When Kate Cox was forced to flee Texas after state authorities denied her pleas to terminate a potentially deadly pregnancy, it revealed the true cost of state control over women's reproductive health. It has also become clear that Republicans – despite their claims to hold the moral high ground on abortion – cannot defend the policies they advocate when they have real-world consequences.
Cox, whose 21-week-old fetus was diagnosed with a deadly genetic disease, was in and out of emergency rooms as her already complicated pregnancy deteriorated her health and threatened her own life and future fertility. Earlier this month, Cox, already a mother of two, became the first woman to sue Texas in hopes of securing an exemption from the state's near-total ban on abortion for life-threatening conditions during pregnancy. Travis County Judge Maya Guerra Gamble granted Cox's request, but Texas authorities had other plans. State Attorney General Ken Paxton went so far as to threaten Cox's doctors with civil and criminal penalties if they performed an abortion, and referred the case to the state Supreme Court, which stayed Guerra Gamble's ruling. Cox ultimately fled Texas to seek medical care in another state, and the court denied his request on Monday.
As the case attracted national attention, Republican lawmakers were reticent to defend the laws that put Cox in such a difficult position. Given the Republican Party's ongoing struggle to reconcile its commitment to the nationwide destruction of reproductive rights with the reality that that commitment is costing them elections, Cox's case represents a fundamental – and extremely public – challenge to the party's “pro -life”.
Despite being staunch anti-abortion advocates, Texas Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn repeatedly avoided directly addressing Cox's situation when asked by NBC News.
“I’m not a state employee, so I’m not going to comment on what state employees are doing. I’m happy to comment on anything I’m responsible for,” said Cornyn, a former member of the Texas Supreme Court who ruled against Cox on Monday.
Cruz avoided NBC's requests for comment on the matter at least three times, forwarding them to his Senate press office when reached by phone. He also declined to personally answer the network's questions on Wednesday.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who signed a strict six-week abortion ban in his own state, called the situation “difficult” during a CNN town hall on Wednesday. “We have to approach these issues with compassion, because these are very difficult issues,” DeSantis said.
“These things get a lot of attention from the press,” he added. “But that’s a very small percentage that these exceptions cover…there are many other situations where we have the opportunity to realize really good human potential, and we worked to protect as many lives as we could in Florida.”
DeSantis' fellow 2024 Republican candidates made similarly vague statements when asked about their views on Cox's case.
Vivek Ramaswamy told NBC News that he believes abortion rights are a state issue. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told ABC News over the weekend that while she didn't know “the details of the case,” she didn't “think this issue needed to be in the hands of unelected judges.”
“We’re watching states make these decisions. Some states are becoming more pro-life. I welcome that,” she added. “Some states are edging more on the side of choice. I wish it weren’t like that, but it’s the people who decide.”
On Wednesday, during a interview with CNN, Haley gave a slightly more direct response to questioning about Cox, avoiding direct condemnation of her treatment by Texas officials but admitting that her situation was an example of why Republicans should approach abortion restrictions “with compassion.”
“My heart breaks for her,” Haley said, adding that states like Texas should look to improve the mechanisms through which women can request exemptions from state abortion restrictions. “I think all of these states need to adjust it so that our number one goal is 'how to save as many babies as possible and support as many mothers as possible,'” she said.
Abortion has been a defining issue in midterm elections and state ballot measures taken in the 18 months since Roe v. was overturned and promises to be a major booster of voter turnout in the 2024 general election. The GOP's hesitation to endorse the hard-line policies exercised against Cox in Texas is clear among Republican lawmakers running in vulnerable 2024 districts, who are worried that their party's national efforts to restrict abortion could destroy their re-election chances.
The Supreme Court's ruling earlier this week accept a challenge FDA approval of prescription abortion medications will not make things easier for these vulnerable Republicans. One of these unidentified House members told Axios that the Supreme Court is “deaf” to take up the case.
Rep. Mike Lawler (RN.Y.), another vulnerable Republican, told Axios that the court “should leave it up to the states and the FDA to make these decisions. If it’s legal in a certain state, they shouldn’t say you can’t use that type of medication.” Rep. Marc Molinaro (RN.Y.) echoed the sentiment, saying he is concerned “that the courts will overly impose their will.”
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel insisted in November that the Republican Party is in tune with ordinary Americans and can win on “commonsense limitations” on abortion access. But when voters watch cases like Cox's on the national stage and see Republicans bend over backwards to avoid condemning the medical torture of a woman who lost her son, it becomes clear that there is nothing sensible about the GOP's crusade to destroy the right to reproductive autonomy. — and that they themselves can justify the practical implementation of their own laws.