Why some voters think about abortion as an issue of democracy

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Why some voters think about abortion as an issue of democracy

When asked to rank the most important issues before the midterms, voters rarely put abortion at the top of the list. Instead, it’s usually tucked in somewhere between No. 3 and 5, behind the economy, crime and questions of democracy.

Yet abortion is still clearly on the minds of voters (and of pollsters, who haven’t always even asked about abortion in a midterm year). It’s been a top issue in Democratic ads this campaign cycle.

After the Supreme Court struck down the national right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Democratic prospects for the midterms brightened amid a backlash. If Democrats manage to fend off a “red wave” that would normally be nearly inevitable in President Joe Biden’s first midterm, their success will likely be attributed to that backlash.

While abortion might have been a powerful motivating issue for Republicans pre-Dobbs, now Republicans would rather talk about the inflation, taking advantage of historical trends and Biden’s low approval rating to make the midterms a referendum on Democrats’ economic policies. A not-insignificant minority of Republicans, around 1 in 3, supports some degree of legality. Railing against the economy and crime is much more motivating than engaging in sensitive conversations around gestational limits and exceptions to statewide bans.

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Unlike some issues — say, inflation — abortion doesn’t exactly have a straightforward definition in the minds of voters. For Republicans and Democrats, abortion represents different ideas about morality and equality. Now, big changes to abortion policies across the country are going into effect as Democratic voters worry about the apparatus of democracy.

The long pandemic and the complex economic problems that it brought have shaped politics for the last several years. Even before the Dobbs decision unleashed a new wave of political anger, there was a bipartisan sense among Americans that things were not going well and that democracy was not functioning as it should. A recent poll shows the tension in this issue — according to the New York Times, over 70 percent of registered voters thought democracy was in trouble — but less than 10 percent saw it as the most important issue. For Republicans, the concern is baseless claims of “rigged elections.” For Democrats, polls show a more fluid set of concerns — but party leaders and activists stress minority rule and ballot access.

Understanding the abortion issue as a clear example of concerns over democratic backsliding requires thinking differently about how people vote — not in a zero-sum game that asks whether abortion “matters” in the midterms. Concerns about abortion extend beyond the usual ideas about compromise and common ground, and maybe even outside the usual frameworks about parties and issue positions. The question is how, if at all, it will change the way people vote.

Abortion as democracy

Sociologist Kristin Luker wrote the defining study on abortion attitudes in 1984, speaking with activists on both sides of the issue. She concluded that the difference in views came down to a number of deeply held moral and social questions that don’t have clear answers, including the status of a fetus and different attitudes about motherhood.

More recent work suggests that abortion attitudes are about gender and social questions. Looking at recent polling data, Meredith Conroy and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux found this year that abortion attitudes line up with attitudes about gender and society, shaped by the culture wars that define much of contemporary politics. They argue, “The dividing lines of the abortion debate aren’t just about the morality of terminating a pregnancy. They’re also about views of power. Who has it? Who doesn’t? And who should?”

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That’s a question currently being decided in Indiana, after a state judge blocked an abortion ban passed by the state legislature’s Republican majority. In reviewing a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood and abortion providers, the Indiana judge wrote that the ban might be in violation of the state constitution. Meanwhile, a physician is suing Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita for issuing subpoenas into patients’ private medical histories, calling it a “fishing expedition” to target abortion provides.

The denial of access to abortion for underage rape victims, the presence of lawyers to make decisions about miscarriage care — these seemed at once like cruel metaphors for the loss of democracy. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz captured this set of fears by declaring in a debate that abortion was between a woman, her doctor and local political leaders. Women now talk about legal concerns surrounding miscarriage care when talking about abortion law.

The courts

The way the Dobbs decision happened represents a range of concerns for the “resistance” crowd in U.S. politics.

The composition of the Supreme Court has been heavily influenced by Donald Trump — and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). After refusing to hold a confirmation hearing so close to the next election for Barack Obama’s 2016 nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, Senate Republicans quickly confirmed Trump’s nominee in 2017. But when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died shortly before the 2020 election, Republicans still held a confirmation hearing — holding an inconsistent rule about who gets to appoint justices in an election year.

By 2018, after nominating Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy and Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg, Trump had appointed one-third of the current court.

These circumstances matter for democracy, as well. Trump won the presidency according to the rules of the game, but there’s no getting around the fact that he lost the popular vote, clearly and by a decent margin (a fact that distinguishes him from most popular-vote-loser presidents in the past). He appointed three justices due to Senate Republicans playing hardball, and now these justices make important decisions without much in the way of a mechanism for accountability.

The combination of factors makes this different from past instances in which the court has come under attack for legislating from the bench. The Brown v. Board of Education decision was controversial at the time, met with severe resistance in the South and more subtle resistance in other parts of the country. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “court-packing” plan to hit back when the court defeated his proposals also stirred controversy — and changed the court.

The “unelected” element of the Supreme Court has always been a challenge in American democracy — but two factors were different: the appointment of so much of the court by a minority-rule president and the predictability of the court’s voting on ideological issues.

While some issues defy clear ideological boundaries, on highly salient issues, there are clear conservative and liberal wings, and the Trump justices were selected for their roots in the conservative legal movement.

This is especially true of Barrett, whose socially conservative beliefs make her a particularly jarring replacement for Ginsburg. For those who support abortion rights, the Dobbs decision brought these concerns into starker view than ever.


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States’ rights?

The final element is the connection between the states and democratic backsliding.

State legislatures have primarily been responsible for things like critical race theory bans and “divisive topics” bills that leave educators feeling like they are being monitored. These developments have left a sense that some state governments — which enjoy greater policy authority than the federal government from a constitutional standpoint — are moving in ways that seriously constrain how people live, from educators accused of teaching “divisive” material to, with the end of federal protections to abortion rights, women seeking crucial medical care. These burdens fall on everyone, but they are expected to especially impact people who are already marginalized.

After the Dobbs decision, many important questions came up. With individual states now setting their own abortion policies, the legislative landscape at the state, federal level and even municipal level seemed more important than over. The real dynamics of abortion attitudes in the mass public — beyond a simple “pro-life” or “pro-choice” moniker — attracted new attention.

Notably, polling shows that strong majorities in a number of otherwise very purple states — such as Wisconsin — approved of some abortion rights and disapproved of the court’s decision. Last week’s Marquette poll showed that while a majority of the state held those views, the races between the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor and Senate remained tight. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer points out, the way state legislatures have been gerrymandered has allowed Republican supermajorities to pass restrictive laws that don’t reflect majority attitudes in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Abortion remains an important issue for Democrats, but it’s unclear at this point how that translates into votes.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Julia Azari
    Julia Azari

    Freelance Reporter

    Julia Azari is professor of political science at Marquette University. She specializes in U.S. elections, political parties and the American presidency.