Abortion Politics

Analyses of the midterm elections, and the failure of the anticipated “Red wave” have uniformly attributed that result to the potency of the abortion issue.  FiveThirtyEight has reported that in the 38 special elections that followed the midterms, Democrats have over-performed the relevant partisan lean — the relative liberal or conservative history of the area– by an average of 10%. Experts attribute that over-performance to the abortion issue.

A year after Dobbs, a Gallup poll found the issue had lost none of its potency.

A year after U.S. voters attached record-high importance to abortion as an election issue, a new Gallup poll finds it retaining its potency, particularly for the pro-choice side of the debate.

Currently, 28% of registered voters say they will only vote for candidates for major offices who share their position on abortion, one percentage point higher than the previous high of 27% recorded in 2022 and 2019.

A record-low 14% now say abortion is not a major issue in their vote. While similar to last year’s 16%, it is down nine points from the prior low of 23% recorded in 2007.

Results from referenda where voters are faced with a single issue are one thing, but what about the strength of the issue when it is only one element of a candidate’s agenda? Gallup polled that question, too.

Currently, 33% of registered voters who identify as pro-choice versus 23% of pro-life voters say they will only vote for a candidate who agrees with them on abortion. This advantage for the pro-choice side is new since last year.

What accounts for the continued salience of this issue?

For one thing, it’s easy to understand. Republicans and Democrats can argue about the causes and/or levels of inflation, they can debate the effects of “woke-ness,” or the size of the national debt. But debate over who should decide whether a given woman gives birth is straightforward–and it potentially affects every family.

The position of a candidate for public office on the issue is also a recognizable marker for that candidate’s positions on the use or misuse of government power generally.

Back when I was a Republican, the GOP argued for the importance of limiting government interventions to those areas of our common lives that clearly required government action. That position was consistent with the libertarian premise that underlies America’s Bill of Rights: the principle that individuals should be free to make their own life choices, unless and until those choices harm others, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal right to others.

Today’s GOP has utterly abandoned that commitment to individual liberty–it has morphed into a party intent upon using the power of government to impose its views on everyone else. (Actually, if the current ideological battle weren’t so serious, the hypocrisies and inconsistencies would be funny. As a current Facebook meme puts it, today’s Republicans believe a ten-year-old is old enough to give birth, but not old enough to choose a library book.)

As Morton and I wrote in our recent book, the assault on reproductive choice–the belief that government has the right to force women to give birth–is only one element of an overall illiberal, statist and dangerous philosophy. The fundamental right of persons to determine for themselves the course of their own lives and the well-being of their families is the central issue of our time–and it isn’t an issue that affects only women. (According to several reports, even the audience at Republicans’ recent debate failed to show enthusiasm when candidates all supported a federal ban on abortions.)

In the wake of Dobbs, Erwin Chemerinsky wrote:

The central question in the abortion debate is who should decide. Roe v. Wade held that it is for each woman to decide for herself whether to terminate a pregnancy. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization says it is for the legislatures and the political process. The only thing that is certain is that the implications—for women’s lives and for our society—will be enormous and for a long time to come.

We’ve noticed.

Voters may be unaware of the more technical–and worrisome–medical and legal implications of the Dobbs decision, but they clearly understand the difference between candidates who are willing to use the authority of government to impose their own beliefs on those who differ and those who are not. That clarity is the reason the abortion issue has been so powerful a motivator.

Analyses conducted after the midterms and subsequent special elections determined that abortion had been a major driver of turnout in what had historically been low-turnout contests. Whether those increases in turnout will hold in a Presidential election is the question.

The answer will constrain or enhance government power over individuals in areas well beyond reproductive choice.


  1. The main problem is that the life if the child is just that a life. We vary on the prospect of when life begins and many of the new state laws limiting it to five weeks pertain to the heartbeat if a child.
    When Roe was instituted it pertained to the first trimester and arguably the push for abortion to full term regardless of the circumstance fuels the fires. State Supreme Courts on the other extreme are upholding these new laws.
    So there is a choice in most states just more limited.

