Abortion, traditionally condemned as a moral issue in American culture, was elevated to a crime in the 1880s as individual states imposed abortion restrictions. By 1910, abortion was flatly illegal in every state and subject to criminal penalties, with some exceptions to save a woman’s life.
Abortions still took place privately and by underground providers. Unsafe illegal abortions increased the number of maternal deaths. In the turbulent 1960s, with the rise of the feminist movement, anti-abortion laws came under attack by activists who formed the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), reimaging their cause as “women’s reproductive rights” and applying the euphemism, “pro-choice.” Consequently, liberal states abolished or relaxed their anti-abortion laws, while those in more conservative states held their anti-abortion ground and reimaged their cause as “pro-life.”
Gaining power, the anti-abortion movement moved to federalize the issue and prevailed in 1973 when a politically motivated liberal majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, effectively overrode all state laws banning abortion by fabricating an unstated right to privacy in “the penumbra” of the Constitution. Even constitutional scholars and jurists (like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) who support abortion rights have criticized this ruling as contrived and unconstitutional.
The latest chapter in the never-ending abortion battle was last year’s landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson in which a conservative SCOTUS majority overturned Roe v. Wade. That ruling didn’t outlaw abortion, it just returned the matter to each individual state to be legislated in accordance with the values and beliefs of its populace, as is intended in our constitutional republic.
Not content with their win in Dobbs, which still allowed abortion restrictions in their home states, anti-abortion activists and some Republican candidates who imagine a political wind at their backs are pressing for an outright ban, or something close to it, to end abortions nationally. Politically, this is a big mistake. They are badly misjudging the American body politic.
Gallup polling asks Americans where they stand on abortion. 55% self-identify as “pro-choice” and 39% as “pro-life.” On the legality of abortion, 50% say it should be legal under certain circumstances. At the extremes, 35% say it should be legal under any circumstances, but only 13% think it should be illegal in all circumstances. Thus, 85% would not completely outlaw it. The American public is deeply divided on abortion, but most are in the middle. However, 55% oppose legal abortion in the second trimester and 71% oppose it in the third. That should satisfy most Republicans, but some are going too far, pushing for a ban after just 6 weeks. A woman might not even know she’s pregnant at 6 weeks.
Certainly, an individual’s moral beliefs should not be dictated by a national poll. But morality is subjective, and an abortion decision is complex and intensely personal. Abortion is one of those issues that poses irreconcilable differences for passionate advocates on either side, like just wars vs. pacifism, capital punishment, gun control, or physician aid in dying. Women who believe abortion is a reproductive right are not objectively immoral because other people judge them so. Those who regard it as murder allow no room for compromise on moral grounds. But compromise is a necessity as a matter of politics and public policy when the majority of American voters stand solidly in the middle.
In 2022, Republicans and even liberal pundits expected a “wave election” reflecting widespread public disapproval of Biden and Congressional Democrats leading to a GOP Senate majority and a wide House majority. That fell short, in part, by pushback from swing voters with a moderate position on abortion and from much higher turnout from highly motivated pro-abortion activists.
Democrat malfeasance on the economy, inflation, crime, the military, illegal immigration, foreign policy, energy, and more is obvious. President Joe Biden, sadly but unmistakably afflicted with creeping senility would be 86 by the end of his second term. He’d be even more incapable of the presidency than he already is. The 2024 election is crucial and winnable for Republicans. As important as the abortion issue is to some, it’s superseded by other issues vital to our nation’s survival. To prevail, Republicans can’t risk losing a close election at the margin by harnessing themselves to an inflexible nationwide position on abortion that’s far from the public mainstream.
The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Single-issue anti-abortion Republicans should settle for the Dobbs win, for now. If not, they could forfeit the next election and pave the way for federal legislation and a liberal majority on the Supreme Court that would resurrect Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion restrictions even in Republican states.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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