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Activists push both parties toward the extremes on abortion—and away from most voters.

The Democrats’ Roe v. Wade Pitfall

Activists push both parties toward the extremes on abortion—and away from most voters.

By William A. Galston, WSJ

May 10, 2022 12:07 pm ET

The distinct possibility that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade outright has triggered—predictably—a polarized debate that is out of step with the views of most Americans. Both political parties can go too far and—if past is prologue—probably will. Democrats hope to make gains on this issue but could forfeit them if they yield to pressure from activist groups.

Let’s start with the top-line figures. Public opinion on Roe hasn’t budged in the past quarter-century: A solid but not overwhelming majority support the decision, while a staunch minority oppose it. Not surprisingly, recent polls show that a majority of Americans oppose overturning the decision.

But this binary choice conceals more than it reveals about public attitudes on abortion. Few Americans believe that this practice should be legal in all circumstances, and even fewer think that it should be prohibited outright. According to a recent Economist/YouGov survey, only 5% of Americans—including 9% of Republicans and 10% of conservatives—believe that a woman should never be able to obtain a legal abortion. For most Americans, the circumstances are decisive.

Timing is crucial. A recent Yahoo/YouGov poll found that while 61% of Americans believe that abortion should be “generally legal” during the first three months of pregnancy, this figure falls to 32% for the second trimester and 19% for the third, a stance somewhat to the right of what Roe allows. A Pew Research Center survey found that, absent special circumstances, Americans oppose abortion by a 2-to-1 margin after 24 weeks, when the fetus has reached the age of viability.

If timing makes a difference in the public’s response to abortion, so do the reasons for it. Several surveys conducted after the draft Supreme Court decision was leaked reach essentially the same conclusion. A supermajority of Americans would permit abortions in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother, and when there is evidence of serious birth defects. But majorities reject abortions for reasons such as economic privation, not wanting more children, or not wanting to marry the father.

For most Americans, abortion raises deep issues about morality—and about the relationship between morality and law. Pew found that while 47% see abortion as morally wrong in most or all cases, only 22% say that abortion should be illegal whenever it is immoral. Nearly half of all adults—including many who believe that human life begins at conception—think that there are circumstances in which abortion is morally wrong but should nonetheless be permitted by the law.

Many Democrats believe that if the Supreme Court overrules Roe by the end of its current term, the backlash could shift the dynamic of the midterm election in their favor, and there is evidence to support this hypothesis. As recently as last November, according to the Yahoo/YouGov poll, only 4% of Democrats regarded abortion as their most important issue. Now, this figure has soared to 20% (topping even healthcare and climate change) and includes 22% of Democratic women as well as 27% of liberal Democrats.

Although Republicans typically care more about abortion than Democrats, recent developments have turned this on its head. Only 6% of Republican voters cite abortion as their most important issue, and 28% of pro-choice voters say that they will support only candidates who share their views on this issue, compared with 21% for pro-life voters. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats and liberals are more unified around a pro-choice stance than Republicans and conservatives are around the pro-life alternative.

Developments at the state level could raise the salience of abortion even higher. Many states have so-called trigger laws, bans that would take effect soon after the court’s decision. Others—including the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona—have pre-Roe abortion bans that could be enforced as soon as Roe falls.

While many Republican elected officials favor overturning Roe because doing so would “return the issue to the states,” antiabortion activists have signaled their opposition to a patchwork of diverse state statutes. They are pushing instead for an outright national ban on abortion, which 69% of Americans oppose. Public discussion of this prospect will further arouse Democrats and could force Republican candidates to choose between their base and swing voters in contested states and districts.

On the other hand, 42% of Democrats and 54% of liberals agree with the proposition that “abortion should always be legal” and that “there should be no restrictions on abortion,” a stance that three-quarters of Americans reject. When activists morphed the reasonable demand for criminal-justice reform into “Defund the police,” Democrats lost control of the issue. It could happen again.

For Democrats, shifting the focus of the midterm elections away from inflation, crime, and immigration toward abortion and Republican extremism should be a no-brainer—if they can avoid becoming the party of abortion on demand.

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