Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How are changes in U.S. abortion law reshaping American life?

How are changes in U.S. abortion law reshaping American life? Mary Ziegler on the ambiguous political fallout of a seismic legal event.
Ivy Gould / The Signal
Nearly a year after the United States Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade legal precedent from 1973 that codified women’s right to abortion in America, the decision seems to have instigated a transformation in the country’s political environment. Many Republican-controlled states have enacted stricter and stricter bans on the procedure, while many Democratic-controlled states have enacted more and more extensive safeguards for it. U.S. public opinion on the issue—highly consistent for decades—meanwhile appears to have shifted substantially toward greater support for access to abortion.

In last November’s U.S. midterm elections, Democratic candidates made it a central campaign issue—and their party performed better than historical and economic data predicted it would. This month, in a special election to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, the Democratic candidate focused her campaign on abortion and defeated her Republican opponent for the decisive seat on the state bench. It was one among a number of notable Democratic wins at the state level where the issue of abortion was a major factor. Just how much is the Supreme Court’s decision altering U.S. political life?

Mary Ziegler is a professor at the Florida State University College of Law and the author of three books on the history of U.S. abortion law and politics. To Ziegler, the repeal of Roe hasn’t really changed American voters’ views on abortion policy; it’s changed their views of its political stakes. Increasingly, Americans see even limited Republican initiatives to regulate abortion as belonging to a more ambitious strategy to enact maximal and broadly unpopular restrictions. In the near term, it’s unclear how Republicans will adapt their political strategies as they look ahead to the U.S. elections in 2024. It’s also unclear how Democrats will sustain their political advantages of the moment, as other issues start to compete more for voter attention. But with an emerging generation of American voters now understanding abortion access as a defining political issue, Ziegler says, a new American political reality is just beginning to take form.

Eve Valentine: Polling seems to show a remarkable change in U.S. public opinion on abortion since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last June. How do you interpret that?

Mary Ziegler: I’d say we have to be a little skeptical about it, actually. If you look at certain aspects of public opinion on abortion in the U.S., they’ve been very sticky over time. Since the 1970s, Americans have tended to be opposed to outright bans on the procedure; they’ve tended to be supportive of certain restrictions; and they’ve tended to be more supportive of those restrictions the later in pregnancy you go. The pattern hasn’t really shifted. What’s shifted is what it means to Americans to be opposed to or supportive of restrictions on abortion. That’s where something’s really happening.

Today, if you ask an American voter, Do you support Republican policies on abortion?—you’re now asking them whether they support, for example, bans from the point of fertilization, often with fewer or no exceptions. But these kinds of policies have been unpopular since the ’70s—even before the 70s, across large segments of the American population. So part of what’s happening is that the terms of the debate on abortion are changing, and Americans are reacting to that.

And to some extent, this is changing in turn how Americans are interpreting specific new restrictions on it. People are becoming more likely to look at, say, a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, or some more incremental law, as a political step—by anti-abortion groups and Republican legislators aligned with them—toward an absolute ban; they’re becoming less likely to see it as a regulation they might approve of on its own terms.

Valentine: The issue has plainly had a significant impact on how well a lot of Democratic candidates did in last November’s U.S. midterm elections—or more recently, for example, on the voting for a key seat on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. How do you understand that impact?

Ziegler: It’s had a significant impact, certainly. I think the biggest question is: How important is it going to end up being in races that turn critically on more issues than just abortion?

In the Wisconsin State Supreme Court election, there was more than one issue in play, but it’s fair to say that abortion was the central issue. And whenever we’ve seen ballot initiatives on abortion in the U.S., the abortion-rights side has done really well pretty much all the time.

Things tend to get more complicated, though, when there are candidates running on a number of issues at once and abortion is just part of the picture. To your point, we’ve seen rather a big swing in favor of Democrats in 2022 even in those cases. But if you look at where that swing has happened, you see Republicans were still campaigning on quite sweeping policies against abortion—because they evidently believe that, especially in Republican-dominated states, voters will set aside their preferences about abortion on account of their partisan commitments. Or they believe that voters just won’t care enough about abortion for it to be a deciding issue.

And that now turns out not to be dependably  true. In 2022, there was compelling evidence that, especially with Generation Z voters—voters born between the late ‘90s and the early 2010s—abortion has become a mobilizing issue. It’s become something that changes political outcomes.

Here, I think the Republicans are working out of an older political playbook. If you were to look back to the pre-Dobbs days, you’d see poll after poll where a majority of Americans said they supported what Democrats were doing on abortion—but that abortion was a very low priority for them among election issues overall. I expect Republicans are hoping that the post-Dobbs shift is temporary—and that the U.S. will go back to a situation where Americans don’t care that much. But that seems unlikely—not least because so many conservative state lawmakers and federal judges are keeping the issue in the news.

Ivy Gould / The Signal
More from Mary Ziegler at The Signal:

You have some anti-abortion groups saying that the way for Republicans to win on this issue is not to run away from it. You have other anti-abortion groups saying—as Ryan Anderson argued also in The Wall Street Journal recently—that Republicans shouldn’t ultimately moderate their stance on abortion, but they should embrace opportunities for incremental progress in restricting it. Either way, anti-abortion groups are maintaining pressure on Republican politicians—saying, if you go too far from what we want, you’re going to lose support from the Republican base and start seeing your position in the party threatened by challengers from the right.”

It’s not clear that Republican leaders entirely know what they want to do at this point. It’s hard to say whether there’s an emerging trend among them, in part because we still don’t know who the party’s standard-bearer is going to be. DeSantis’s strategy is basically to prioritize winning the primary by courting social conservatives and to worry about the general election later. You can see other Republicans inclined either to try moderating their party’s position or just not talk to about abortion at all.”

While there may be a lot of political opportunity for the Democrats right now, it’s not as if it’s all going to be there for the taking indefinitely. We’ll certainly see a lot of money poured into state legislative races and state–supreme-court races. And the state–supreme-court races, I think, will be the more revealing of the two, in the sense that, historically in the U.S., we haven’t seen much money or attention paid to these races. They tend to have run more or less on autopilot. That era has probably drawn to a close.”

Continue reading …

Leave a Reply