by Megan Burbank
As the “red wave” telegraphed by pundits failed to materialize in this year’s midterm elections, I heard one refrain again and again: Abortion mattered after all.
For many voters, The New York Times reported, it was the only thing that mattered. As voters turned out to reject abortion restrictions, Democrats benefited, and Republicans suffered, bucking conventional wisdom that the party out of power would see major wins, as it typically does in the midterms. There’s validity to this framing: Voters indeed showed up to preserve abortion rights through ballot initiatives in Kentucky, Michigan, California, and Vermont. But the election results aren’t really new evidence that Americans support abortion rights: They’re a confirmation of what we already knew.
Back in July, the Pew Research Center reported that 63% of Americans disapproved of Roe v. Wade’s reversal in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In August, Kansas provided real-life evidence of this when voters rejected a proposed amendment banning abortion.
And while it would be easy to draw a straight line between losing Roe and Americans’ support for abortion rights, it isn’t new. Even before Dobbs was decided, Pew found 61% of Americans said abortion “should be legal in all or most cases.” Only 37% said the opposite, and an even smaller number — just 8% — said abortion should always be illegal with no exceptions. That means anti-abortion policies currently being introduced in abortion-hostile states across the country — some of which don’t include even nominal exceptions for victims of rape and incest — are extreme positions out of step with mainstream public opinion. And if that’s the case, we probably should start acting a little less surprised when voters in states like Kentucky and Kansas affirm abortion rights.
Or when a Democrat like Marie Gluesenkamp Perez wins a race against an anti-abortion Republican backed by Donald Trump. Since 2007, Gluesenkamp Perez’s district has been represented by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, who has voted consistently for anti-abortion policies. Herrera Beutler, who was among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, was defeated in the primary by Joe Kent, who has spoken favorably of Roe v. Wade’s reversal and stated his support for a national abortion ban. But a narrow margin of voters rejected Kent, gravitating instead toward moderate Gluesenkamp Perez, who emphasized her support for reproductive freedom in a TV ad where she cut down a tree with a chainsaw. On the campaign trail, she also disclosed her own experience with abortion care. “I miscarried, and you know what I needed?” she said. “You know what the treatment for a miscarriage is? It’s abortion. You know, without treatment, I might have not been able to have my son.”
Gluesenkamp Perez’s statement, which didn’t keep her from winning her race, aligns with public opinion. But you wouldn’t know that from the way abortion policy is often framed in media accounts, or by the Supreme Court itself. “Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the Court’s opinion on Dobbs. “Some believe fervently that a human person comes into being at conception and that abortion ends an innocent life. Others feel just as strongly that any regulation of abortion invades a woman’s right to control her own body and prevents women from achieving full equality. Still others in a third group think that abortion should be allowed under some but not all circumstances, and those within this group hold a variety of views about the particular restrictions that should be imposed.”
What Alito wrote is true: People do have all kinds of opinions and complicated feelings about abortion. I’m privy to a lot of them. But by listing out each stance without any regard for public opinion, he gives the impression that each has equal weight among American voters, and, as we know from the data — and now from the elections — that just isn’t true. The “profound moral issue” Alito describes is actually not much of a conundrum at all: By and large, it seems Americans understand the complexity of abortion and still support reproductive rights. Among the 63% of Americans who disapproved of Roe’s reversal, I’m sure there are some who consider abortion a tragedy and nonetheless want access to it maintained. I bet that number includes people who have had abortions and donate to abortion funds, and I’m sure it includes those who have miscarried and have no confusion about what a D&C (dilation and curettage) really is.
People have all kinds of feelings about abortion, but to equate even the most intense, complicated feelings a person can have with the desire to make something illegal is quite a leap. It takes some mental gymnastics to get there. And as the data suggests, voters weren’t willing to jump.
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Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.
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