The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Those radical antiabortion fantasies? They’re already imploding.

Abortion rights protesters in San Francisco. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Republicans and their allies in the antiabortion movement were flush with excitement. Now that conservatives have been unshackled from Roe, how far could abortion restrictions extend? They let their imaginations, and their draft legislation, run wild.

Those aspirations have not changed, but the political situation has. And there’s evidence that efforts to push extreme legislation at the state level have tapered off, as the most radical designs have run headlong into a wall of public opinion.

Some results from the Marquette University Law School poll show just how deep opposition runs to more extreme antiabortion proposals:

  • 90 percent of respondents say the victims of rape or incest should be able to get an abortion if they become pregnant; 81 percent of Republicans agree.
  • Only 18 percent of respondents — and only 26 percent of Republicans — say a state should be able to bar women from traveling to another state to obtain an abortion.
  • 76 percent of respondents say states shouldn’t be able to stop women from getting out-of-state prescriptions for medication abortions; 60 percent of Republicans agree.

Similarly, a recent Quinnipiac poll found 85 percent of respondents saying rape and incest victims should be able to get abortions.

To a greater degree than expected in June, Republicans are finding themselves divided on how far their abortion laws should go. It’s true that in more than a dozen conservative states, abortion is now illegal even for rape and incest victims. But nonetheless, there’s been a dramatic shift.

Just after Roe fell, antiabortion activists were dreaming big, mulling constitutional amendments, bans on seeking abortions in other states, prosecutions of people who aided those quests, and restrictions on mailing or receiving abortion pills. Now many such proposals have been quietly shelved.

Even in conservative South Carolina, Republicans backed off a proposed ban that didn’t have rape and incest exceptions. The idea of stopping women from traveling circulated excitedly among activists, but no such ban has passed a state legislature. Now few Republicans will suggest it.

And when it comes to medication abortions, those are implicitly or explicitly covered in many bans, but it’s often unclear whether anyone would face punishment for them since most bans say women seeking abortions won’t face legal consequences. Legislators haven’t gone further to crack down on what women can get through the mail.

Meanwhile, Republican candidates have scrubbed websites of extreme abortion rhetoric and scrambled to portray themselves as moderates on the issue. When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) unveiled a bill that would ban abortions nationally after 15 weeks of pregnancy, his colleagues bolted.

Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll, notes that the fall of Roe fundamentally shifted the dynamic. It suddenly opened the possibility that states actually could pass various draconian abortion restrictions.

But, notes Franklin, “when states were talking about the most restrictive legislation, the public was not ready to go there.”

“For nearly 50 years, you could talk about outright bans, but it wasn’t a practical issue as long as Roe was in effect,” Franklin said. “Absolutist rhetoric, when it wasn’t a practical matter, gave you a way to signal how strongly pro-life you were to a pro-life Republican base."

By contrast, Franklin said, now “legislatures are faced with the dilemma of whether they follow through.”

Antiabortion activists long placed faith in an incremental strategy. They would advocate limits that might fit within the rubric of Roe — bans on late-term abortions, burdens on women, restrictions on doctors — to erode the abortion right while awaiting the day of Roe’s demise. Then when that was accomplished, a rush of new restrictions would follow, eliminating abortion entirely.

But an incremental strategy only works if the public accepts the last thing you did, so it can then be persuaded to agree with the next thing. And right now, the public is extremely displeased with what the right has done and wants to go back.

There are other signs cultural conservatives might have been a tad hubristic. After Donald Trump gained among Hispanics in 2020, and Republican Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial contest, some conservatives talked about a real realignment. Surely a working-class cultural conservatism that attacks Democrats’ allegedly radical goals for police departments, schools and families might shift non-college non-White voters their way.

But the latest New York Times-Siena College poll of Latinos, at least, finds little evidence of this. While it shows that Democrats must redouble efforts to win Latino votes, solid majorities of Latinos view Black Lives Matter favorably and hold mainstream Democratic positions on abortion. Nor have Republicans improved their standing among non-college Latinos.

And as Ron Brownstein points out, polling illustrating the strength of Democratic Senate candidates among Latinos casts doubt on visions of a “fundamental values-based realignment” of Latinos to the GOP.

So while conservatives won a monumental victory in the culture war by getting Roe overturned, the radical future they continue to pine after appears to be on hold.

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