Why Republicans should stop talking about Roe v. Wade

January 22, 2013

It's hard to get 70 percent of Americans to agree on much of anything these days. But, for the first time, one of those things is Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

According to a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, released on the law's 40th anniversary Tuesday, fully seven in 10 Americans say they would oppose the overturning of the Supreme Court decision. And perhaps more remarkably, 57 percent say they "feel strongly" that it should not be overturned.

In other words, politically speaking, it's time for Republicans to stop talking about Roe v. Wade.

The poll also shows for the first time that a majority of Americans (54 percent) support abortion rights. And a new Pew Research Center poll largely confirms those findings, showing 63 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe, while 29 percent would like to see it scrapped. Even Republicans are split down the middle, with 48 percent opposed to overturning Roe and 46 percent who support overturning it.


While the polls on abortion haven't shifted as swiftly to the left as they have on an issue like gay marriage, there has been a leftward shift. A decade ago, a Bloomberg poll similar to the NBC/WSJ poll showed 43 percent supported abortion rights, while a Gallup poll showed 60 percent opposed overturning Roe.

The trend line is clear: Americans are becoming more accepting of abortion rights.

What's more, even many opponents of abortion now oppose overturning Roe, as evidenced by the split in the GOP from the Pew poll and the graphic above.

"I think what you find is many who are pro-life are not about overturning Roe v. Wade but trying to minimize the numbness of the decision," said one GOP pollster, granted anonymity to speak candidly. "This isn’t about Roe v. Wade. We’re to a point where that’s no longer a point of the discussion; it’s about what’s acceptable."

GOP consultant Tyler Harber agrees, saying Republicans can still win the war against abortion without going after Roe.

"The passage of economic and social policies that could significantly reduce the abortion rate would undoubtedly earn higher public support than seeking to reduce access to abortion," Harber said. "This shift in strategy could repair the social conservative movement's national image and allow them to effect larger change on the life issue."

As they are with issues like gay marriage and illegal immigration, though, Republicans are now caught between their base and the general public.

While much of the GOP base remains firmly anti-abortion rights and those most passionate conservatives would like to see Roe overturned, Republicans need to recognize more broadly that overturning Roe is no longer sound politics.

What's more, the party has already begun to lose ground on issues concerning women's rights. Over the last two years, Republicans have struggled with issues like contraception, rape and "transvaginal ultrasounds" -- so much so that a pollster at last weekend's Republican retreat went so far as to urge lawmakers to stop talking about rape altogether.

Abortion isn't as fraught an issue as the ones listed above, but it's still a wedge issue that is increasingly working against the GOP and risks turning off female voters, who stuck by President Obama more than a lot of other demographics in 2012.

The problem with abortion isn't so much that Republicans are on the wrong side of the issue -- the NBC/WSJ poll aside, most polls show about half of America supports abortion rights and half oppose them, and many who support them still would like to limit abortions -- it's that merely talking about the issue opens the door for the party's more conservative elements to do unhelpful things (see: Akin, Todd).

But just because moving beyond Roe might be sound politics doesn't mean the GOP will do it. As we have noted many times, the GOP base is driven much more by principles than by compromise. And just because the country has embraced Roe doesn't mean the GOP will accept it. Indeed, many Republicans view overturning Roe as a moral imperative.

"Republicans need to stop pushing it, but I really don't think their right flank will let them," said one senior Democratic strategist. "Clearly, society is changing right before our eyes in a way that is historic with regards to women's rights, gay rights, etc."

The question is whether the GOP will allow their party to accept the political realities of the abortion issue.

It isn't so much a big issue right now, especially with economic issues still dominating the political debate and without the possibility of a Republican-appointed Supreme Court justice shifting the balance of the court for the next four years.

But such a charged issue will always be part of the political debate, in one way or another.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Sean Sullivan · January 22, 2013