U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson
House Speaker Mike Johnson speaking at the March for Life last week. Julia Nikhinson/Sipa USA via AP

Voters Don’t Like Abortion Bans. Republicans Are Trying a ‘Pro-Family’ Message Instead.

“Right now, on the federal level, they don’t want to be talking about any national abortion ban,” said one Republican strategist.

At last week’s March for Life rally, House Speaker Mike Johnson told thousands of attendees that the House had just passed two anti-abortion bills.

But that’s not how he described them. In fact, he didn’t use the word “abortion” at all.

It’s “a pivotal time to promote quality health care for both women and their unborn children,” Johnson said. The legislation approved by the House on a party-line vote would provide women the necessary resources they need to carry their pregnancies to term, he said. And “who could be opposed to that?”

The march has always been a prime messaging moment for anti-abortion advocates and their supporters in Congress — the speeches Johnson and others gave were still resoundingly in support of the movement. But there was a notable shift away from talk of bans as there had been in the Roe era and instead a focus on postpartum health care, education and other “pro-family” measures.

For years, Republicans introduced bills like the “Life at Conception Act” and the “Sanctity of Human Life Act.” They even passed a 20-week federal abortion ban dubbed the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” three times in 2013, 2015 and 2017 when the GOP previously held House majorities. This year, the names of the bills speak the message Republicans are trying to convey: the “Supporting Pregnant and Parenting Women and Families Act” and the “Pregnant Students’ Rights Act.”

“[O]ur movement really has been always about so much more than just ending abortion — it is about valuing life at every stage. We need to improve our maternal health care options, we need to provide support for low-income families, and we need to engage with fathers.” Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who sponsored one of the bills, said at a press conference. “We can and we must do more to save moms and save babies.”

Since Dobbs v. Jackson, Republicans have continued to introduce legislation to ban abortion at the federal level, but the party’s leaders have avoided bringing them to the floor and lawmakers have been more reticent about backing them. Polling shows most voters believe abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances and Republicans are increasingly worried the backlash to overturning Roe will hurt them in November.

“I do think that Republicans have to talk about, you know, how to support women in all these very difficult times,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist, who called Republicans’ stance “pretty clever.”

“I do think it helps send a signal to the pro-life base that Republicans are still with them” without risking bringing up a federal ban, he added. “Right now, on the federal level, they don’t want to be talking about any national abortion ban.”

Democrats aren’t buying it. In interviews with NOTUS, they accused Republicans of bringing bills to the floor that do not appear too obviously anti-abortion to confuse Americans.

“The bottom line is almost all of these Republicans have voted or co-sponsored for a national ban on abortion. They can read a poll just as well as the Democrats can, they realize this is not popular with most Americans,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, told NOTUS.

“Every step of the way, they’re being persistent in trying to take steps toward a national abortion ban,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the other Pro-Choice Caucus co-chair. “And this is just another one of those steps — couched in a pretty language.”


As Republicans took the majority in 2023, they turned their attention to passing anti-abortion messaging bills that were not bans. Under former Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s brief speakership last year, they passed a resolution introduced by now-Speaker Johnson to condemn attacks against pregnancy centers, together with a bill that would require health providers to give care to infants born after an attempted abortion.

The two bills Johnson — who had pushed for a more “pro-family” approach before becoming speaker — brought to the floor last week are unlikely to be taken up by the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Neither piece of legislation mentions ending abortions: one would bar the Biden administration from cutting funding to pregnancy centers (which leading medical associations say are “unethical” and “endanger public health”), and the other would require public universities to give students information on how to carry out their pregnancies to term and dissuade them from getting an abortion.

“I fully support educating women, giving them the tools that they need to prevent pregnancy because we know the best way to prevent abortion is to prevent unplanned pregnancy,” said Iowa Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks on X.

Prominent anti-abortion groups, despite pushing for a national ban, are celebrating the approach.

“Most women facing an unplanned pregnancy would appreciate empowering support to raise their children, not to be pushed into abortions they don’t even want. We are grateful to our allies in Congress who fought for this today,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America shortly after the bills passed the lower chamber.

Anti-abortion groups, however, still say that an end to abortion is one of their movement’s goals. But advocates admit that it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

“In order to pass a bill, you need the House and at least 60 votes in the Senate and the White House. I don’t see anybody getting those numbers,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with his reproductive rights task force.
Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with his reproductive rights task force to mark the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Evan Vucci/AP

Republicans’ “pro-family” approach this election cycle is also a departure from the 2022 midterms, when many candidates distanced themselves from abortion. Following the results of those elections, SBA Pro-Life America officials said at a press conference that Republican candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, Tom Barrett in Michigan and Christian Castelli in North Carolina lost their races because they avoided talking about the issue — a method they derided as the “ostrich strategy,” burying their heads in the sand.

