The Supreme Court’s recent decision to consider the legality of Mississippi’s restrictive law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy could trigger the most serious and sustained political debate over the procedure since the final decades of the 20th century. And that could dramatically widen the already gaping demographic and geographic fissures between red and blue America.
Public opinion over abortion today is much more polarized along party lines than it was in the first decades after the Supreme Court established a nationwide right to it in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Reflecting those divisions, red and blue states are poised to hurtle in radically different directions if the court grants them more leeway to regulate abortion by retrenching, or even reversing, the Roe decision through its ruling in the Mississippi case.
The battle over abortion that erupted in the 1970s helped trigger a decades-long political realignment that has re-sorted the two parties’ coalitions more along lines of cultural attitudes than class interests. But since the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Roe ruling in 1992 in another landmark decision, that debate has been largely abstract and distant, with relatively few Americans seriously believing that the right to abortion could be revoked, pollsters say.
A new Supreme Court ruling providing states greater freedom to restrict abortion access, which could come before the 2022 elections, would dramatically change that equation by making the debate far more tangible.
“It’s one thing to say it’s a symbolic issue that signals what team you play for,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies Americans’ attitudes about cultural issues. “But it’s another thing to say this is something that is actually going to affect people’s lives on the ground, their health, their ability to plan their families. All of these are very concrete ways in which this issue could come out of the abstract intellectual debate into the streets in a way we haven’t seen” for decades.
Put another way, while many of today’s most volatile social issue disputes involve statements of values that will touch vanishingly few Americans in their daily lives — very few people, for instance, will ever have to decide whether to bake a cake or take the photos for a same-sex wedding — the potential for significant new restrictions, or even bans, on abortion would amount to a culture war with more widely felt consequences.
A politics of culture, not class
Abortion was part of the explosive complex of issues that shifted the axis of American politics during the 1960s and 1970s. During the first decades after World War II — the years of electoral dominance for what became known as the Democrats’ “New Deal” coalition — the principal dividing line in the electorate was economic: Most people above a certain level of income and education voted Republican and most below it voted Democratic.
But starting in the mid-1960s with civil rights and voting rights for African Americans — and then continuing with fierce debates over crime, welfare and changing attitudes about family, sex and the role of women in American life — the central dividing line between the competing coalitions started to shift, with Democrats drawing more voters who approved of the ways society was changing and Republicans more of those who felt threatened by it. Abortion contributed to that process when the Supreme Court, in its January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision, established a constitutional right to abortion in every state.
The first backlash to the Roe decision came primarily from groups representing US Catholics. Initially through the mid-1970s, many White evangelical Protestant ministers, who were just beginning their own activism in conservative politics, resisted allying with Catholics (with whom they had bitter, centuries-old religious differences) to oppose abortion. But as the decade proceeded, the desire to build the broadest possible coalition of cultural and religious conservatives prompted leaders from Catholic political strategist Paul Weyrich to evangelical minister Jerry Falwell to link arms behind the anti-abortion cause in the hope of assembling what they called a “moral majority.” Faced with “the imperative of fighting the liberals on every front,” wrote historian Rick Perlstein in his recent book on the late 1970s, “Reaganland,” “political necessity begat theological flexibility” among the awakening evangelical activists.
But the shift from a political system primarily based on class to one that revolves mostly around culture still took decades to fully unfold, and for years after the Roe decision Democrats won support from many culturally conservative voters, just as Republicans did from those with more liberal social views. The result was that initially the right to abortion divided both parties’ coalitions.
“It really cut across party lines for a long time,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.
Figures provided to me by the Gallup organization underscore his point. Since the mid-1970s, Gallup has been asking Americans whether abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal in certain circumstances or always illegal. In an April 1975 poll, the results among Republicans and Democrats were virtually identical, with around one-fifth of each saying abortion should always be legal, half saying it should be so in certain circumstances and the rest saying it should always be illegal. In a May 1981 poll, a few months after Ronald Reagan won election on a platform of opposition to legal abortion, slightly more Republicans than Democrats believed abortion should be legal, either always or in certain circumstances, Gallup found.
Results Abramowitz analyzed for me from the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies, a long-standing election-year poll, point toward the same striking conclusion. In his losing 1980 race against Reagan, Democratic President Jimmy Carter won almost exactly the same share of the vote among those who said abortion should never be available as those who said it should always be legal; those who said abortion should never be legal actually gave Carter more support than those who said it should be allowed rarely or sometimes.
