Anti-abortion activists protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington, Jan. 18, 2019. Credit: Jose Luis Magana | AP

WASHINGTON — State efforts to expand access to late-term abortion are creating some political headaches for Democrats as Republicans seek to paint them as out of step with voters on the issue ahead of the 2020 elections.

Democratic leaders in Congress and those seeking the presidential nomination haven’t appeared eager to discuss a new law in New York and stalled legislation in Virginia making it easier for a woman to obtain a third-trimester abortion — a procedure that, while exceedingly rare, is nonetheless opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

Measures to expand abortion rights, which are also in the works in New Mexico and Rhode Island, reflect the growing polarization between the two parties on the abortion issue, as states led by Republicans have sought to restrict abortion rights while states helmed by Democrats have boosted access to it. The stark partisan divides stand in contrast with the more measured views held by the public, which generally supports abortion rights in the early but not late part of a woman’s pregnancy.

Deepening the rift is a newly cemented conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which last week blocked Louisiana abortion restrictions from taking effect but is viewed as a potential threat to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a right to abortion.

Democrats believe that Republicans are on the wrong side of the issue following the election of President Donald Trump, who has embraced the anti-abortion rights cause, and have moved urgently since Brett M. Kavanaugh’s appointment to the high court to lock in protections for the procedure because they believe its legality may be at risk. But Republicans see a political opening as, they argue, some states have passed laws out of sync with most Americans.

Most of the candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination skipped over specifics when asked in a Feb. 2 story by The Washington Post whether there should be any restrictions on late-term abortions. Instead, candidates mainly expressed a general support for the ability of women to obtain abortions or offered ideas for how to lower the abortion rate.

“There is zero place for politicians to be involved in these very complicated medical decisions, and they should only be made between a woman and her doctor — period, full stop,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said in an email.

Gillibrand tweeted this the day New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed an abortion rights bill into law, but she didn’t mention the law specifically:

“Today marks 46 years to the day since Roe v. Wade established women’s constitutional right to make private decisions about our bodies, and legalized abortion nationwide. 46 years-don’t you think it’s about time politicians stopped trying to control women’s bodies?

“Remember: Abortion existed before #RoevWade, it just wasn’t legal or safe. Women died without that access to the health care they needed. We’re not going back to that.

“This isn’t just a fight for equality — it’s a fight for our lives. And it’s one I refuse to lose.”

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur seeking the nomination, said there would be “fewer women who would feel that they need to get an abortion” if the country had more economic security. Marianne Williamson, an author who is one of the lesser-known Democratic candidates, told Annie and Ariana she favors abortion rights but believes allowing a late-term abortion only to address the woman’s mental health would be too permissive.

“Mental health, that would be problematic for me,” Williamson said. “Because mental health can be so broadly defined.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, didn’t respond when we asked whether Pelosi supports fewer restrictions on abortion in New York’s Reproductive Health Act. When asked by reporters about controversial comments by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, about Virginia’s measure, Pelosi said she didn’t know what Northam had said.

By contrast Republicans, who themselves have moved in some states to ban abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy, have eagerly highlighted the late-term abortion measures, saying they’d allow the procedure up to the point of birth and even characterizing those measures as permitting infanticide.

“To hear it described by the governor of Virginia in the way he described it was grisly and alarming, I think, to most people, and it woke a sleeping giant,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, said of Northam’s comments in a recent radio interview.

New York’s law decriminalizes an act of violence causing death to a fetus and allows abortions to be performed up until birth if a woman’s health, not just her life, is in jeopardy. It also repeals a section of public health law that required abortions after 12 weeks to be performed in a hospital and that an additional physician be present for abortions after 20 weeks to care for infants born alive after a botched abortion.

The Virginia measure, which was tabled by legislators, would have required just one doctor to sign off on a late-term abortion instead of three. It also would have removed from existing law language allowing late-term abortions only when the pregnancy “substantially or irredeemably” harms a mother’s health.

Trump described the New York law in his State of the Union address as allowing “a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was quoted as saying in a Feb. 11 Washington Post story that Democrats could lose races over appearing too extreme on abortion.

“The Democratic Party runs a huge risk if they continue to go all in on abortion because they can alienate those male and female voters in states that President Obama won both times and President Trump won in 2016,” Conway said.

Conway added that in those states “someone who calls themselves pro-choice” may not be willing to accept a “definition of pro-choice that says it means abortion is for anyone, anytime and anywhere.”

Reports over the weekend that an abortion charge was dropped in Queens against a man accused of fatally stabbing his 14-weeks-pregnant girlfriend reignited criticism by abortion foes who said the measure would eliminate criminal penalties for pregnancies lost due to violence.

Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference:

“White House aides recently discussed the advantage of forcing Democratic candidates to make their views clear on abortions late in pregnancy,” the Post reported Feb. 11. “They noted that Democrats chose not make abortion a national issue in last year’s congressional elections, even as they fielded a record number of female candidates and aggressively courted female voters.”

“What makes it qualitatively different is the Democrats overplaying their hand on late-term abortion,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The leftward lurch under Trump has brought into real relief the Democratic Party’s real extreme position — namely, abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy, in some cases up to the moment of birth.”