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Republicans misjudged the power of abortion rights

Sarah Green Carmichael
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

After the expected red wave seems to have been little more than a red ripple, are any centrist pundits going to renew their calls for a federal compromise on abortion? Prior to the election, I saw essay after essay preemptively lambasting Democrats for being too focused on this supposedly fringe women’s issue. Surely, talking so much about wombs would lead them down the primrose path to electoral defeat.

That didn’t pan out.

While it would be reductionist to claim that concerns over abortion were the sole driver of Democrats’ strong turnout in Tuesday’s midterm election — weak Republican candidates and their lack of any specific economic plan other than “not being Joe Biden” also deserve plenty of blame — it does seem clear that fears of a post-Roe rollback in reproductive rights were a decisive factor. According to early exit polls, abortion was Democratic voters’ top concern; in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman won an unexpected victory to take a Senate seat from Republicans, 36% of voters said abortion was their top issue, compared with 29% who cited inflation. Turnout was high, especially for a midterm.

Anti and Pro Roe v. Wade protesters outside the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 24, 2022.

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Take a look at Michigan, where voters just amended their state’s constitution to protect abortion rights. The state memorably went for Donald Trump in 2016, but voters Tuesday returned Democrats to power in the state legislature. Governor Gretchen Whitmer — faced with anti-COVID protesters and threatened by kidnappers in 2020 — also handily won re-election after campaigning aggressively on reproductive rights. She had good reason to keep the issue front and center: Michigan has a “zombie law,” an abortion ban from 1931 still on the books. It’s been unclear how enforceable such laws are, but there can be little doubt that the law made the ballot referendum much more than symbolic.

In purple Montana and even comfortably red Kentucky, voters rejected ballot measures that would have restricted reproductive rights. As it turns out, even many Republicans don’t want to change their state constitutions to allow forced birth (Kentucky) or prevent doctors from providing dying newborns with palliative care (Montana).

In North Carolina, voters elected enough Democrats to the state legislature to avoid giving Republicans a supermajority — something local GOP leaders wanted in order to pass a six-week abortion ban over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

And yes, abortion also succeeded on ballots in blue stalwarts like California and Vermont. Although those states consistently vote Democratic in presidential elections, it’s worth remembering that they aren’t always progressive on all social issues; Vermont’s gun laws allow anyone to carry a firearm without a license or permit, and it is the only state in New England not to require guns to be safely stored. In California, residents in deeply liberal San Francisco recalled their super-progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, earlier this year.

Abortion, it would seem, isn’t readily analogous to other political topics. It’s a deeply personal question on which many Americans have already made up their minds. Given that roughly 1 in 3 women have had an abortion, it’s also an issue with which many people have personal experience, either first-hand, or through a friend or relative. Inflation may be a top concern, but even economists don’t agree on how to solve it. Crime is a problem everyone deplores but for which solutions aren’t simple. In comparison, abortion is pretty straightforward and pretty relatable.

To be clear, since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voters haven’t said they want to expand reproductive rights; they have just acted to protect the status quo. Sometimes professional political pundits seem to forget that Roe itself was a compromise, allowing restrictions on abortion particularly after the first trimester. This compromise was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Casey decision, which allowed many first-trimester restrictions on abortion as long as they didn’t cause an “undue burden” — a judgment call always in the eye of the beholder.

Even before the Dobbs decision allowed states to criminalize abortion care, a woman seeking to end a pregnancy might have faced many obstacles, from affording the cost of an abortion to traveling hours to a clinic; from legally mandated waiting periods to intrusive transvaginal ultrasounds. Americans aren’t necessarily saying they want these repealed; waiting periods remain popular in opinion polls. But they seem to think those burdens are sufficient.

Abortion isn’t a magic word for Democrats — in a statewide race where abortion rights aren’t being threatened, the issue is probably of limited use. For example, Kathy Hochul, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New York, talked about it a lot and faced a tough race even in a very blue state.

The question now for Democrats is how to play this in 2024. What would happen in a state like Texas if voters had the chance to repeal that state’s ban on abortion? What would happen in Georgia if voters were given the chance to repeal its six-week ban? Would Democrats improve their chances in those states if they gave voters the opportunity to completely repeal those bans, or if they offered a compromise position — protecting abortion through the first trimester, when some 93% of abortions take place? Or would offering a compromise only demoralize their base and their donors?

Republicans also need to reckon with the shifting landscape. The message at the federal level is clearer than ever: Do not seek a nationwide abortion ban. And at the state level, maybe try to block further ballot initiatives on abortion. But of course, Republicans have their own base to placate, and voters identified with the Christian right who hold their nose and support candidates like Trump and Herschel Walker will be watching.

Going into the next election cycle, politicians and pundits from both parties should remember: Americans support legal abortion, especially through the first trimester. Faced with the reality of being denied necessary medical care, or of being compelled by the state to raise more children than you can afford, voters are pushing back.

Yes, there are still people who think abortion should be a crime. Or, as one Kentucky voter put it yesterday, that “life, once it is seeded, it needs to grow just like a garden.” But for many voters, losing Roe has changed how such metaphors land. Put simply: Women aren’t dirt.

— Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”