Romney v. Roe v. Wade

September 10, 2012

Mitt Romney's Obamacare comments on "Meet the Press" on Sunday have received no shortage of attention. There's another remark he made, though, that also deserves some consideration: his preference that the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. 

"It would be my preference that [the Supreme Court justices] reverse Roe v. Wade and therefore return to the people and their elected representatives the decisions with regards to this important issue," he said.

That's Romney's preference, but its not one necessarily shared among abortion opponents.

In the abortion rights movement, there is some hesitancy to endorse Roe's reversal exactly because it would return this issue to the states. That would allow liberal states to still provide widespread abortion access, much like they did prior to the Supreme Court decision.

As the Guttmacher Institute points out, "The Supreme Court did not 'invent' legal abortion." Before the landmark decision, in 1973, states set their own laws on the legality of abortion. New York, California and a handful of other states had relatively expansive abortion laws that provided widespread access. Many women would travel from out of state, especially to New York, to terminate a pregnancy.

If the Supreme Court were to go overturn Roe v. Wade, experts on both sides of the issue expect that the United States would  revert back to a similar situation. More-liberal states would make abortion available; more conservative states would pass bans.

Health economists estimate that, with women traveling to states with legalized abortion, the rate of terminations would fall but by no means plummet. In a recent working paper, Theodore Joyce, Ruoding Tan and Yuxiu Zhang estimate that if 31 states implemented bans, the abortion rate would drop 14.9 percent. That's not nothing — but its still far from eliminating abortion entirely.

That helps explain why the Republican platform is silent on the issue of Roe v. Wade and not taking a stance on whether the Supreme Court ought to overturn the court decision.  “That puts us back to California and New York having very high abortion rates," said James Bopp, who drafted that plank. “That’s something I would totally oppose.”

It's not just Bopp who feels this way: Public opinion data show that not all Americans who identify as "pro-life" would like to see Roe abolished. When Gallup polled on the issue in 2008, it found that half of American voters identified as "pro-life."


A significantly smaller number, however, supported overturning the Roe decision. Here's how it looked in the same year:

There's a lot of concern among abortion rights supporters about what it would mean to go back to pre-Roe abortion access. At the same time, a post-Roe landscape isn't exactly a panacea for abortion rights opponents, as many states would continue with legal access, just as they do today.

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Brad Plumer | September 10, 2012