One year after Dobbs, US abortion rights have gotten even more politically explosive
As the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling approaches its first-year anniversary on June 24, abortion is a more politically potent issue than ever. The ruling represented a victory for the decades-long campaign by conservative activists to overturn the Roe v. Wade court decision of 1973 – which granted a constitutional right to an abortion – and allowed local jurisdictions to enact severe restrictions on the procedure. But that legal victory has led to a new, intensified political battle to win elections and shape future legislation on the issue. Eurasia Group expert Kylie Milliken says the proponents of greater access to abortion currently appear to have the upper hand in this political battle. We asked her to explain.
What is the impact of the Dobbs decision?
For nearly half a century, Roe v. Wade was considered settled law. With that security, conservative politicians and voters alike could oppose abortion access without meaningful consequences. Now, a year after the Dobbs decision, consequences are here. Abortion is banned, severely restricted, or unavailable in 15 states, and that number could grow as state-level courts make further decisions. States that allow abortion have seen an influx of patients, while those that don’t have seen worsening shortages of OBGYNs and female medicine specialists.
Abortion has become a more high-profile political issue than ever before, and poll after poll shows that Americans have grown more supportive of access. Gallup polling indicates that support for abortion access spiked after Dobbs and remains at an all-time high, particularly among Democrats and women. Since Dobbs, Republicans have become slightly more likely to support some restrictions, but many polls have found that significant numbers of Republicans oppose bans and stringent restrictions in places such as Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which have banned abortions with exceptions that are nearly impossible to access in practice.
And what about Republican politics?
Republicans have found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion and in a difficult political position. The key GOP constituency of white Evangelical Protestants is the group that is the most supportive of abortion bans, and winning that group is generally crucial to winning a Republican primary. However, abortion-related ballot initiatives across the country and elections in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have proven that supporting abortion restrictions is not a viable political strategy to win general elections.
Federal-level Republican lawmakers are generally quiet on the issue, while state-level politicians typically fall into one of two camps. Those in conservative districts remain staunchly anti-abortion and support things like Idaho’s “abortion trafficking” law – which criminalizes the act of helping a minor obtain the procedure without parental consent – and criminal penalties for performing abortions. Meanwhile, more centrist Republicans and those in swing states and districts have attempted to offset abortion restrictions with increased access to birth control and extended post-partum Medicaid coverage. Overall, the party will struggle to find a consistent and sustainable stance on abortion access.
How might abortion rights factor into the GOP primary?
Given these difficulties, 2024 presidential candidates are struggling with abortion policy, and most are avoiding the issue altogether. Former UN Amb. and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s strategy of circumventing the question entirely (by pointing out that a federal abortion ban would never pass Congress) is likely the wisest approach a candidate could take, although failing to support national restrictions will alienate prominent pro-life groups and potentially primary voters.
Candidates who do want to address the issue will likely have to take a state-by-state approach. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already demonstrated this strategy by praising his state’s six-week abortion ban on some campaign stops and staying silent on others. However, it will be difficult for him to find a position that will work in swing states and early voting states. According to PRRI, at least half of people in the early primary states of Iowa (61%), New Hampshire (69%), Nevada (80%), South Carolina (50%), and Michigan (66%) think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Is Dobbs more likely to turn out Democrat or Republican voters in 2024?
Abortion access is a winning issue for Democrats. Polling indicates that Democrats have grown particularly pro-access since Dobbs, and a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that Democrats (90%) were more likely than Republicans (73%) to say that their own party represented their views on abortion. Access to the procedure is an increasingly important issue for voters, particularly pro-choice voters, a third of whom say they will only vote for candidates who share their opinion on abortion. All abortion-related ballot initiatives have gone the pro-access way, and Republicans lost key races in the 2022 midterms because of their party’s stance on the issue.
Abortion turned out Democrats in the 2022 midterms and this trend will likely continue in 2024, particularly if the courts rescind the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill mifepristone and if stringent restrictions are still in effect in states across the country. This will be even more true if the Republican nominee openly supports federal abortion restrictions.
How does Dobbs fit into the wider culture-war issues now dominating US politics?
Restricting abortion is part of a broader conservative push in a culture war that many of them believe they have been losing for years. It has manifested itself in right-wing circles online as a backlash against “wokeness,” a term used by the right to describe what they see as a predominantly leftist culture that has taken over American institutions including education and large corporations.While those lawmakers remain in good standing with their base, to remain competitive in more moderate states they will eventually have to soften their stances, particularly on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Most voters across the political spectrum have nuanced views on those issues – polling indicates that many Republican voters think there are too many anti-trans laws and too many restrictions on abortion in red states. It remains unclear how the party will approach culture-war issues over the longer term, but for now, abortion restrictions will continue to weigh on Republicans’ electoral prospects.
Edited by Jonathan House, Senior Editor, Eurasia Group.