Hiding behind legalistic hair-splitting about "states' rights" may have worked in the pre-Dobbs days, when most voters shrugged off such talk as irrelevant and esoteric. Now that people are paying attention, the contradictions are showing themselves. The "abortion is murder" stance was always bad faith, but now it's impossible to wriggle away from. If you do think it's "baby-killing," then why should it be legal in some states and not others? But if you now admit it's not baby-killing, you have confessed that it was always about misogyny. 

That's why Republicans have fixated on this notion that a 15-week limit can be a fallback position. That's not the escape hatch they are hoping it will be, however. Almost 95% of abortions occur before 15 weeks, which means such a law will infuriate the Christian right, which is most interested in banning abortions of choice. The few abortions that will be outlawed, however, will mostly be the traumatic cases that have dominated the news cycle since Dobbs. Republicans will still get a constant drumbeat of stories of women bleeding out in E.R. parking lots, mothers forced to give birth to dead babies, or child rape victims who didn't know they were pregnant until they started to show. And they'd also alienate their most loyal supporters.

As Paul Waldman wrote in his newsletter, we have electoral evidence that this "compromise" doesn't work. Virginia Republicans backed a 15-week ban in November's elections, he writes, but "[v]oters weren’t impressed, and Democrats won the state House to take total control of the legislature."

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It's telling that even Donald Trump didn't think he could pull off the 15-week punt. Instead, he tried to square this impossible circle by releasing a statement that implied he wants to leave it to the states, while actually signaling to the Christian right that he will ban abortion nationwide. This worked to an extent, especially in terms of bamboozling the media into misreporting what he actually said. But President Joe Biden's campaign has aggressively responded by resurfacing a seemingly endless number of clips of Trump taking credit for ending Roe, including during his supposedly "moderate" video speech. 

Now, Trump is reverting back to his favorite tactic, which is just plain lying, by denying he'd sign a federal abortion ban. This may work for him, because low-information voters keep getting distracted by his lifelong promiscuity, not understanding that's rooted in his lifelong belief that rules are for other people. Even then, though, he will be dogged by this issue because Biden and Democrats seem determined to keep rolling tape, showing Trump bragging about ending Roe, claiming to be "pro-life," or announcing that "there has to be some form of punishment" for women who have abortions. 

For Lake and other state-level Republicans, overcoming those past statements will be much harder. Perversely, Trump's reputation as a glib liar shelters him somewhat from his past claims to oppose abortion as a moral matter, which exactly no one believes. (But that he wants to hurt women with abortion bans should not be doubted. He's just generally a fan of inflicting pain on women.) For every other Republican, however, video like Lake saying she believes "life begins at conception" makes this difficult indeed. Has she decided she no longer believes that? If so, what changed her mind? If not, then why is she now suddenly okay with what she has frequently suggested is murder?

The contradictions could be easier for Republicans to ignore if the issue wasn't at the forefront of the election. But both because voters care very much and because Democrats plan to hammer this at every turn, there's no hiding from the fact that GOP positions on abortion don't make sense. Or to be more exact, they do make sense, but only if you assume abortion bans are about controlling and punishing women, rather than confusing claims about "life." And that is why voter disapproval seems to be hardening into outrage against anti-choice politicians. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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