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I turn now from the constitutional interpretations framing the abortion debate to the politics of abortion. I will start with public opinion on abortion, but then connect the issue to a broader debate over democracy and political legitimacy.
Here I rely on the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Since the 1970s, it has included a standard set of questions asking under what conditions a pregnant woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion. Here are the conditions, along with the percentage answering Yes in 2021:
- The woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy (89%)
- She became pregnant as a result of rape (83%)
- There is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby (77%)
- She is married and does not want any more children (57%)
- The family has a really low income and cannot afford any more children (56%)
- The woman is not married and does not want to marry the man (55%)
- The woman wants it for any reason (54%)
One reason why the abortion issue is so contentious is that support for it depends so heavily on the imagined circumstances. Over three-fourths of respondents want abortion to be legal in cases of endangered maternal health, rape, or serious birth defect. Far fewer—but still a small majority—would allow women to choose abortion under less extreme conditions.
Let’s further analyze opinions on the question of whether a woman should be able to have an abortion “for any reason,” where opinions are almost evenly divided. Here are the percentages answering Yes for various groups:
- Democrats (69%), Independents (51%), Republicans (35%)
- Ages 18-34 (63%), 35-49 (54%), 50-64 (54%), 65+ (52%)
- Highest degree: College+ (59%), High-school (51%), Less Than High School (54%)
- Female (56%), Male (52%)
Political party affiliation is a much better predictor of opinion than the other factors. The difference between women and men on this issue is pretty small. The distinctly liberal position of people under 35 has emerged only in the last few years, and suggests that further liberalization of opinion is likely going forward.
In the 1970s and 80s, the overall percentage of respondents answering Yes to the same question was under 40%, while now it is over 50%. This is probably related to a decline in Christian conservatism over the past several decades. The percentage of respondents classified as Protestant conservatives in the survey peaked at 35% in 1991, and was down to 20% by 2021. Over the same three decades, the percentage of Catholics declined from 27% to 22%.
An even more dramatic change of opinion has occurred with regard to same-sex marriage. Gallup recently reported that support for it has reached a new high of 77%. This is relevant to the debate over legal abortion, since the Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges was based on the same broad reading of the Fourteenth Amendment as Roe v. Wade. Americans are increasingly comfortable with the idea that the Constitution grants broad rights in intimate matters, which is why overturning Roe has come as such a shock.
Public opinion has also been turning against other prominent positions taken by the Republican Party. Only about a third of the country supported the Trump tax cuts of 2017, whose benefits went primarily to corporations and the wealthy. In contrast, President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, now has majority support, recovering from the low of 37% approval when the Republicans ran against it in the 2014 midterms, according to Gallup. On another prominent issue, recent mass killings have highlighted the support for moderate gun-safety measures, such as universal background checks and bans on assault weapons, but the Republican Party is far more pro-gun than the general population.
Democracy and political legitimacy
I believe there is a connection between the unpopularity of many Republican positions and the party’s willingness to resort to undemocratic means to have its way. Tactics like disinformation campaigns and voter suppression are not signs of strength, but signs of weakness, and perhaps even desperation. After all, Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections.
In my May 10 post on the politics of abortion, I mentioned the underhanded way that Senate Republicans went about getting more ultraconservatives onto the Supreme Court:
In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering President Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, making up a rule that nominations shouldn’t be considered in an election year. In 2020, he reversed his position so that President Trump’s nominee could be rushed through several weeks before the election. These machinations gave Trump the most appointments in a single term since Reagan and created the most radically conservative Court in almost a century. Republican nominees also misled Senate moderates by expressing support for Roe as a precedent to be respected, then revealing their judicial radicalism once they were on the bench.
President Trump’s own position on abortion was rather slippery, since he had once been known for his pro-choice views. Knowing what we know about the man, I’m guessing that his flip-flop was less a matter of sincere moral conversion than political expediency, once he decided to run as a Republican. His entire relationship with Christian conservatives involved more than a little mutual hypocrisy, since he was willing to give them what they wanted as long as they voted for him, and they were willing to support him even if he flouted most moral standards of Christian behaviour. The photo-op in which Trump held up a Bible while standing in front of a church was a new low in political phoniness.
Donald Trump will probably go down in history as the front-runner for most illegitimate president of all time, given the role of the Russian disinformation campaign in his first election and his efforts to corrupt or overturn the second. But I believe that the descent of the party into dishonesty and authoritarianism is bigger than Trump, and threatens to continue with or without him. Consider the Republican initiatives in these areas:
- The use of wild claims of voter fraud—which is actually quite rare—to justify measures that make it harder for voters, especially poor people, to exercise their voting rights
- The rejection of a key feature of the Voting Rights Act by the Roberts court, and the refusal of Congressional Republicans to support a replacement that could meet the court’s objections (Texas Republicans just announced their commitment to abolishing the law entirely)
- The misuse of the Senate filibuster to avoid debating almost every measure proposed by Democrats
- The protection of partisan gerrymandering by conservatives on the Supreme Court
- Opposition to all campaign finance reform
- Proposals to give state legislatures the power to overturn state election results
We now have to take seriously the possibility that if the Republicans regained control of Congress, they might collaborate with their state legislators to decertify the election of the next Democratic president. If so, the Supreme Court probably wouldn’t come to the rescue. Let’s not forget that in 2000, the Republican 5-4 majority stopped the Florida recount and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, without knowing whether he had actually won or not.
I’ve strayed rather far from the abortion issue. But my point is that if the Dobbs ruling is what the dissenting opinion says it is—a “pinched” reading of the Fourteenth Amendment that threatens to undermine personal rights—then it is another attack on a democratic institution. It is another way of curtailing democracy because one party doesn’t like the way democracy is going. A political party that keeps doing that deserves to lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the voters. Before we allow a party to claim the moral high ground, we ought to expect more of it than a zeal to legislate personal morality. A democratic society also needs a public morality, one that includes at the very least a commitment to honest debate, fair elections, and respect for the rights of all citizens.
Historically, the political right has had no monopoly on dishonesty, authoritarianism or violence. But in this time in this country, the attack on democratic institutions is coming mainly from the right. Maybe this month’s shocking events, from the full exposure of Donald Trump’s reelection plot to the reversal of Roe’s recognition of women’s rights, will prove to be a turning point.