WASHINGTON — With grisly claims that Democrats promote “birth day abortions” and are “the party of death,” the Republican Party and its conservative allies have aggressively reset the terms of one of the country’s most divisive and emotionally fraught debates, forcing Democrats to reassess how they should respond to attacks that portray the entire party as extremist on abortion.
The unusually forceful, carefully coordinated campaign has created challenges that Democrats did not expect as they struggle to combat misinformation and thwart further efforts to undercut access to abortion. And advocates of abortion rights fear it is succeeding in pressuring lawmakers in more conservative states to pass severe new restrictions, as Alabama did this week by approving a bill that would essentially outlaw the procedure.
These new measures, combined with the likelihood that the Supreme Court will agree to take up at least one case in the coming months where Roe v. Wade will be tested, have stirred intense passions on both sides and elevated abortion into a prominent issue in the presidential race.
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Much to the distress of abortion rights supporters, their own polling is showing that the right’s message is penetrating beyond the social conservatives who make up a large part of the Republican base. Surveys conducted for progressive groups in recent weeks found that more than half of Americans were aware of the “infanticide” claims that President Trump and his party have started making when describing abortions that occur later in pregnancy.
Initially, many Democrats and abortion rights groups believed the notion was so absurd that it was not worth responding to it. But they discovered that was a dangerous assumption to make in an information environment dominated by Mr. Trump.
“Sometimes there is a temptation to let the absurdity stand on its own, but we have to recognize that this is a different time,” said Dr. Leana Wen, the president of Planned Parenthood. “He’s deliberately conflating infanticide with abortion late in pregnancy. And it’s important that we as doctors and health care providers explain the extremely rare and devastating circumstances of abortion later in pregnancy.”
Mr. Trump is using the issue to rouse his base, including the crucial voting bloc of Christian conservatives for whom abortion is an overarching issue. His false statements that Democrats would “execute” newborn babies — which he has repeated on his Twitter feed, during his State of the Union address and at campaign rallies, sometimes as he mimics swaddling a baby — are being picked up and repeated by conservatives all over the country.
Activists in the anti-abortion movement, who during previous Republican administrations were left to drive their messages with far more measured public support from the White House, have welcomed the president’s approach as refreshing, saying it has infused them with new purpose and perspective.
“For too long we cowered to the side and were not able to fight back,” said Diana Banister, a Republican consultant who works on social conservative causes. “We were told, ‘We can’t say that. That’s too harsh.’”
“No,” she added, “We’re defining what they believe.”
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has caught on in Congress and state legislatures, and with candidates running for office in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, and it is drawing Democrats into a difficult debate over abortions that occur in the second and third trimesters, which make even some self-described pro-choice Americans uncomfortable.
What is new about Republican attacks is that they have presented the extremely rare circumstance of ending a far-along pregnancy — terminations after 24 weeks comprise less than 1 percent of all abortions — in a way that abortion rights groups say leaves a false but evocative impression: that women who are about to deliver a healthy baby are asking for and receiving abortions, and that Democrats support that.
The right is also vastly outspending Democrats on digital advertising on the issue, devoting hundreds of thousands of dollars so far this year on targeted Facebook campaigns that are reaching voters in battleground states.
An array of outside groups are involved. There are traditional anti-abortion organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List, which is advertising against Democrats who picked up Republican-held seats in the 2018 midterm elections. And there are newer players like Restoration PAC, which has been funded with large contributions from Dick Uihlein, a Midwestern businessman who often underwrites controversial candidates and causes.
One of Restoration PAC’s recent Facebook ads featured pictures of six Democratic senators who are running for president and attacked them as the “Party of Death” for their votes against legislation that would further regulate abortion in the later stages of pregnancy; the senators, like others who voted against it, said the legislation was unnecessary, containing redundant provisions to protect babies if they were born alive during an abortion.
“If nobody pushes back,” the ad said, “Life will not be cherished. Its destruction will be reclassified as a Planned Parenthood revenue source.”
Candidates, state Republican Parties and the National Republican Congressional Committee are also using the messaging. A Facebook ad from Dan Bishop, a Republican running for an open House seat in North Carolina, who won his party’s nomination in a primary race on Tuesday, said he was proud to have cast the deciding vote “to end infanticide in North Carolina.”
Abortion rights groups are not absent from the online advertising wars, but they are playing catch up in messaging and spending.
“They’re out there, but it’s always a disadvantage to be on the defense,” said Tara McGowan, chief executive of Acronym, a progressive firm that tracks online spending and messaging.
“There are just so many groups on the right running on this,” she added, “and further defining these issues on their terms while Democrats are left to react.”
As abortion rights supporters assess their current situation, many say they made an initial mistake by trying to answer questions based on implausible and often outright false premises.
A more persuasive way to talk about the issue, said Dr. Wen of Planned Parenthood, is to explain that abortions that occur far into pregnancy are not done on healthy mothers but because of serious medical complications discovered late in the pregnancy.
“These are families that have assembled a crib, picked out little clothes and put them into little drawers and had baby showers when they’ve received the most devastating news of their lives,” she said.
As some states have moved to liberalize their abortion laws while also setting limits, Republicans have homed in on the provisions that regulate the procedure later in pregnancy. New York, for example, passed a law that allows for termination after 24 weeks but only if the life or health of the mother is at risk or there is an absence of fetal viability. In his State of the Union address in February, Mr. Trump glossed over those limits, saying it would allow a baby to be “ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth.”
An appearance by Senator Bernie Sanders on Fox News illustrated the difficulties Democrats have had in discussing the issue as Republicans have reframed the debate squarely on their turf. The moderator, Martha MacCallum, asked the senator, “Do you believe that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?”
Mr. Sanders responded, “I think it’s rare, it’s being made into a political issue, but at the end of the day I believe that the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government, and not the local government.”
[Read more: Female presidential candidates have charged into the fight over abortion.]
His position was one that women’s groups have adopted for decades: That decisions about abortion are a woman’s personal choice. But that language is not useful when conservatives have made the conversation more extreme, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
“The initial response from a lot of well-meaning politicians was one of two things,” Ms. Lake said. “It was the language around personal decision making and Roe v. Wade, or it was the language around late abortions. And that’s just not sufficient for addressing infanticide and abortion survival and these kinds of new frames.”
“Whoever sets the frame,” she continued, “wins the debate.”
The debate is still very much an open one. But it may come down to what Americans find more persuasive: the kind of nuanced explanation and argument abortion rights supporters are making, or a searing, one-word label like “infanticide.”
“Democratic politicians constantly misunderstand the disconnect between their position and where the American people are,” said Charmaine Yoest, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who was formerly president of Americans United for Life.
“People want abortion restrictions,” added Ms. Yoest, who recently left a job in the Trump administration. “And the more you reveal about the other side’s extremism, the more people say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t support that.’”