There have been a lot of think pieces in the wake of the Supreme Court’s September 1 decision greenlighting a law that will effectively ban abortion in Texas. On the right, talking points include a defense of state sovereignty and religious freedom, while the left exhausts the terrifying possible implications the decision could have on abortion rights nationwide.
But my favorite piece to come out of the debate is one that said very little. Instead, Thomas B. Edsall listens—and cites decades’ worth of expert analysis of how abortion went from a non-partisan issue to a major fault line between the left and right.
Edsall’s analysis uses statistics and data to drive his point home.
“As recently as 1984, abortion was not a deeply partisan issue,” Edsall begins, citing political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who claimed that year just six percentage points separated Democrats from Republicans on the topic of abortion. That’s right: in the ’80s, 40 percent of Democrats were pro-life, while 33 percent of Republicans were pro-choice.
By 2020, that rift had widened into a chasm, with 70 percent of Democrats supporting pro-choice policies and 60 percent of Republicans identifying as pro-life.
Abortion taking center stage as a political fault line was far from a coincidence; in fact, it was a consequence of the country’s racial politics, inherited from the 1960s, Abramowitz says:
“Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. This is part of a larger picture in which racial attitudes are increasingly linked with opinions on a wide range of disparate issues including social welfare issues, gun control, immigration and even climate change. The fact that opinions on all of these issues are now closely interconnected and connected with racial attitudes is a key factor in the deep polarization within the electorate that contributes to high levels of straight ticket voting and a declining proportion of swing voters.”
Edsall’s analysis takes things one step further, though: Abortion as a political stance is “among the most intractable” of issues, with “little or no room for compromise.” Folks are generally either really against, or really for abortion, with few falling into any kind of middle ground regardless of the debate surrounding when the sperm hits the egg or when the fetus has a brain.
The fact that such debates around the moment of “personhood”—or when a cluster of cells gains rights under American law—are typically non sequiturs further supports the view of abortion as merely a political red herring. As Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer explained to Edsall via email: “Opposition to abortion became a convenient diversion—a godsend, really—to distract from what actually motivated their political activism: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”
The anecdotal evidence seems to bear that out: the people fighting to repeal abortion rights are the same that would have been fighting Civil Rights fifty years ago.
The writer Lindy West puts it more bluntly: those in power will always have the ability to get abortions for those they love. Banning abortion only stops people at the bottom of the racial-gender hierarchy from controlling their own bodies.
“These providers know that every day, people are having babies they do not want because they cannot access the abortions they need. The maternal mortality rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world, and in some places that rate is four times as high for black women as for white women. Lack of abortion access is a public health crisis. Eliminating abortion access for poor folks is an instrument of class and racial warfare. When reproductive freedom becomes a class privilege, the human rights of our political body are negated.”
Read Edsall’s full analysis here.
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