Dana Sweeney chants against Alabama's abortion ban at a rally in Montgomery on Tuesday. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Opinion writer

In some respects the abortion debate over the past 50 years has been a fight for the ability to call the other side radical, anti-life (the fetus or the woman) and unrealistic. Republicans figured out how to zero in on abortion clinic regulations (Who doesn’t want safe clinics?) and the small percentage of late-term abortions (You want to abort a day, a week before birth?!). Thanks to ham-handed Virginia Democrats, Republican seized the upper hand in the reasonableness fight when it made the issue about “infanticide,” a Trumpian lie but an effective talking point.

Now, however, Georgia, Alabama and a raft of other states want to ban abortion outright. Georgia would ban it before some women know they are pregnant; Alabama would allow no exception for rape, incest or serious bodily harm (only the woman’s actual death would do as an exception). To put it mildly, Republicans have blown right through the reasonableness test and now qualify as downright cruel.

Consider that sponsors of the Alabama bill would actually approve a rape and incest exception — after the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade. In the meantime, however, Alabama lawmakers are willing to make pawns of rape and incest victims, crafting the most extreme measure possible to set up the case to overturn Roe. The most vulnerable girls and women, in some cases minors, will be used as fodder in the culture wars. If nothing else, one hopes that the abject cynicism and bullying of sexually abused girls and women raise the ire of the courts.

Could this backfire on Republicans in these states and elsewhere when voters demand to know their views on such legislation? Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), are you in favor of forcing Texas rape victims to drive hundreds of miles for an abortion or be branded criminals? Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who ran in 2014 insisting he wasn’t part of any war on women, will have to answer the same kind of question.

Then there is the presidential election. Democrats no doubt will cherish the moment when President Trump is asked in the debates if he wants to criminalize abortion for rape and incest victims, and if not, what he’s prepared to do to protect such victims. (In the 2016 campaign, he first said he was in favor of punishing women, then reversed his position in the face of storm of criticism.)

Republican zealots in these states are badly out of touch with the views of voters around the country. Consider that in October 2018, Pew Research found that “a 58% majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.” However, even among Republicans opinion was divided. “Among Republicans, 58% of the party’s moderates and liberals say abortion should legal in all or most cases, compared with just 29% of conservative Republicans.”

At a time Republicans have lost support in record numbers from college-educated voters, this issue is likely to make matters worse:

Support for legal abortion is more common among those with higher levels of education. Those with postgraduate (77%) and bachelor’s (69%) degrees are more likely than those with less education to support legal abortion in most or all cases. Adults with no more than a high school education have mixed views on the issue — while about half (48%) say abortion should be legal in at least most cases, roughly as many 47% say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

White evangelical Protestants continue to be opposed to abortion in all or most cases, with 61% saying it should be illegal in all or most cases, while 34% say it should be legal in at least most cases. The share of white evangelicals who say it should be illegal in all or most cases has dipped slightly since last year (from 70% in June 2017).

While women and men do not have significant differences on abortion, remember that women and especially college-age women vote Democratic, and increasingly so. In 2016, Trump managed to still get 44 percent of percent of white college-educated women. By 2018, that number was down to 39 percent. Given the correlation between education and views on abortion as well as college-educated women’s departure from the Republican Party, it’s logical to predict that the Trump GOP’s problem with women voters and women college-educated women specifically will intensify in 2020.

And keep in mind as a percentage of the electorate there are even more white women college graduates (20 percent of the electorate in 2016) than white male non-college graduates, Trump’s key group (16 percent in 2016). Add in nonwhite college grads (another 13 percent of the electorate) who already vote heavily Democratic, and you’ll see Trump’s GOP is playing a self-defeating game of subtraction.

In the meantime, Trump is intensifying anger among Democrats, many college-educated women and even pro-choice Republicans (who have stuck it out this long). That’s the formula that delivered the House majority to Democrats in 2018.

Read more:

Joyce White Vance: Alabama’s abortion bill is not about Alabama. It’s about tossing Roe v. Wade.

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s why women have fled the GOP

Paul Waldman: Its frontal assault on Roe v. Wade shows that the GOP understands power

Paul Waldman: Republicans have stopped pretending on abortion

David S. Cohen and Carole Joffe: Supporters of abortion rights should be energized, not demoralized