How abortion became an ‘Achilles heel’ for US Republicans

Polls and past election results show abortion issues hurt Republicans at the ballot, which may affect the 2024 race.

Protesters chant in favour of abortion rights in the US
The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade on June 24, 2022, ending federal protections for abortion access [File: Alyssa Pointer/Reuters]

Washington, DC – Be careful what you wish for, the old adage goes.

One year after conservatives in the United States fulfilled their decades-long goal of overturning the constitutional right to abortion, Republican politicians are facing setbacks over the issue.

Abortion bans and restrictions are not popular among Americans, and those championing them are paying electorally.

Public opinion polls and numerous election contests — even in Republican strongholds — have suggested over the past year that the majority of US voters want to protect the right to the procedure.

Even former President Donald Trump — who has prided himself on having appointed three justices to the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v Wade — has acknowledged privately that Republicans are “getting killed on abortion”, according to US media reports.

Tresa Undem, a co-founder of the nonpartisan research firm PerryUndem, said the abortion issue has been an “Achilles heel” for Republicans since the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It’s a challenging issue for Republicans right now and in the next national election,” Undem told Al Jazeera. She added that pro-abortion rights voters are not only prioritising abortion rights on the ballot but also linking the issue to other topics, including broader women’s rights and threats to democracy.

The Dobbs decision

In the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization case last June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe, the 1973 precedent that established a constitutional right to abortion through the 14th Amendment’s privacy protections.

With Dobbs replacing Roe, abortion was no longer protected by the federal government. After the ruling, Republican-controlled states rushed to enact abortion bans and severe restrictions, with some failing to make exceptions for rape and incest.

Such laws, which critics have said violate women’s bodily autonomy and endanger their lives, are facing legal challenges, and several have been blocked by the courts.

They are also unpopular. There is a growing body of evidence showing that most Americans do not want the government to restrict their reproductive rights.

In an NPR/PBS poll released this week, 57 percent of respondents said they opposed overturning Roe. A Gallup poll in May showed that 52 percent of Americans identify as “pro-choice” — in favour of abortion rights — versus 44 percent as “pro-life”. In addition, 69 percent want abortion to be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Abortion has been a contentious issue in US politics for decades. Conservatives — often motivated by religious beliefs — have pushed to ban the procedure, arguing that abortion amounts to ending human life.

Kansas, which has voted for Republican presidential candidates since 1968, offered an early indication of the shifting political landscape under the Dobbs decision. In August 2022, its voters delivered a blow to conservatives, handily defeating a referendum to revoke the right to abortion from the state’s constitution.

“This vote makes clear what we know: The majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions,” President Joe Biden said at that time.

Democrats ‘benefitted’ from Dobbs

By the midterm elections in November, voters in five more states favoured protecting abortion rights through ballot proposals — including in Kentucky, a Republican stronghold.

Michigan, a swing state that voted for Trump in 2016, also approved a referendum to enshrine abortion rights. Democrats, emphasising abortion rights, comfortably won the three top state-wide races in Michigan last year and gained control of the legislature for the first time in years.

And it was not just in Michigan. In key midterm races, Democrats who made abortion a key issue emerged triumphant, leading the party to a historically good performance nationwide, despite rampant inflation and economic concerns.

Undem said the Dobbs ruling definitely boosted Democrats’ prospects at the polls in 2022.

“There’s no question that it was a setback [for Republicans]. I mean every indicator, from every ballot measure where people voted on it, every poll pre- and post-election, including our own, showed that Democrats really Benefitted from the Dobbs decision and abortion being a top issue,” she said.

Woman holds sign that says, "My body. My choice. My vote."
Demonstrators at ‘Rally for Our Rights’ protest ahead of the 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court election outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on April 2 [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

And it has not just been a one-off, according to Undem. Reproductive rights have continued to resonate with voters and will play a role in the 2024 elections, she said, citing exit polling by her firm.

Earlier this year in Wisconsin, for instance, a liberal candidate defeated a conservative rival for a seat on the state’s supreme court in a closely watched race largely seen as a referendum on abortion rights.

So far, there is no sign that Democrats are dropping the issue.

“Let’s be clear: The vast, overwhelming majority of Americans stand with women and support the right to choose abortion,” Democratic Senator Patty Murray said in a floor speech this week.

“Every place abortion rights were on the ballot last November — every single place — abortion rights won. Still, Republicans are ignoring their constituents and doubling down on their extreme anti-abortion politics.”

Heading to 2024

Aside from popularity, Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University, pointed to a newly found discrepancy in political energy between abortion rights supporters and opponents.

He said, when Roe v Wade was the law of the land, it was easier to energise people against it than for it. Those seeking change are often more enthused than the people who want to preserve the status quo.

“And so, this has been a winning issue for Republicans for that reason for many decades,” Altschuler said.

Now the situation is reversed, with the energy on the side of the people pushing for abortion rights. “When you’re fighting to restore something that’s been taken away from you, that’s a mobilising issue,” the professor said.

That energy could be of the utmost importance in the 2024 presidential elections. With Biden and Trump — two candidates with relatively low approval ratings — expected to be the nominees of their respective parties, voter turnout can be crucial, Altschuler explained.

“Democrats are going to have to depend on two issues to turn out voters. One is the threat to democracy, especially if Donald Trump is the candidate for the Republican Party, and the other is abortion,” he said.

Some Republicans appear to be aware of the political risks of the abortion debate. For example, Trump — the party’s leading presidential candidate — has been elusive on whether he would support a national abortion ban.

And recently he suggested the six-week ban signed into law by his Republican rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is “too harsh”.

But other primary candidates are starting to call him out on the issue, and Altschuler said the former president cannot continue to avoid questions about a federal ban come the general elections.

“Ironically, the abortion issue is being kept alive and active by the Republicans,” Altschuler said.

“By passing legislation outlawing abortion after six weeks, by having a judge in Texas seek to get rid of abortion medication throughout the United States, the issue is coming home even to Americans in blue states who feel a threat to abortion based on all of these actions.”

Source: Al Jazeera