For all the passion that has surrounded abortion, the public’s view of the issue has remained remarkably stable in the nearly half-century since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established that a woman has a right to terminate her pregnancy.
All along, a majority of the country has expressed the view that abortion should be legal, with some limits. Americans have supported efforts to chip away at abortion rights when the debate moves into narrower areas that touch on their ambivalence about abortion — for instance, on the question of whether it should be available after the first three months of a pregnancy, or whether a girl under 18 should be allowed to obtain the procedure without permission from her parents, or whether tax dollars should be used to pay for it.
Texas now has sent the politics surrounding the issue into entirely uncharted territory. Its extreme new law effectively bans abortion at a stage so early that many women don’t even know they are pregnant and, in a novel twist, sets up a system where citizens can collect what amounts to a bounty by suing over instances where it is performed any later.
Republicans are digging themselves into a deep hole on this one. In a Monmouth University poll released Monday, 70% of those surveyed said they disapprove of “allowing private citizens to use lawsuits to enforce this law rather than having government prosecutors handle these cases.” Nonetheless, other conservative states are signaling they plan to try to pass their own versions of the Texas law.
Whether the Texas statute survives in court, Republicans across the country are likely to rue the overreach. “All of this is going to impact governor’s races in 2022, to the detriment of Republicans,” predicts GOP pollster Christine Matthews. An early test will come this fall in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe is making protecting abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign; his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, has been more equivocal, and he was caught on video telling a conservative audience that if he were elected with a majority in the House of Delegates, he would be able to go “on offense” against abortion.
Women, even those who are not entirely supportive of abortion rights, are paying attention. On Monday night, I observed a focus group of suburban women sponsored by a group of liberal organizations. “I don’t believe in abortion. I think you should have other options. But it’s my body,” said one participant, who lives near Atlanta. She added: “You look at the people who are voting for these things, and it’s a bunch of men.”
These women were particularly scornful of an assertion by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, that the law did not need an exception for pregnancies that are the result of rape, because “Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas.” Really? Eliminate all rapists? If that were possible, the focus group participants wanted to know, why hasn’t Abbott done it already?
Another thing that has always been true about the politics surrounding abortion is that those who are opposed to it have been more intense about the issue. That may no longer be the case.
What is beginning to become clear is that there is a real possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, something that until recently seemed far-fetched. On Monday, the Supreme Court — which a few weeks ago had allowed the Texas law to take effect while the legal battle over it plays out — announced that it will hear arguments Dec. 1 on Mississippi’s bid to uphold its ban on most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. Mississippi is pressing the Supreme Court to use its case to undo both Roe and the court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which prevented states from banning abortion before a fetus is likely to be able to survive outside the womb, which is around 24 weeks of gestation.
In a survey this summer, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asked women what their interest in voting in 2022 would be if Roe v. Wade were severely limited. For the first time, she found that those who support abortion rights said they more motivated than those who were antiabortion. The margin was 59% to 35%.
It is worth remembering that Roe v. Wade itself was a case that originated in Texas. Now that state is trying to turn back the clock, and a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court may make it possible. But if that happens, the political consequences will be felt by Republicans across the map and for years to come.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.