Until the Dobbs decision this past summer, abortion has always been treated by the Democrats as a niche issue. Now they’re holding out hope that outrage will drive voter turnout and save democracy.
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The end of Roe is here, and there’s one thing that’s for sure: Women are going to make their voices heard this #Roevember! Or, wait: Nobody cares about abortion, and inflation concerns will drive GOP gains this fall. Then again, maybe new Hispanic voters will change the electoral calculus in surprising ways—including, perhaps (or perhaps not) backing (or not backing!) a record number of Latina Republican candidates fueling (or not!) a 2022 Red Wave? How can Republicans be “getting killed” with women while also energizing voters who are worried about the economy? Are these two issues wholly unrelated? Is everything just all up in the air and we’re all asking the wrong questions? Is the right question simply: Who needs a drink?
As far as I can tell, there’s only one guarantee about all this midterm hand-wringing: Abortion is vastly misunderstood by the mainstream politicos who are making big predictions about what will happen this fall. To the extent that abortion has been contemplated at all by folks who are paid to predict and influence election outcomes, abortion policy has historically been derided as a niche issue that interests only those on the extreme ends of the policy spectrum—people who would see abortion outlawed versus, one presumes, rabid femi-witches who crave infanticide. The truth is that while Democrats are more likely to support pro-choice policies, abortion is neither historically nor currently a particularly polarizing issue.
Now is not the time to trust anyone who hasn’t given a great deal of thought to the way voters think about abortion, especially when it comes to forecasting midterm results. But because of this summer’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade—an outcome abortion-rights supporters were widely mocked by political-watchers for warning against, before it actually happened, despite being promised by the GOP—the November election is nevertheless being hyped as a referendum on how the nation feels about it. As if Americans’ views on abortion were previously unknowable. In actuality, we’ve known the answer to this for a long, long time.
The headline-behind-the-headlines is that mainstream and legacy media are only now covering abortion access as if Americans generally support it, and only recently writing about the issue from the lens that the GOP is out of touch with average folks who don’t love the idea of forcing people to stay pregnant against their will. In fact, it has always been strange, politically speaking, that abortion restrictions and bans have proliferated despite widespread support for abortion access, including historically bipartisan support for early abortion, and especially for access with so-called “exceptions” for rape, incest, and the life of the pregnant person (the reality of these exceptions in practice is highly debatable).
Whatever right-wing Christian legislators—mostly men—would have us believe, there is not a significant religious divide in the United States in terms of who actually has abortions. To the contrary: The vast majority of Americans who have abortions identify as Christians. Don’t take my word for it: The overwhelmingly Christian, and specifically evangelical and Catholic, anti-abortion movement admits as much. I’m not citing that statistic as a gotcha; it’s just the plain truth. I personally believe that people of any and every faith who seek to not be pregnant when they don’t want to be, or can’t be, shouldn’t be forced by the government to give birth or die trying—even if they believe that, writ large, other people should be forced by the government to stay pregnant against their will.
So here is the unsurprising, uncomplicated reality of abortion in this country: The majority of Americans support abortion access and most people who have abortions align themselves with religious groups that either explicitly seek to outlaw abortion or that doctrinally disavow abortion as a pregnancy choice. I call this tension “uncomplicated” because when most folks do not want to be pregnant, evidence shows that they will seek not to be, whatever their political or religious persuasion. People’s actual actions around abortion show that they believe in their own access to it, whether or not they’d admit it to a pollster, or ever vote for pro-choice lawmakers. And lots of other folks have no religious qualms with abortion at all! Yet here we are, a nation of people who have long believed that our government shouldn’t force people to stay pregnant against their will, staring down total abortion bans in over a dozen states and significant restrictions in a half-dozen more, because voter suppression, disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and abortion stigma have deeply warped the way that the U.S. regulates, and, in many cases, outlaws abortion care.
Call me crazy, but if one particular political party, out of an entire two political parties in this country, had spent the last 50 years promising (and succeeding!) to eradicate a right that most people either felt pretty good about espousing or at least availing themselves of when they needed to do so, I wouldn’t consider it a niche issue. I might even call it anti-democratic for one political party to openly disenfranchise the voters most likely to support abortion, and perhaps even fascist for that same political party to privilege and enact policies that harm the same communities—low-income folks, and Black and Indigenous and people of color—who are disproportionately forced to give birth, and who are denied healthy pregnancy care, in lieu of accessing the full spectrum of reproductive options to which every human on Earth ought to be entitled.