  2. John S—The main problem with your definition of life is that you grant instant personhood to a zygote and reduce the actual person to a womb or incubator. And the most important thing to understand about the Dobbs decision is that our Supreme Court said abortion has nothing to do with women or children. It’s a states rights issue just like slavery was a states rights issue and for exactly the same reason—women and children and enslaved African Americans were not part of “We the people of the United States” when the constitution and bill of rights were adopted. The 14th Amendment prohibited discrimination based on race, but it did nothing for women or children. Justice Alito says the Roe court got it wrong because it tried to balance the rights of women and children. Using the intent of the framers and the actual text of the constitution, the only right women have is the right to vote. Children do not even have that. Because there are no civil rights or liberties at stake under the bill of rights or 14th amendment, it’s a states rights issue under the 10th amendment. States can pass whatever laws they like about women’s healthcare and reproduction and the court will review them all using “rational basis.” That means the law will have a strong presumption of constitutional validity and the burden of will be on a woman to prove the law serves no possible state interest. These are perilous times for women and children and anyone focusing on fetuses is missing what’s really happening. Advocating for states rights is creates policies that harm every living woman and child, born or unborn. But treating women and children as human beings with human rights is apparently too “woke” for white Christian nationalists. Power to the patriarchy.

  3. John, if as you say, the main problem is that “ the life” is a child, and the debate is when that life starts, you are missing half or more of the point. Who is to make that decision? It is painfully obvious that the government has only decided that life begins at conception regarding abortion. I have not seen any state, offering tax breaks to pre-born children, have you? And if it is the clergy who are to advise the legislature and making his decisions on win, which is obviously unconstitutional, you still have a problem because there is not agreement among religions.
    Let doctors be doctors and let women tend to their own medical decisions. I realize that’s quite a radical position in this day and age, but let’s give it a try. /s/

  4. Let us pray it continues to hold up. I can remember when we went through this before. People may not realize the tragedy that can accompany pregnancy…wanted or not. There are no ‘late-term abortions’, that is a made-up term to frighten people. If a pregnancy is interrupted late-term, something has gone tragically and dramatically wrong with the life of one or the other. These are women and families who have a nursery, who have had a shower held for them, who have dreamed about their baby and have chosen a name. A tragedy. And most women know a woman who has experienced a similar tragedy in their life…as do most men. So let us hope the enthusiasm to grant women full ownership of their medical decisions holds into the voting booth.

  5. Back when Republicans talked about individual rights, they weren’t referring to women’s rights. Their rhetoric was code for eliminating business regulation and promoting states rights. Here is Mr. Reagan’s take: I am pleased to transmit for your immediate and favorable consideration the “President’s Pro-Life Act of 1988.” This important legislation carries out my commitment to protect the rights of unborn children by prohibiting any Federal dollars from being used to fund abortion unless a mother’s life would be physically endangered by carrying the fetus to term.

    Republicans were always, well, Republicans.

  6. The Republicans have fallen into a deep black hole that there’s no escape from of Trumpian authoritarianism. We will see if the country still can next year.

    Of course Democrats have their own black hole to offer. A high performing not too popular because of age President who believes he’s age proof.

    Interesting dilemma.

  7. It’s unfortunate that only 26 states allow for ballot initiatives, as this prevents the general public from having a say on important issues such as abortion. It’s worth noting that this lack of opportunity has resulted in abortion becoming a highly divisive issue that mainly benefits political parties and the wealthy. One potential solution to this problem is to introduce a federal ballot initiative that would allow people to vote on wedge issues at a larger scale. It’s a practical idea that could help to bring about a more fair and transparent process for everyone.

  8. Todd—I also believe we need a ballot initiative in Indiana to combat our gerrymandered legislature. At the same time, I do not believe a woman’s right to bodily autonomy should ever be put to a popular vote. That’s the whole point of having a Constitution.

  9. When the people give the government the right to tell a woman that she cannot have an abortion, they have at the same time given the government the right to someday dictate that a woman shall have an abortion.

  10. Exodus 21: 22-23

    The Mosaic law required life for life if a child died by being prematurely born or the unborn child suffered injuries which caused its death. Not just Israel, but also, the ancient Persians, the Hittites, the Sumerians, all had a death penalty in place for the death of an unborn child.

    Those in ancient Israel who caused the death if it was accidental would have to flee to the cities of refuge. They would be there to escape the avengers of blood. If it was purposeful, in other words the death was on purpose, the death penalty would be leveled right there. (This was the Mosaic Law)

    Of course today we are not bound by the Mosaic law, but, we are bound by our conscience, and being free moral agents, we can make decisions that we’re not allowed before.