As Abramowitz notes, this cross-cutting pressure on abortion within each party “was reflected in the kinds of people who were getting elected. For a long time, you would get quite a few pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats.” That was displayed during Reagan’s presidency when conservatives mounted their most serious legislative attempt — arguably to this day — to eliminate the right to abortion. That effort culminated in a June 1983 Senate vote on a “Human Life Amendment” to the Constitution that would have overturned Roe and allowed states again to ban abortion. The amendment, which needed support from two-thirds of the Senate, failed, drawing only 49 votes in favor, with 50 opposed. In a pattern almost unimaginable today, 15 Senate Democrats, many of them from the South, voted for the amendment, while 19 Republicans, many from the Northeast or West Coast, voted against it.
A party gap on abortion emerges
Over the succeeding decades, and especially in this century, cultural and racial attitudes have increasingly displaced class interests as the central glue of the parties. That current widened the differences between the parties on abortion. By the time a closely divided Supreme Court reaffirmed the nationwide right to abortion in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, a gap had opened between Republican and Democratic views. In 1991 Gallup results, Democrats were 8 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say abortion should be legal in all circumstances; in the 1992 election, according to the American National Election Studies data, Democrat Bill Clinton ran about 25 points better among those who said abortion should always be legal than with those who said it should never be available.
But even so, in both his 1992 and 1996 elections, Clinton (who famously declared that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare”) won nearly half the voters who wanted abortion available either never or rarely, the National Election Studies found. Since then, as the electorate’s re-sorting along cultural lines has proceeded, the distance between the parties on abortion has exploded.
While the share of Republicans who believed abortion should always be legal rose from the 1970s through the 1990s, Gallup found that by 2020, it had fallen to just 13%. By contrast, the share of Democrats who said abortion should be legal in all circumstances soared to 49% in 2020, well over double its level in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the 2020 presidential race, according to the National Election Studies data, Joe Biden won more than four-fifths of voters who said abortion should always be legal, but only one-fifth of those who said it should always be illegal and fewer than 3 in 10 of those who wanted it only “rarely” available.
The same polarization was evident when congressional Republicans, during Donald Trump’s presidency, advanced legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks. In contrast to the extensive partisan defections in 1983, just two Senate Republicans in 2020 opposed that bill (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) and only two Senate Democrats (Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia) backed it. The ban fell well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
In all these ways, a Supreme Court decision eliminating or further restricting abortion rights would land in a country where the issue divides the parties far more starkly than it did at the time of Roe. The separation extends beyond Washington through the states. If the Supreme Court gives states more freedom to limit abortion, nearly two dozen states have laws on the books that would either ban abortion entirely or cut off access much earlier in pregnancy, according to a tabulation by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group that studies reproductive issues. Almost all of those states were won by Trump.
With the prospect in sight that a more conservative Supreme Court may authorize tighter limits, Republican-controlled states are passing laws at an accelerating pace that clearly undermine Roe’s protections: This year alone, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have all approved legislation banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy, in practice a near-total prohibition. Arkansas went further, banning abortion “except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency,” and Oklahoma passed a similar law in addition to its heartbeat measure. For now, Roe prohibits the enforcement of those laws, but that could change depending on how the court rules in the Mississippi case.
In practice, red states already impose many more obstacles to abortion than blue ones, but conservatives welcome the prospect that the court would allow them to diverge further on the core legal question of access to abortion at all.
Allowing states to set their own disparate rules on abortion “would certainly stabilize the issue by returning the question back to the hands of the American people,” Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, a social conservative group, wrote me in an e-mail. “This is the work of freedom, allowing our citizens to debate the issue and develop new policies by convincing one another of what is best.”
But Kristin Ford, national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights group, says the court would precipitate pitched political battles even in the red states if it weakens or reverses Roe. “Once these [state] bills can become law and it is less of an intellectual exercise, I think there will be significant backlash,” Ford says. “It is not the case that voters in red states believe abortion should be completely illegal or inaccessible.”
James Henson, executive director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas (Austin), largely agrees. In a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, a 49% to 41% plurality of Texas adults said they supported the six-week abortion ban that state Republicans approved this month (but which cannot be implemented unless the Supreme Court revises Roe). But Henson says he does not believe “support would hold up” if the law could actually go into effect because “it’s effectively a ban on abortion.”
And while many Texans “are very open to making the process of obtaining an abortion a strict one,” he told me, a consistent majority want to ensure “the option is there.” Support for such a restrictive limit, he predicts, would erode if the issue switched from “thinking about a poll question or hearing an opinion leader talk about it” to “the experience actual real women are going to have” in not even necessarily realizing “that they are pregnant before they hit the six-week marker.”
