Illustrated | AP Images, iStock
Republican leaders are for once staying quiet about a hot political issue. The Texas GOP’s de facto ban on abortion and the right-wing Supreme Court majority’s rubber stamp of the law has not been mentioned by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or former President Donald Trump, or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Fox News has largely kept mum on the subject.
That uneasiness reflects the fact that the obvious Republican preference on abortion — to ban it under all circumstances without exception — is hideously unpopular. But like any culture war battle, Democrats will have to actually fight to win it.
Now, polling on abortion is highly sensitive to question wording, because a large plurality of people are morally conflicted about it. A long-running Gallup poll finds that reliably about a third of Americans support abortion under any circumstance, while about half think it should be legal but with some restrictions. A recent NBC poll found 31 percent for “always legal,” another 23 percent for “legal most of the time,” and a further 34 percent for “illegal, with some exceptions.”
But no matter the wording, banning abortion entirely is wildly unpopular. Gallup’s three-option poll found just 19 percent support for a total ban, while the NBC poll that mentioned rape and incest specifically only found eight percent support for a total ban.
As I previously argued, unless something changes a total ban will be the (almost certainly intentional) effect of the new Texas law, because it allows for people to sue abortion providers without being liable for paying legal fees if they lose. One moderately wealthy person could bankrupt every Planned Parenthood in Texas with repeated, frivolous accusations of illegal abortion. On the current track, very soon Texans will have no access to abortion — at least if they aren’t rich. Just like before Roe vs. Wade, wealthy people (like a rich Republican politician who knocks up his mistress, for instance) will be able to go to other states or countries to get care.
Now, it’s easy to see why Democrats are reluctant to come out with full-fledged defenses of abortion — a big chunk of the population thinks there should be at least some limits on its use. Traditional Democratic timidity means party leaders are reluctant to risk a backlash by boldly defending abortion rights. (In a recent tweet President Biden did not even mention the word at all.)
But there is a way to thread this rhetorical needle. First, attack Republicans on their most sensitive points: pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or those that threaten the mother’s health, or ones very early in the term. The Texas bill does not have any exceptions for rape or incest, and the provision for the health of the mother is very narrow — covering only an imminent risk of death or “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function[.]”
Hence Democrats should mercilessly attack Republicans on why they want to force rape or incest victims to bear their assailant’s child, or why mere grievous injury isn’t enough to avoid a forced birth. Texas Governor Greg Abbott was pressed on the rape question recently, and he could only blather incoherently that it wasn’t an issue because he would somehow “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas[.]” (A 2019 study of Texas crime found over 14,000 rapes that year, with less than a quarter even reported to authorities.)
Messaging will also be key. Some polls have shown mixed support for banning abortion after “six weeks” of pregnancy, but most people likely do not understand that this number is calculated from the woman’s last period — meaning you have just two weeks from a missed period to scrape up some cash and get an appointment (and that’s if your periods are very regular). That’s undoubtedly why just a third of abortions happen before the six-week mark, but 46 percent happen in the following four weeks.
The phrase “heartbeat bill” is also misleading. At six weeks, the developing heart is just a rudimentary tube in an embryonic disc only a few millimeters across — it does not “beat” like a full-sized heart, and ultrasound technology produces a sound based on electrical activity.
Second, while Democrats should stand firmly and openly for abortion rights, they could also leverage their current family benefits package that is currently before Congress as part a proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package to attack Republicans from the other direction. In surveys, about three-quarters of people who get abortions report an inability to afford a child as one of the reasons motivating their choice. Abortion access is a fundamental part of reproductive rights, but being coerced into one for lack of money is not exactly ideal. True reproductive freedom requires not just contraception and abortion, but also a welfare state that will allow people to have whatever size family they want.
So in addition to being good policy (though both the paid family leave and child allowance proposals need serious work), this would be another good line of attack on Republicans who say they want to cut abortions but oppose policy that would reduce their number.
At any rate, as noted above the public opinion center of gravity on abortion is firmly on the pro-choice side. But as Alex Pareene wrote some years ago, “the few who ardently oppose abortion have been able to skillfully exploit a certain squeamishness most Americans feel about the procedure[.]” Today the real stakes are becoming clear — Republicans really will categorically ban abortion across the country if they can. Democrats are going to have to work to activate that quiet majority.