Abortion polling shows time and again that the question of abortion shows the vast majority of America to be purple-to-blue favoring legality and access. We do not live in a nation of “red” and “blue” geographies according to states; we live in a nation of big and loud “red” states—bolstered by Trump’s 2020 Census finagling—that have been representationally manipulated by Republicans who foresaw that they were on the losing end of progress, and who have not been meaningfully opposed in that aim because Democrats are maddeningly committed to playing by the rules in a game where the opposing team is cheating outright. Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 with the help of voter-suppression tactics, and it is his Supreme Court that overturned Roe. Either everyone in the U.S. bears responsibility for that, or none of us does. (Spoiler: We all do.)
And we now know that a federal abortion ban is on the horizon for the entire country, despite Republican claims that the end of Roe was about states’ rights. (That should sound like a horrifyingly familiar justification for oppression.) The question of what will happen this November is not about whether women in general are mad enough about losing abortion access to change the inevitable ebb and flow bipartisan swings in the U.S., even though Democratic candidates and cheerleaders would love for this to be the case. The question is whether the project of American democracy can withstand a right-wing insurrection hell-bent, and establishment-backed, on amplifying already effective vote suppression.
I believe in the power of women voters, but I dread pinning the outcome of one election—a meaningful one with dire consequences, to be sure—on whether “women,” in general, can turn a dangerous and disheartening tide. While men get a pass for either supporting or ignoring abortion bans as if they live their lives unaffected by the formation and sustentation of families, women and pregnancy-capable people have long been uniquely tasked by pollsters and strategists, who haven’t given much credence at all to the lived experience of abortion, with somehow overturning the abortion bans that prevent us from deciding if, when, and how to create our families. But writ large, women are unlikely to save abortion access in one fell swoop, not because the majority of us are not angry about losing access to abortion—we are—but because the question of how to restore abortion access is deeply complicated, and because losing access to abortion is not now and may not be, in the coming months and years, enough to turn a key number of white women away from the other benefits of white supremacy that the GOP promises us.
I wrote about this eight years ago, after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis made a literal 13-hour stand opposing the state’s omnibus anti-abortion bill and subsequently lost a gubernatorial race to Greg Abbott. Back then, I warned that if middle-class white women did not learn empathy and extend our imagined self-interest to stretch across racial and class lines, we would see the end of Roe v. Wade at the hands of the man Davis lost to: Greg Abbott. In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait called me ignorant and racist for this analysis. But in the end, white women did not deliver and have not yet done so. As the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott had already signed the country’s most extreme abortion ban into law when Roe fell earlier this year.
And yet post-Dobbs, it is these same center- and center-right swing voters, especially white women, who political commentators are relying on to define November’s electoral outcome, expecting them to switch parties away from their reliable GOP home. This was political folly in Texas in 2014, and it was political folly nationally in 2016, and it will be political folly in 2022. Certainly it is possible that Republican women are angry about the end of abortion rights, even as they have spent years voting for lawmakers who promised to end same. It is very hard to affirmatively change a long-held political affiliation in a matter of weeks or months, and especially hard to accept that hardships you thought other people deserved might soon apply to you and your family. Those realizations are meaningful, but bound to encounter more than a few months’ worth of resistance.
Indeed, abortion has been unavailable or inaccessible for low-income people and Black people, Brown people, and Indigenous people for years, and that lack of access has yet to mobilize white women voters to overcome our interest in the white supremacist thinking that convinces us that we will always be fine as long as we vote for military aggression, ostensibly lower taxes, and a business-friendly economy (hashtag #girlboss). The (mostly) men who promote and pass abortion bans do so not in spite of pro-choice women’s opposition, but with the political help of middle- and upper-class white women voters who (wrongly) believe that we and our daughters will always be able to access the uniquely righteous abortions to which we are entitled and others are not. It will be many years before enough “pro-life” middle- and upper-class white women who never thought abortion bans would affect our own pregnancies will experience the trauma and heartbreak that shifts our hearts and minds away from white supremacist self-interest, if ever. I deeply wish that this were not the case, but I struggle to see another path forward.
We can’t shift the anti-abortion tide without a significant number of former GOP and independent voters siding with Democrats in significant numbers, not just once but over many elections, thanks to the hold that gerrymandering, vote suppression, and other manifestations of disenfranchisement have on our political system. Because I am too cynical to expect Republican and independent men to take on this responsibility, I think the onus is on white women to make the stakes clear to and for one another. The impact of abortion bans has long been reality for those who do not hold our privileges, who have worked for decades without recompense or reward trying to convince us that our struggles are bound up together. We know we can win, together—Kansas voters just decisively struck down an abortion ban on their ballot—but we’re going to have to do it over and over again. This is the work, and I hope that, whatever happens this November, we commit to it for the long haul.
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