With the recent news that Supreme Court of the United States will be taking up the Mississippi abortion law this fall, with a decision to be handed down in the Spring of 2022, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court will completely alter American politics with a potential repeal of Roe vs Wade. With 36 Governorships and 83% of the nation’s state legislative seats up for grabs, turning reproductive rights into a state issue will completely change the landscape of the 2022 mid-terms.
In specific, for years Democrats and pro-choice advocates have suffered from what in the social sciences is called a “free rider” problem. Millions of pro-choice Americans vote for anti-choice Republican politicians because they feel they can get away with not prioritizing this issue since The Supreme Court will ensure access to legalized abortion services. A Supreme Court decision next Spring could bring the “free ride” to an end — and give Democrats a huge boost in next year’s midterms.
In saying this I am not rooting for this outcome — what follows is an attempt at political analysis based on what will happen in key states. Reversing Roe will undoubtedly cause immense suffering to thousands of American women. I do believe, however, that we must look how the politics of this issue will be altered, and how the choice community should prepare.
A History of Abortion Politics on the Federal Level
It’s fair to say that Roe vs Wade was an enormous boost to conservative prospects in America. Despite strong support for legal abortion in America, the US since Roe has consistently elected anti-choice Presidents. It started with Nixon’s ambivalence on the issue — he didn’t release a statement at the time of the Roe decision because he was of two minds on legalized abortion:
Jimmy Carter, the first Democrat elected after Roe, shared that ambivalence:
Ronald Reagan won landslide elections, despite being strongly anti-choice. Here he is announcing the end of federal funds for reproductive services:
Reagan solidified the GOP as the anti-choice party. This happened despite the fact he was previously pro-choice. Another pro-choice politician who flipped on the issue was his successor, George H.W. Bush, who maintained Reagan’s opposition:
His son was even more strident. Here he is banning so-called “partial birth” abortion in 2003.
Partial Birth Abortion Act Signing
Following brief remarks about the Partial Birth Abortion Ban legislation and the implications of the ban, President…
Trump, however, went to the furthest extreme — an entirely predictable outcome considering his complete lack of actual belief in the issue. While someone who sincerely believes in the issue would have thought through how this was going to be enforced, Trump was someone who was just repeating right wing talking points. He advocated for the actual punishment of women who have abortions:
It was under Trump that abortion restriction laws swept the U.S. — all in anticipation of a Trump Supreme Court that would strike down Roe vs Wade. The Democratic Presidential candidates spoke out against this trend at the time:
How Repealing Roe Will Change Abortion Politics
The most important thing to realize about contemporary abortion politics is that most Americans are pro-choice, and in many of the states passing abortion restrictions that is the case as well.
There are only 7 states that are solidly anti-choice: Arkansas (60%), Mississippi (59%), Alabama (58%), West Virginia (58%), Louisiana (57%), Kentucky (57%), Tennessee (55%). The rest are either pro-choice or evenly divided on the issue. However, the restrictions in the states are occurring because the anti-choice has been banking on a major trend that will come to an end if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade — the quiet apathy of many pro-choice voters.
The “Pro-Choice” Label
A recent NPR Marist poll found 57% of Americans described themselves as “pro-choice”. However, 77% of percent in that same poll oppose overturning Roe vs Wade.
This basically means 1 in 5 Americans are pro-choice but refuse to label themselves that way. Why? A lot of it has to do with the confusion of being “personally pro-life” and being “politically pro-life”.
There has been a lot of discussion about the decline of civics education in America. One result is individual people have a very hard time distinguishing between personal morality and public law. Here is one respondent who describes himself as “pro-life” but then goes on to annunciate a pro-choice view:
Here is Joe Biden, in 2012, excellently distinguishing between personal and political views on this issue:
Sadly, it is a distinction many Americans do not make, and the anti-choice movement has taken advantage of this at the ballot box. However, if Roe is overturned this vacation from critical thinking will come to an end. Americans will be forced to decide something that until now the Supreme Court has decided for them.
The Lack of Mobilization of “Pro-Choice” Voters
Another element to the apathy of many pro-choice voters is their refusal to prioritize this issue — after all voting for anti-choice Republicans who will cut your taxes is a luxury that Roe vs Wade gives many Americans. No place is this clearer than in Wisconsin, a state with a solid 53% pro-choice majority. Nonetheless it is a state with a Republican Legislature which passed series of abortion restriction measures that were vetoed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers:
Oklahoma is a state with a 51% pro-choice majority that did the exact same thing — this time without a Democratic Governor to veto the measures:
In both states, elected officials are counting on the activist energy of the anti-choice movement and the apathy of pro-choice voters. This is certainly the case in states where public opinion is more evenly split like Texas. However, the lack of polling consensus on the issue did not stop Republicans from behaving as if they had a solid anti-choice majority backing up their recent restrictions:
Missouri, another state that polls show is very much divided on the issue, did the same thing two years ago- acting without any worry of voter backlash:
A Supreme Court decision this spring would most certainly bring the backlash on Republican legislators, who have been enacting restrictions without any belief that they would ever be enacted and upset voters. Outside of the seven anti-choice states, it could energize pro-choice voters and send Republicans packing their bags in very large numbers throughout the country. There are no anti-choice states with pro-choice political leaderships. There are several pro-choice states however, with anti-choice leadership — proof that the activist pendulum is likely to swing in only one direction should Roe vs Wade be overturned.
A Hypocritical Victory
If Roe is overturned, a word must be said about how enraging it will be to pro-choice activists at how this came about. It started with a remarkable piece of hypocrisy by Mitch McConnell, refusing to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, then laughing about how he didn’t care when it came to Amy Coney Barrett:
Then there was the spectacle of Kavanaugh yelling his way to the Supreme Court:
Finally, the gross indignity of having this all decided by Trump — a man who cheated on his third wife while she was pregnant with a porn star and was quite unashamed by it:
For which he was given a “mulligan” by the religious right:
Of course, these same “pro-life” pastors were quite silent when Trump put kids in cages:
The fact that after 49 years Roe vs Wade could be overturned is bad enough for pro-choice voters. The fact that it will come because of Donald Trump, a man whose followers seem to believe morality is a concern only for women — this will be enraging and hypocritical. The anti-choice community which has advocated for this event for 50 years. They should have been more careful in what they asked for and how they went about it.