Opinions on abortion tend to move slowly, if at all. While there are nuances in public sentiment involving policy and legal complexities related to the issue, for most people the overall topic is something about which they’ve pretty much decided how they feel — that is, until we enter a period of potential change, when it gets thrust to the forefront of the national debate.
That has been happening lately with the passage of laws in Republican-run states attempting to restrict or virtually ban it outright. Which may be why we’re seeing poll results such as this:
Support for legal abortion stands at its highest level in more than two decades according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, even as numerous states adopt restrictions that challenge the breadth of rights established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
The Post-ABC poll finds a 60 percent majority who say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 55 percent in a 2013 Post-ABC poll, and tying the record high level of support from 1995. The latest survey finds 36 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, also tying a record low.
This poll asked the question in a couple of ways, and I want to point to this result:
So 73 percent of the public either want to keep abortion access as it is now or make abortions easier to obtain. Only 24 percent say they should be harder to get, which is the position the Republican Party has not only held for a long time but is also ready to put into law.
As it is, at this point in many places around the country, the status quo is terrible. Right now there are six states with just a single clinic that provides abortions, and in many states women are required to navigate an obstacle course of restrictions and humiliations before being allowed to have an abortion. But it’s safe to say that until they need one, most people probably aren’t aware of what kinds of restrictions on abortion are written into the laws of their state. What they do know is that abortion is legal now, but it might not always be.
And while this broader movement in public opinion isn’t huge, it does suggest that people are becoming aware of what’s actually in the offing in this age of minority Republican rule. And it makes clear that Republican efforts to turn public opinion have failed.
That might surprise you if you’ve watched President Trump and other Republicans gleefully spread preposterous lies about abortion, such as the idea that women routinely decide on their way to the hospital to give birth that they’d rather have an abortion instead, and then some doctor delivers their baby and kills it. “The baby is born," Trump says, “They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully, and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby."
That despicable blood libel is so shocking that it’s natural to assume it has affected people deeply. But in truth, the only ones he convinces are probably those who already want to eliminate abortion rights.
Yet even if those people are a decided minority of the public, they may get their way. Because a president elected by a minority of voters appointed Supreme Court justices who were confirmed by a Senate majority elected by a minority of voters, and those justices will either overturn Roe v. Wade outright or leave it nominally in place while eviscerating it to the point where it becomes meaningless.
It’s possible that those justices — or at least one of them, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — will hesitate when one of the many abortion cases currently in the pipeline reaches the Supreme Court. They might realize that overturning Roe would be a political disaster for Republicans, no matter how much the party wants it to happen. They might conclude that the status quo, in which abortions are somewhere between difficult and impossible to get (especially for poor women) in red states but more widely available in blue states, is something they can live with, and not worth risking a backlash at the polls.
They might. Or they might conclude that this is the last chance they’ll have for who knows how long to strike Roe dead, so they should take the opportunity no matter the cost.
We won’t know for sure until they start deciding those cases. But Democrats are already becoming alarmed: In this poll, 71 percent of Democrats said abortion was a very important issue or one of the most important issues in deciding their vote for president; for Republicans, the number was 57 percent. Turns out there’s nothing like a potential disaster to wake you up to the importance of the Supreme Court.