In a memo, the group said that for Republicans to win this election cycle they need to “define their opponents as abortion extremists” — and forcing Democrats to look like they oppose supporting pregnant women could be a way to do just that. “Democrats came off poorly” during last week’s House floor debate on the bills, Feehery, a former spokesperson for ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert, said.

“If Democrats consider themselves pro-choice, then be pro-choice,” said Minnesota GOP Rep. Michelle Fischbach, who sponsored the pregnancy center bill in the House. “But to try to crush these pregnancy centers that give women a choice, I think is really wrong. They’re politicizing these centers that help mostly single women and minorities.”

Democratic strategists, however, disagree that the new messaging strategy will move the needle. “Even if [Republicans] are able to convince people that they are in favor of sort of more broadly pro-family policies, they can’t escape the fact that they want to restrict people’s fundamental rights,” said Ian Russell, a former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“These rebranding attempts are clearly motivated by Republican political consultants who realize how bad this has continuously been for them since Roe was overturned. But the voters are a lot more intelligent than Republicans seem to be giving them credit for,” Russell told NOTUS.

In the aftermath of Dobbs, Republicans have struggled to talk about their anti-abortion stance. NBC News reported, for example, that Senate Republicans had a closed-door meeting in the fall on how to best communicate on the issue, arguing that the “pro-life” label was not very successful with the electorate.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas was one of three House Democrats to vote alongside Republicans to condemn attacks on pregnancy centers in January of 2023. But neither Gonzalez nor any other House Democrat voted with Republicans on the two most recent pregnancy-related bills.

“If you look at many Republican members right now, they’re running away from the abortion issue, they’re taking it off their websites and their social media, and they don’t want to address it because they know they’ve offended tens of millions of women in this country,” Gonzalez told NOTUS.

“I think they see the writing on the wall for an election in November,” he added.

Democrats in Congress and the Biden team are making abortion a key issue in their campaigns to try and drive voters to the polls this year.

Even the theme of the most recent March for Life reflects the change in focus. Last week’s theme was “With Every Woman, For Every Child,” compared to 2023’s “Next Steps: Marching in a Post-Roe America,” where speakers brought attention to legislative efforts to dismantle abortion. Last year also marked a change in the march’s route for the first time: Instead of ending in front of the Supreme Court building, it ended in front of the U.S. Capitol. That new route was followed again this year.

Anti-abortion advocates say that their opponents “don’t know the pro-life movement,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. While she said the pro-family talking points could “potentially” get voters on the Republicans’ side, she told NOTUS that the movement and its GOP allies “have to do a better job of telling America who we are and how much we care.”

Abortion rights advocates meanwhile are reiterating that the Republicans’ new messaging on pregnant women is nothing more than a “rebrand.”

“You can’t claim to support ‘pregnant people’ while trying to pass bills that force people to remain pregnant and attempt to dismantle the social safety net,” said Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Alexis McGill Johnson in a statement to NOTUS. “That’s not care — it’s control.”


Following last week’s march, several House members hosted a reception for participants in the Cannon office building on Capitol Hill.

Those in attendance nodded and applauded as both New Jersey GOP Rep. Chris Smith, a House Pro-Life Caucus co-chair and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly railed against their Democratic colleagues, with Smith calling abortions performed later in pregnancy “the existential threat of our time.”

For Kelly and Smith, at least, the message in the more private venue to a very friendly crowd returned to talk of strict federal bans.

“Dobbs set us up for potential wins and, God willing, we’ve gotten a lot of them in the states,” Smith said. “And there will be on the federal level, God willing, movement there as we build our numbers.”

After his speech, Kelly sat down with NOTUS for an interview, in which he said that Republicans are continuing to introduce “pro-life bills” and that he personally doesn’t mind if bans are sidelined, at least for now. He said it doesn’t matter as long as the GOP does not “let the issue die.”

For several years now, Kelly has introduced a six-week abortion ban that he hopes will eventually become law.

“When I look at the number of lives that are lost every day to abortion … how can we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of those? So, we have to keep pushing it and at some point, you know, we’ll get more people on board and, Lord willing, we’ll have the piece of legislation go forward,” Kelly said.

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.