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Are Republicans catching the car on abortion?

A Supreme Court review of a Mississippi abortion law could pave the way for many other state laws that restrict or ban the procedure. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court this week gave Republicans something they have been chasing for a long time: a significant reason to believe it might allow much more restrictive abortion prohibitions moving forward.

A question many are now asking is: Are they the proverbial dog that is finally catching the car? Could the fact that this longtime hypothetical is suddenly coming closer to reality hurt them politically in a country where most people generally support legal abortion?

The short answer is it’s pretty difficult to determine at this early juncture. But something has been curiously missing in the aftermath of the decision: a unified GOP rejoicing over it. While some Republicans have praised the court’s decision to allow Texas to move forward with banning abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy — a prohibition that would cover about 85 to 90 percent of all abortions — the party that has been pushing for the practice to be outlawed has been conspicuously quiet about it, as a whole.

Polling on abortion is routinely confusing, with very different findings depending on how you ask the question. But there are a few relevant ones we can home in on.

The first is that, while the country is generally understood to be about evenly split on abortion, a consistent majority has said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Pew has shown this group outpacing those who say abortion should generally be illegal by at least 20 points in every year since 2018. (The latter group includes those who say it should be illegal with some exceptions.) An NBC News poll conducted last month showed a closer split, but still 54-42 in favor of legal abortions in most cases.

To the extent people correctly view the Texas law as banning the vast majority of abortions there, that would seem to be unpopular — though not necessarily on a huge scale.

When you ask the question a little bit differently, though, laws like Texas’s draw a little more support.

The law is modeled on so-called “heartbeat” bills, which seek to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The Kaiser Family Foundation polled this idea in 2019 and found Americans supported that idea 50 to 44 percent

But that’s apparently without truly knowing what that would mean, practically speaking. The pollster then told supporters that fetal heartbeats are usually detectable at about six weeks, before most women even know they’re pregnant. Opposition rose 12 points, to 56 percent.

Follow-up questions and the specific wording of the questions mean there is some valid debate about precisely what Americans think. But it suggests that the way this issue is defined and internalized by people matters in how it will play.

The issue doesn’t break down as lopsidedly as the GOP’s other professed goal in all of this: to ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case providing the right to an abortion. Polling generally shows Americans oppose that by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. But again, we’re entering territory in which Democrats can plausibly argue that laws the GOP is pushing would effectively outlaw abortions in the vast majority of cases, severely undercutting a popular precedent.

And that’s exactly what they’re doing. As The Post’s team writes, abortion rights advocates say the Texas law “effectively eliminates the guarantee in Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court decisions that women have a right to end their pregnancies before viability, and that states may not impose undue burdens on that decision.”

There’s also the possibility that all of this shifts dramatically now that the outlawing of most abortions in some states is increasingly on the table. For decades, the GOP has pushed this goal, but it was mostly a hypothetical — something few believed would actually come to fruition. With the Supreme Court shifting substantially to the right in recent years, though, it’s suddenly much less hypothetical. The thing Republicans used to rally the base — much like overturning Obamacare — is now something they can grasp at. When that happened with Obamacare, Americans swung more in favor of the law, and the GOP struggled and ultimately failed to make good on its promise.

We’ll have to see what happens moving forward with the Texas law. This was just about blocking it, meaning challenges could still be heard. But federal courts previously blocked such bills before implementation.

It all cues up abortion to be a campaign issue in a way we haven’t seen for a very long time — and on a decidedly different playing field.