Analysts of the Republicans’ 2022 election debacle site poor candidate quality and the Democrats’ use of the abortion issue as the main reasons for the Republicans’ worse-than-expected showing at the polls earlier this month. Candidate quality was discussed in last week’s column. So what about abortion? Given that self-identifying pro-choice Americans outnumber pro-life Americans by roughly 2 to 1, can Republicans ever use the issue of abortion rights to their advantage? If so, how?
Throughout the campaign Democrats chose to emphasize their support of abortion rights to detract the voters from Republican attempts to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with inflation, crime, and the border crisis. And for good reason, too. Abortion is the one major policy on which more voters support the Democrats than the Republicans at this time.
Public opinion polls show that about two thirds of Americans opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and that a similar proportion say they’re basically pro-choice. Voters in sapphire-blue California, Michigan, and Vermont added abortion rights to their state constitutions. Voters rejected efforts to remove abortion rights from the constitutions of ruby-red Kansas and Kentucky. Given the public’s basic pro-choice orientation, as reflected in the widespread pro-life defeats at the polls, Republican attempts to limit abortion rights would seem to be problematical at best, and likely to fail, with dire consequences for the pro-life cause and the Republican Party.
But public opinion, whether expressed in polls or by election results, is more complex and nuanced. For example, they show that
- While two thirds of Americans polled say they support Roe v. Wade, which protected abortion rights to the end of the second trimester of women’s pregnancies, only one third of Americans actually support abortion rights to that point (making one wonder whether there’s widespread misunderstanding of what Roe v. Wade actually said);
- 52% of Democrats support some limits on abortion rights, while 83% of Republicans support some exceptions to abortion restrictions;
- 71% of Americans, whether they call themselves pro-choice or pro-life, believe that abortion in some cases should be legal and in other cases illegal (creating a wide range of differing opinions on when abortion should be legal or illegal).
Readers interested in what several of the most sophisticated and respected polls report should check out the Marist poll at https://maristpoll.marist.edu/polls/npr-pbs-newshour-marist-national-poll-abortion-rights-may-2022/, and the Pew Research poll at https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/05/06/americas-abortion-quandary/.
Moreover, the actual election results themselves are more ambiguous. True, whenever abortion questions appeared on the ballot, the pro-choice position prevailed. Yet the election also saw the electoral triumph of pro-lifers who had successfully pushed for abortion restrictions, including governors Mike DeWine of Ohio, our own Greg Abbott, and, of course, Florida’s Mike DeWine. Pro-life Senate candidates in Ohio, Indiana, Florida, and North Carolina also won their races. Check out https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2022/11/28/abortion-on-the-ballot/ for a more comprehensive discussion.
So what’s the best way forward for the Republican Party if it wants to limit abortion rights?
First, it should not attempt to push any further measures to remove from state constitutions any guarantees of abortion rights. A major reason why voters in seemingly anti-abortion Kansas and Kentucky rejected those measures was because the Republicans offered no hint of what, if anything, would replace them. Given the choice between keeping abortion rights in the constitutions, and eliminating them without knowing what would come next, the voters chose to retain the familiar language. You can’t beat something with nothing.
Second, Republicans should make use of the data indicating that Americans support abortion rights during a pregnancy’s first trimester while they begin to withdraw their support thereafter. Governor DeSantis’s anti-abortion policy limits abortion after 15 weeks. Given his landslide re-election victory, it’s evident that the voters, in Florida, at least, found the DeSantis approach palatable. Pro-lifers elsewhere should take note.
Third, if pro-lifers wish to limit abortion earlier than the 15-week mark, they should carve out rational and humane exceptions. They should support the right to abortion in cases of rape and incest, to save the life of the mother, and in instances where severe fetal abnormalities will lead either to stillbirth or to the impossibility of life outside the womb.
Fourth, pro-lifers should take seriously the Democratic jibe that they care only for the first nine months of human life. They should support efforts to strengthen societal support for pregnant women, including the strengthening of appropriate CHIPS, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, as well as the research, development, and implementation of other prenatal, neonatal, and postnatal measures to improve the medical and financial conditions of pregnant women and their families. With or without further limits on abortion rights, these measures may well lead to an actual decline of abortions, which should be the goal of all pro-lifers.
And finally, pro-lifers must support the research, development, and implementation of more effective sex education and birth control programs, with less emphasis on program content and more emphasis on program outcomes. The best programs should be considered are those that significantly reduce the incidence of unwelcomed pregnancies (and hence the demand for abortions, as well as stds.
Since 1980, when Ronald Reagan forged the relationship between the Republican Party and the Christian Right, making the GOP the party of family values in opposition to abortion, the Republicans have run the risk of losing support, offices, and elections on account of its views. A proactive Republican approach, promoting rational and humane approaches to limiting abortion while working within the limits of pro-choice oriented public opinion, should maximize whatever realistic results can be attained by pro-lifers, while minimizing the costs to the GOP.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.