A 30,000-Foot View of the Abortion Ruling’s Political Fallout
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling quashing Roe v. Wade has shaken the country and moved the main battle over abortion rights from the courtroom to the political arena.
To get a broader understanding of what’s going on, I spoke with Kate Zernike, a national correspondent for The New York Times who focuses on the abortion debate. Her new book, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT and the Fight for Women in Science,” will be published by Scribner in February.
Here’s our conversation, slightly edited for clarity and length:
This Supreme Court abortion ruling was long overdue after Judge Amy Comey Barrett’s ruling confirmation in the fall of 2020 confirmed the majority of conservatives. However, did something surprise you?
As much as I knew this decision would be earth-shattering, especially to abortion rights advocates, it still struck me how much it shocked them, how widespread and persistent the anger had been over the past week.
Not because I thought people didn’t care about abortion rights. But I’ve been following this issue for a long time, and it’s always been true that the anti-abortion side was much more motivated and passionate than the abortion rights side.
I think of something a health care provider in Missouri said to me: People think about abortion when they’re asked and when they need one. They weren’t necessarily going to vote on the issue, or fight to preserve the right to abortion. It now looks like there may be more fighting going on than I expected.
In November, a senior official in President Biden’s administration confessed that he was afraid. This person was almost as concerned about the possibility of violence from the radical left as from the radical right. What kinds of trends and dynamics do people in positions of authority worry about your reporting?
I saw most of the concerns about violence come from Republicans. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin warned, especially threats against the judges, and Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley demanded that the FBI and Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate threats of rioting and violence.
In fact, reports of violence have been very isolated. Among Democrats and leaders of abortion rights groups, the debate is about how best to talk about abortion.
Younger leaders, in particular, are angry at what they see as too many Democrats’ compromises on abortion. They want to talk about an absolute, inviolable right to abortion: you have to trust women to make their own decisions, they say, and any infringement takes away women’s autonomy and equal rights.
From Opinion: The End of Roe v. Wade
Commentary from Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
But the anti-abortion side has played that skillfully to accuse Democrats of wanting “abortion on demand” — anytime and under any circumstances, right up to birth.
There is little evidence that women are so blasé about abortion, or that abortions often happen late in pregnancy. Most abortions take place in the first trimester. But it’s an effective slogan, and it goes against what polls show Americans want, which is for abortion to be possible, with some restrictions.
Many on the left, including some Democratic attorneys general, show a growing willingness to reject the court’s legitimacy on a range of issues, including abortion. How pervasive do you think such sentiments are at the top of the Democratic Party, and where could all of this be going?
I know there are people who say, Extend the court. But I’ve heard little about this from abortion rights organizations in the days since the court’s ruling. Some of them may have hoped that the court would not completely quash Roe, holding to Chief Justice John Roberts’ position that only Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban would be enforced.
But these groups very quickly switched to a new strategy to fight abortion laws based on state constitutions, and campaign for or against ballot initiatives in Michigan, Kansas, and elsewhere that would enshrine or remove the state’s constitutional protections for abortion. The groups are focused on what they can do immediately to ensure that women can still have abortions.
Much of the fallout from the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling is the cascade of so-called trigger laws that have been enacted in several states, including Missouri. What do we need to know about the battles over those laws?
As of the weekend after the Dobbs decision, we saw a series of lawsuits challenging abortion bans in state courts because the bans violated state constitutions. That’s the first line of defense, and it’s had at least temporary success in places like Florida and Louisiana.
Abortion rights groups are confident that many state constitutions offer even more protections for abortion than the federal constitution, which was the backstop in Roe’s half-century.
That is not true in all states. In Louisiana, for example, the state constitution says there is no right to abortion. The lawsuit against the trigger ban there is therefore about buying time, to keep clinics open as long as possible.
There has been much discussion about how the abortion issue could affect the midterm elections, and I wonder if some of the coverage and commentary have underestimated the angry response we are now seeing from abortion rights advocates. What is your sense of how that anger is being channeled toward productive political ends, from the perspective of Democrats?
How this affects the interim tests is the most critical political question. I go back to what that provider in Missouri said to me and wonder, will people think about this matter now?
As I reported last weekend, in the late Roe era, the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America questioned women about what it would take to come out to support Roe, and they always said, “If it were destroyed .”
We are now at that moment. Polls show that the majority of Americans, especially women, disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision.
Are they angry enough to do something about it? In addition to the lawsuits and voting initiatives I mentioned, there are Democratic-aligned groups like Vote Pro Choice and the States Project that say, Democrats haven’t recognized that state and local elections matter because they’ve been too focused on Congress and the White House.
These groups are trying to flip state lawmakers like Republicans did in 2010, electing judges and commissioners who will play a role in determining whether these state bans will be upheld in court and then enforced. In many cases, winning the legislature is an uphill climb, but in states like Michigan, the groups believe they can seize power by turning just a few seats.
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