Everyone who cares about abortion has reason to be genuinely alarmed right now. Pro-choice Democrats are watching Republicans put new abortion restrictions into place in a variety of red states, including a new Alabama law that bans almost all abortions, even in the cases of rape and incest. And pro-life Republicans are watching Democrats in blue states like Illinois, Vermont and Nevada pass laws that expand access to abortion rather than playing defense. Former vice president Joe Biden, the polling leader in the Democratic primary, recently dropped his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment, a provision that keeps federal funds from being spent on to abortion.
Neither party is responding to a sea change in public opinion on this issue. For decades, Americans have consistently disagreed with both the extreme pro-choice and pro-life positions. Most Americans are generally against banning all abortions, support abortion in the first trimester and want women to have the right to abortion if they were raped or their health is in serious danger. But most Americans are uncomfortable with totally unrestricted access to abortion, especially in the second or third trimester. And abortion was not the most important issue to nearly all voters in the 2016 or 2018 election.
Yet these new, highly intense fights over reproductive rights were a long time in the making. While public opinion on abortion has mostly stayed steady, the major parties have been steadily and deliberately choosing to move away from each other on the issue for decades. The confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice and the decreasing Democratic reliance on conservative white voters all helped pushed us to this point. But this moment never would have arrived without the decades of argumentation and evolution on policy that preceded it.
The modern politics of abortion would have been unrecognizable 45 years ago. At that time, the major parties were relatively split on reproductive rights. In 1976, Jimmy Carter and then-President Gerald Ford held somewhat similar positions on abortion. And pro-life and pro-choice voters didn’t start to sort themselves into partisan camps until the mid-1980s.
But over time, pro-life and pro-choice forces started consolidating behind the major parties.
In the 1970s, many Republicans were still pro-choice. But over time, pro-life politicians, often powered in part by socially conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, began to win political victories within the GOP.
In 1976 and 1980, Republicans chose generally pro-life nominees in Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and paired them with running mates — Nelson A. Rockefeller and George H.W. Bush — who held different positions. But by 1988, Reagan’s three-legged stool of fiscal conservatism, foreign policy hawkishness, and social and cultural conservatism defined the party’s main ideology. And as vice president, Bush moved away from the more moderate positions he held previously and toward a more clearly antiabortion stance.
The cycle was locked in: Evangelical voters became more Republican, and Christian candidates such as Pat Robertson in 1988 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 started to gain more traction in GOP primaries. Pro-life voters eventually helped George W. Bush win the White House. And Bush, a practicing Christian himself, delivered for them. He signed a ban on a procedure referred to by pro-life activists as partial-birth abortion; banned aid to international health-care organizations who discuss or advocate abortion; and put John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Some high-profile Republicans such as Condoleezza Rice were more libertarian in their abortion views, but the Bush presidency was on balance a win for pro-life forces.
By 2016, the pro-life wing of the GOP was powerful enough to influence even Donald Trump. During the presidential primary, Trump had a very loose grasp of the mainstream pro-life positions: He received condemnation from pro-life groups for saying women who obtain abortions should be punished, a departure from the movement’s strategy of portraying women as equal victims of abortion procedures. And he had a history of making pro-choice statements.
But as he got closer to clinching the nomination and the presidency, pro-life voters and activists pulled Trump toward their position, eventually guiding him toward conservative Supreme Court nominations. This is no small feat: On Trump’s signature issues, including immigration and trade, he forced Republicans to move toward the views he holds. But pro-life voters got Trump to move toward them, even if his positions on this issue might not be sincerely held.
Democrats followed a similar but not identical trajectory. While Republicans were nominating Reagan in 1980, Democrats were deciding whether they would renominate Jimmy Carter, who presided over long lines for gas at home, stagflation and a hostage crisis in the Middle East — and who has consistently described himself as personally opposed to abortion — or give the reins to the more resolutely pro-choice Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). Kennedy ultimately lost. But feminist activists who were in his camp managed to push the party left on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. In 1984 and 1988, Democrats again nominated solidly pro-choice candidates. Maybe more significantly, Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro, a strongly pro-choice woman, as his running mate in the 1984 campaign.
The party continued to move left on this issue. In 1986, there was room for Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, to say that he opposed abortion and government funding of the procedure. But by 1992, his position had changed, and the Democratic National Committee blocked Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey Sr., a pro-life Democrat who refused to endorse Clinton, from speaking at the convention that year, though it’s unclear which of those positions mattered more to the committee. Clinton later coined the line that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” while still vetoing the ban on the abortion procedure that would be signed into law under President George W. Bush, a move only the Great Triangulator could pull off.
And Democrats continued to make choices that pulled them left in the 2000s and 2010s. In 2009, 64 Democratic House members attempted to put the Stupak-Pitts amendment into the Affordable Care Act, which would have basically applied the Hyde Amendment’s ban on using federal funds to provide abortion to Obamacare. But most of the members of Congress who supported the amendment have either retired or lost their seats. It’s hard to imagine 64 Democrats in the current Congress, especially after the mostly Democratic “pink wave” of 2018, doing the same. And in the 2016 presidential election, Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, who has been more vocally pro-choice than previous Democratic nominees, her husband included.
Voters have noticed these changes and sorted themselves into parties accordingly — or, in some cases, adopted their party’s stance on the issue. There are still a solid number of pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans in the electorate, but the divisions have sharpened. And both activists and politicians generally know who is on which side and have picked a team accordingly.
So the current abortion fights shouldn’t seem surprising. What is interesting about this moment, though, is the calculations that partisans on each side are making. When the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a conservative pro-life front that had been forming for decades saw the opportunity to challenge Roe v. Wade and is trying to take advantage of it by passing laws that can serve as plausible test cases. Similarly, Democrats won the popular vote in 2016 with a platform that called for eliminating bans on federal funding of abortion, and they sent numerous pro-choice women to the House in 2018. The pro-life and pro-choice forces have sorted themselves into the ranks of the two parties, and recent years have given both reason to believe they can finally score a decisive victory to protect abortion permanently, or make it illegal forever.
But the strange part of this alignment is that neither Republican nor Democratic voters unanimously want the total victory that activists on both sides are agitating for. Republicans are generally pro-life and Democrats are mostly pro-choice, but there’s real dissent among the rank-and-file voters in both camps. Our constantly shifting status quo may be unnerving to the most engaged pro-choice and pro-life advocates. But whatever they might say, the average U.S. voter wants a negotiated compromise in the abortion wars.