    The health and well-being of the pregnant mother is Paramount. And of course there are many moral decisions to consider, incest, rape, and those sort of things, Not just disease or illness of the mother or the child.

    You have people forcing their beliefs on others, and that includes birth control! So, who’s to make those decisions? A ruling government? They’re really are no truth theocratic governments in this world anymore. These decisions have to be deferred to the pregnant woman / mother.

    The hypocrisy of the abortion issue, is that not only do people roil against abortion but also birth control. This makes no sense! And nowhere in Scripture does it prevent birth control or say that it is inappropriate. And that’s in the old or New testament! Male and female birth control would alleviate most of the abortion issue! Then, you get down to health issues or acts of perversion and violence which caused a pregnancy.

    And those issues are a matter of conscience by the woman who is pregnant. No one else has the right to make judgment! That’s the point of free moral agency! That’s a basic human right.

  11. It’s true that the only Constitutional right given to women is the right to vote. There wouldn’t be any question, if the ERA had been adopted. Sadly that didn’t happen. We were told that it wasn’t necessary because women would be covered under the 14th Amendment. Dobbs is proof positive that isn’t the case. So the answer is we have to use that one right we have to insist on our rights as citizens. VOTE!!!

  12. Abortion is not running for President in ’24. Last week’s survey from Pew on “Who has done the best job as President over the last 40 years?” Responses from DEMs/Lean DEMS:

    – Obama 58%
    – Clinton 19%
    – REAGAN 8%
    – Biden 7%

  13. John Peter Sorg. Good point about birth control. It’s also telling that the wrong wing is not trying to put any restrictions on male birth control. Another proof that their real purpose is to keep women subordinate to men by putting men in control of reproduction.

  14. Funny that the same people who didn’t want anyone to tell them they had to wear a face mask during the pandemic think it’s OK to tell me I have to incubate an egg for 9 months and then endure a definitely uncomfortable, usually painful and sometimes fatal birth process! Talk about hypocrisy . . . . sheesh!!!

  15. While I understand that some people believe that “personhood” begins at conception and therefore “killing” a fertilized egg is murder (I guess god does that 70-75% of the time – most fertilized eggs don’t survive until birth), that still boils down to the imposition of a personal religious/philosophical belief on the entire nation.

    John Sorg – I admire your biblical scholarship, but you could also have mentioned that in biblical times, they were treating women, children, and fetuses are “property” and adjusted the laws accordingly. Rabbinic Judaism reads those same passages and comes to different conclusions on a woman’s rights. Your comments on birth control and who should decide are spot on.

    Let me add this quote, which I enjoyed when I came across it:

    It is a truism that the blastocyst has the potential to be a human being. Yet at that stage of development it is simply a clump of cells … An analogy might be what one sees when walking into a Home Depot. There are parts and potential for at least 30 homes. But if there was a fire at Home Depot, the headline isn’t 30 homes burned down. It’s Home Depot burns down.

    Dartmouth neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga at a meeting of the president’s bioethics panel last months in Washington DC quoted in Science, Vol. 295 p. 1637, March 1, 2002

    Now for the other aspect Sheila brought up, the “libertarian” premises of freedom of the Republican Party in her day’s as a Republican.

    There has always been a bifurcation in those libertarian principles. This is based upon the elevation of the “Free Market Economy” to the level of idol worship. Free markets always do it best and government always does it poorly, ergo no regulations. Today I heard a TV ad from some “tech” association saying that unless the government leaves the tech industry alone, the Chinese communist will rule the world — or something like that – big scary ad.

    Free Market libertarian principles are and have been a Republican Party staple. Cultural issues have been easier to sacrifice when expedient (not that Democrats are blameless). When is comes to climate, water pollution, or the tobacco/vaping issue, free-enterprise always beat public health. Racism was embraced when Nixon wooed the Dixiecrats and Reagan wooed the anti-abortion crowd, while promoting the Chicago School of economics.

    But I also remember a saying from my youth, simplified as all slogans are: Democrats want government out of the bedroom and into the boardroom; Republicans want government out of the boardroom and into the bedroom.

    I suspect it just became more overt over time.

  16. Big thanks to: Sheila, Laurie, Jane, Deb, Theresa, Peggy, Wallflower, Sharon, and Kathy! I am a proud adoptee whose birth mother in Washington, DC, made her own decision and gave me the best opportunity for a great life. I landed with fine adoptive parents, too, hitting the jackpot twice!

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