The Potential Return of Abortion Rights
The liberal prediction of national abortion policy after the end of Roe v. Wade is turning out to be accurate. In red state after red state, Republican legislatures are enacting restrictions on the procedure as quickly as they can. Their original attempts at moderation are being demolished. In Florida, an original twelve-week ban has turned into a six-week ban following months of political pressure on governor Ron DeSantis. In North Carolina, the legislature is likely to pass a twelve-week ban following a stunning party shift by state senator Tricia Cotham. Other states are leaning towards legislative bans and shying away from popular referenda after a number of failures in 2022 and 2023.
The new landscape of abortion politics is immensely stressful for pro-choice advocates. They lament the millions of women now forced to travel to other states or risk prosecution for an abortion. Activists and most voters alike are outraged by the women whose lives are threatened because they may be unable to access medically necessary abortions in a timely manner. These feelings were greatly intensified in April when a federal judge threatened to restrict access to an abortion pill throughout the country, based partially on shoddy evidence he likely found in a brief Google search.
The sentiment in the pro-choice community is clearly one of pessimism. The Republican Party seems poised to restrict abortion access throughout the country. They have no interest in listening to women or even the large majorities who voice support for abortion rights in political polling. It seems to progressives like the GOP will simply spend all of its energy restricting voting and the electorate instead of moderating any of its policies.
But in their analysis of Republican policymaking, Democrats have ignored the primacy of winning to the party’s project. Republicans are zealous and authoritarian at an alarming level, but they are also politicians first and will act in their interest as a politician before anything else.
Republicans obviously want to please their activist base. Many of their members come directly from that base. The activist primary is the biggest political threat for many House members in particular. The party has passed unpopular legislation for decades that was directly supported by its base, particularly the evangelical wing. Even Donald Trump felt the need to pander to evangelicals with his famed quoting of “Two Corinthians” in a 2016 speech.
However, even this blatant support has limits. Evangelical support has gone hand-in-hand with Republican political victory for decades. Republicans have won six out of the past eleven presidential elections since 1980 and have controlled the House for far longer than Democrats during that time period. During that time, practically all of their political candidates have either been born-again evangelicals or have captured the hearts and minds of the evangelical movement.
But if that support were to change, the Republican Party would most certainly dump their evangelical credentials. Republicans are in the business of winning elections. They must hold political office or at least compete closely. The lodestar of any Republican candidate or party leader will be electoral victory on a regular basis. Without that victory, Republicans cannot please their wealthy donors or average voters who will quickly grow tired of more years of Democratic leadership.
The 2022 midterms may have been a sign that this connection is much weaker than in the past. In many ways, that election was a miracle for Democrats. The party actually gained a Senate seat and only lost a handful of House races. They accomplished this with an unpopular president and economic headwinds. A weak midterm could be swept away in the next Trump campaign, or it could be a sign of a substantial Democratic advantage in federal elections. If Republicans become convinced they cannot win without abandoning anti-abortion policies, they will make the shift and challenge the evangelical movement to either fight them in the primaries or defect to their hated enemies on the other side of the aisle.
The talk of a fickle legislature on abortion rights is nothing compared to the Supreme Court. The Court’s future on Roe and Dobbs could change tomorrow, and both parties need to be ready for the possibility.