Abortion moves back to the front burner
Henson’s comments point toward the potential for the Supreme Court to ignite a much more intense conflagration over abortion than the nation has seen in decades. For all the heated rhetoric on either side, and all the moves red states have undertaken in recent years to reduce access to abortion (for instance by tightly regulating abortion clinics), the bedrock legal right to the procedure has not been seriously threatened since the Casey decision nearly three decades ago, legal scholars agree. As a result, many Americans, especially younger ones, consider abortion largely a settled issue, public opinion analysts note.
“We did some focus groups around this issue a while back and one of the things we found is that many of the references to coat hangers and back-alley abortions and fears of returning to a pre-Roe world were kind of lost on young people, and it’s largely because they grew up in a world where abortion is legal,” says Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. “It’s just a fixed part of the legal landscape, even the cultural landscape, for them. So I think they’ve never really thought of it as something under threat.”
Just the prospect of a Supreme Court decision revising Roe will spotlight more attention on abortion in coming months. Democratic Rep. Judy Chu of California told me in an interview that by early June she will reintroduce her legislation codifying in federal law the legal right to abortion established under Roe; White House press secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed last week that Biden supported such a bill. In the last Congress, the bill attracted 216 Democratic co-sponsors, and abortion rights advocates are confident that amid the risk of an adverse high court ruling it could draw enough votes to pass the House.
“Roe vs. Wade was enacted in order to make sure that every woman in every state could have access to abortion and therefore choice over their lives,” Chu told me. “And it should not be dependent on their ZIP code.”
But Chu also says it’s not clear whether House Democrats will take up the legislation before the Supreme Court rules in the Mississippi case, which might not come until June 2022. And even if the House approves it, a law codifying Roe would join the long list of liberal priorities that have no chance of clearing the Senate unless the Democratic majority there agrees to retrench or eliminate the filibuster. (Even reaching 50 votes for such a bill might not be guaranteed there.)
Yet even if Congress stalemates on abortion, that might only make a Supreme Court decision restricting it more salient in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
The safest prediction is that more focus on abortion would reinforce the dynamics already polarizing the parties along lines of education, religious practice and geography. A full-scale battle over abortion would likely help Republicans further strengthen the hold over culturally conservatives Whites that the party has solidified in this century, and potentially make further inroads among anti-abortion Hispanics, especially those who are evangelical Protestants.
Nance says conservatives are confident they can win the argument for imposing limits on abortion at least as strict as those Mississippi is seeking. “The question of whether a baby at 15 weeks gestation deserves legal protection is a losing political strategy for Democrats,” she wrote me.
But most Democratic strategists, and even some Republicans, believe that a renewed focus on limiting abortion would exacerbate the GOP’s already formidable problems with college-educated White voters, as well as younger and more secular voters. In the Public Religion Research Institute’s latest polling, more than two-thirds of college-educated White women and nearly two-thirds of both college-educated White men and all adults under 30 said abortion should remain legal in all or most circumstances. So did more than four-fifths of adults who don’t identify with any religious tradition — now about one-fourth of the population.
Though a renewed focus on abortion would surely feed the forces separating the parties demographically and geographically, the bottom line still tilts toward the Democrats: Most Americans have consistently expressed the desire to maintain Roe’s basic protections since the ruling almost 50 years ago. Overall, the Public Religion Research Institute found, a solid three-fifths majority of Americans believed abortion should remain legal in all or most cases. In Gallup’s polling since the 1970s, no more than about one-fifth of adults have ever said abortion should be completely banned; even among Republicans, only a little over one-fourth support that step today.
In a reversal of the initial political reaction during the 1970s, the Public Religion Research Institute found that White evangelical Protestants are now the only religious group in which a substantial majority say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases; even a narrow majority of White Catholics believe abortion should mostly remain legal. (Slightly more Hispanic Protestants opposed than supported legal abortion, the only other major group for which that was true.)
Ford of NARAL says that Republican elected officials over recent years have had the best of both worlds: “They have walked this tightrope for a long time of throwing red meat to their most extreme base” by voting for severe abortion restrictions in the states or in Washington, while secure in the knowledge that those laws could not be implemented, and potentially trigger a backlash, because of Roe.
The Supreme Court’s Mississippi decision could unsettle that balance by allowing more — or conceivably all — of those restrictive laws to go into effect, thrilling some voters and terrifying others. And that could trigger powerfully disruptive new tremors along the fault line over abortion that runs deeply through the American electorate but has remained mostly dormant for decades.