BOISE, Idaho – Anti-abortion rhetoric is intensifying ahead of midterm elections as officials in Republican-dominant states push legislation that would punish both doctors and patients, even though such laws are likely unconstitutional.
In Idaho, Republicans competing in a crowded field for governor have made it a major campaign issue ahead of the May 15 primary. One candidate promised to back a long-shot effort that would allow women to be prosecuted for getting abortions, and another offered tepid support but doubted it would survive a legal challenge.
Politicians in states from Ohio to Oklahoma are pushing similar measures or promising to criminalize abortion as they seek office. It comes despite courts temporarily blocking stringent laws passed recently in Mississippi and Kentucky.
Targeting patients for punishment is a stance that traditionally has raised eyebrows even from staunch anti-abortion groups that tend to treat women as victims, not criminals, for choosing to end a pregnancy.
However, with President Donald Trump’s administration embracing anti-abortion groups and promising to appoint federal judges who will favor efforts to roll back abortion rights, Republican state leaders have become more emboldened to support the idea without facing backlash from their conservative base.
Supporters of punitive legislation say that believing abortion is murder means the act must be punished as such, which could include life in prison or the death penalty.
The stance openly defies the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled that a woman has the right to choose an abortion without “undue interference” from the state. It also conflicts with other anti-abortion advocates. Many Catholics, for example, oppose both abortion and the death penalty.
The high court legalized abortion in 1973, but anti-abortion advocates hope Roe v. Wade will soon be overruled if Trump gets the chance to appoint a justice who would cast the deciding vote against it.
In the meantime, a push for legislation punishing women has taken hold in Idaho, which has passed anti-abortion measures almost every year. A handful of bills have failed to stand up to legal challenges.
This year, Idaho required women seeking abortions to be informed that the drug-induced procedures can be halted halfway, despite opposition from medical groups that say there is little evidence to support that claim.
The group Abolish Abortion Idaho has launched a ballot initiative seeking to charge abortion providers and women who end pregnancies with first-degree murder, but it doesn’t appear it will qualify for the November ballot. The group has not yet submitted any signatures to be verified before an April 30 deadline.
Idaho candidates also have voiced their support for punishing women. This month, a GOP lieutenant governor candidate said during a forum that “anyone who has an abortion should pay.”
State Sen. Bob Nonini later softened his position, clarifying that the threat of prosecution could drastically reduce abortion but he did not believe women would actually face the death penalty.
His comment attracted swift condemnation from groups who fight for abortion rights.
“What’s pro-life about convicting women of first-degree murder for accessing abortion care? Absolutely nothing,” national nonprofit NARAL Pro-Choice America said in a statement. “It’s no surprise that the party that claims to be pro-life supports a guy who wants to impose the death penalty on women accessing health care.”
One of Nonini’s Republican opponents, former state Rep. Janice McGeachin, responded at the forum that she opposed abortion but did not believe women should be killed for having the procedure.
Top Idaho GOP gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist said at another forum months earlier that he would support legislation allowing women to be prosecuted for abortions. He was responding to a question from a Republican lawmaker who wants to push such legislation but hasn’t introduced it at the Statehouse.
Ahlquist’s campaign has since reiterated his stance to The Associated Press, assuming lawmakers passed the measure.
His challenger, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, also said at the forum that he would like to sign such a measure into law but acknowledged that it might not stand up in court. Little also said he “probably would” support it but had not seen anything in writing.
“From my standpoint, my right-to-life voting record is clear, and I would have to look at it, obviously,” he said. “We have passed some of those bills that have gone to be judicially overrode by a federal court and that would be the risk that would appear there (with this bill).”
Outside Idaho, such legislation also has taken hold in statehouses and on the campaign trail.
In Ohio, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation that would ban all abortions and allow prosecutors to charge doctors and patients who get the procedure, including the death penalty or life imprisonment with no exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the health of the woman.
Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher, a Republican, has described himself as the only candidate who would call for an emergency legislative session to criminalize abortion if elected.