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Opinion If the GOP succeeds in destroying Roe v. Wade, how will it handle the fallout?

A women's rights sign lies on the ground outside the Texas state Capitol in Austin on Sept. 1. (Sergio Flores For The Washington Post)

Last week, after the Supreme Court refused to block a Texas law that makes it functionally very difficult to offer abortion services in the state, people began to ponder in earnest what a post-Roe future might look like. There’s a lot of uncertainty about which states would allow abortion, and under what circumstances, if the Supreme Court doesn’t merely limit the scope of Roe v. Wade but goes all the way and overturns it. There’s also a major political question at play: After decades of reframing the GOP as The Party That Will Destroy Roe, what might the GOP do for an encore?

A line of wistful, wishful thinking among Democrats has it that pro-lifers will ultimately regret their success, as a backlash brews among moderate Republican women, and evangelicals’ fundraising and organizing energy dries up. In fact, the gender divide on abortion is modest, while the ideological divide is deep. And there will be plenty of energy yet required — and engendered — by state-level fights over what abortion law should be. Which actually does present a clear political risk for conservatives in a post-Roe world: that their focus on the courts, while necessary to reach their goal, may have left them unprepared for the different sort of politics that will be required once the justices have spoken.

Even if there is one day a court ruling that the life of a fetus deserves constitutional protection under the 14th Amendment, the outcome in the Mississippi abortion case that the Supreme Court agreed to hear next term is likely to focus on narrower questions such as whether governments can ban abortions before viability. If the court does overturn or narrow Roe, the issue will thus be thrown back to the states. For the first time in decades, state legislators would have to decide what abortion policy should look like without the backstop of Supreme Court rulings that made it difficult to ban abortion access before the point of viability.

Unfortunately, the abortion politics of both parties have been centered either around courts or strategic legislating around court decisions. In that sort of fight, the prizes tend to go to the most passionate and persistent, especially those who can articulate extremely clear, principle-driven and internally coherent views. But when it moves to legislatures, that will change. On a high-profile issue followed closely by voters, such fights have to be won by appealing to the middle — and, outside of the activist base, most people’s views of abortion tend to be a context-dependent and contradictory muddle.

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The problem this creates for politicians can be seen in the horrifically inept responses that periodically issue from right-wing politicians when asked about abortion in cases of rape or incest. For many who reason about abortion from first principles, this question is moot: A life is a life, and how it was created is irrelevant. Many people very much disagree, and politicians end up ad-libbing nonsense when they’re forced to square normie intuition with activist purity.

Post-Roe, Republicans who want to outlaw abortion will need to come up with better answers, and accept political responsibility for the consequences. The teenage girls raped by their stepfathers, parents with anencephalic fetuses and women prone to life-threatening complications . . . all will show up sobbing on cable news. And what will be done for their unwanted babies? Are Republicans going to support more generous welfare and disability programs?

That’s not to say that Republicans are the dog that caught the car, as one popular line has it. Republicans who believe that abortion is murder, or close to it, will be rightly pleased if the Supreme Court clears the way for more restrictions. They just also have to be prepared for what comes next. They’ll need to refocus activist energy on states rather than sexier national races — and also prepare those activists for the inevitable compromises they’ll have to make when writing abortion law becomes a practical problem rather than a symbolic gesture.

Something similar could be said for Democrats. “Abortion should be legal right up to the delivery table” isn’t much more popular than “make incest victims bear the child” — as Democrats have discovered when left-leaning politicians made ham-handed attempts to defend the purist positions demanded by their own activist base. Democrats, too, prefer promulgating gauzy principles — “a woman’s right to choose” — rather than the actual details of allowing elective abortions well into the second trimester.

Just as Republicans will have to figure out how to move beyond “End Roe,” Democrats will have to build a party that can operate beyond “Defend It.” The party that wins that fight may be the one that most quickly persuades its activist cadres to let the party move toward the messy, murky territory where the rest of the country lives.

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