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Voters Are Rejecting Even Moderate Abortion Restrictions
It may partly be because they simply don’t trust Republicans on this issue
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Republicans quickly realized that strict abortion bans were a political loser. Democrats went on the offensive, railing against laws that denied abortions even to adolescent rape victims. But Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin thought he had a way out: a proposal to allow abortion until 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother. He hoped this “compromise” would make Republicans look moderate and Democrats extreme.
But in November’s state legislative elections, his solution was a failure. Campaigning on a pledge to block any abortion ban, Democrats not only held onto the state House but gained control of the Senate – exactly the opposite of what Youngkin had wagered. The results imply that those who favor the 15-week “compromise” suffer from a misunderstanding of the reasons for later abortions and a misunderstanding of how Americans feel about reproductive freedom. On this issue, a majority of Virginians and Americans clearly feel that the less say the government has, the better.
This was not a foregone conclusion. Republicans have consistently used this cause to their advantage. For years, a large majority of Americans told pollsters they thought abortion should be entirely illegal or legal only in certain circumstances. The public was more or less evenly split between those who called themselves pro-life and those who called themselves pro-choice. Republicans were consistently able to use their opposition to mobilize anti-abortion voters. But because the Supreme Court had firmly protected the right to abortion, pro-choice voters who weren’t driven by this one issue could afford to focus on other issues where the GOP might actually be able to enact its policies.
But the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Authority shattered that complacency. Many if not most people were shocked to see a basic liberty go up in smoke. A Pew poll taken days after the ruling found 57% of Americans disapproved of it, while 43% strongly disapproved. More Democrats strongly disapproved of the ruling than Republicans strongly approved of it. Support for legal abortion has registered a significant and lasting increase. Gallup found that 69% of Americans now believe the procedure should be legal through the first three months of pregnancy, up from 60% in 2018. It also found that 37% think it should be allowed in the second three months, up from 28% in 2018.
Voters have acted on those sentiments. After the Dobbs decision, Kansas (along with some other states) saw a big jump in the proportion of women registering to vote. And when the state held a referendum in August 2022 on a constitutional amendment that would have allowed severe restrictions on abortion, it drew the biggest turnout of any primary election in the state’s history, with voters overwhelmingly voting no. Since then, voters in six other states have had the chance to weigh in, and six times, they’ve voted for abortion rights.
And these weren’t all blue states: Four of them went twice for Donald Trump, the latest being Ohio. Clearly, some people who have voted for Republicans don’t share their views on abortion rights.
Youngkin believed his 15-week cutoff would satisfy his anti-abortion base while defusing the fears of people in the middle. Last summer, his campaign held all-female focus-group sessions to test the idea. Zack Roday, the coordinated campaigns director for Youngkin's state PAC told NBC News that the sessions indicated the women had “complicated” feelings about abortion, but that “15 weeks with exceptions is a place where a lot of people start nodding their head.”
On Election Day this year, though, heads were shaking emphatically across the state.
That hasn’t stopped Republican presidential candidates from adopting the idea. Sen. Tim Scott, who suspended his campaign on Nov. 12, had proposed a federal ban at 15 weeks. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, asked if she would support it, said, “I would support anything that would pass.” Ron DeSantis says he would sign such a bill. Trump has declined to comment on the proposal, but he said the fetal heartbeat bill signed by DeSantis, which effectively forbids abortion after six weeks, was “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
Haley frames her position as a matter of political pragmatism. “This is a personal issue for every woman and every man,” she said in the latest Republican debate. “And what I’ll tell you is as much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life.” Scott claimed that three out of four Americans favor banning abortion after 15 weeks.
You might figure that if 63% of Americans oppose allowing second-trimester abortions, the 15-week cutoff would be an easy sell. But the court’s reversal has engendered great suspicion of measures that fall short of restoring the old status quo. When Virginians heard Youngkin propose a ban after 15 weeks, they apparently didn’t focus on “15 weeks”; they focused on “ban.”
One reason his party lost ground is that voters are wary about Republicans striking a moderate pose. Why? Since Roe, 16 states have enacted extreme restrictions – and every one of them has a GOP-controlled state legislature. Constrained by political necessity, voters reckon, Republicans may settle for a compromise that allows abortions throughout the first trimester, as some red states have done. But they fear that Republicans will go much further and try and enact far more sweeping bans the first chance they get.
Scott admitted as much. “I’m 100% pro-life conservative,” he has said. “As president of the United States, I would sign the most conservative legislation, pro-life legislation that can get to my desk.” Haley has said she would sign a federal bill similar to the one that DeSantis signed Florida’s law denying abortions after fetal cardiac activity is present, about six weeks, if it reached her desk.
It’s not surprising that support has grown for permitting second-trimester abortions. The post-Dobbs experience has given Americans a new understanding of the dangers of curbing access, thanks to heartbreaking stories about women whose fetuses suffer from severe and even fatal defects but who are forced to carry them to term. Even women with complications that put their own lives at risk have found doctors unwilling to perform abortions for them. After passing its strict ban, Texas saw an 11.5% increase in infant mortality. “We all knew the infant mortality rate would go up, because many of these terminations were for pregnancies that don’t turn into healthy normal kids,” Dr. Erika Werner, head of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts Medical Center, told CNN. Many fetal abnormalities are not discovered until after 15 weeks. The proposed cutoff would leave these mothers with no option except to endure months of pregnancy for an inescapably bitter outcome.
DeSantis accuses Democrats of choosing “to allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.” Scott echoed that claim, calling it “infanticide.” But it requires holding a very dark view of women to believe that they would gamely undergo all the challenges of pregnancy for seven or eight months only to bail on an idle whim. Just 1% of U.S. abortions take place after 21 weeks, and there are three common reasons women seek them at that stage: They learn that their fetuses have a serious abnormality, or they develop a condition that puts their health or even their lives at serious risk, or they were unable to get abortions earlier.
Whatever qualms Americans, and especially women, have about this deeply personal issue, they generally believe the ultimate decision should lie with pregnant women. When the Supreme Court repudiated Roe, it gave many Americans a new appreciation of the right of women to control their own bodies and a new distrust of those who conspired to take it away. Republicans may affect moderation on the issue, but voters aren’t buying.
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