Protesters gather in Lansing for a June 24, 2022 rally against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. | Photo by Andrew Roth
For as long as I’ve been paying attention to politics — I’ll date myself and admit that began in the ‘80s — the conventional wisdom was that Roe v. Wade wasn’t going anywhere, so reproductive rights didn’t rate as a top-tier election issue.
America was hopelessly divided 50-50 on the issue, we were told ad nauseam, and compromises must be forged. That’s why in recent decades, we’ve seen a growing number of restrictions, from mandatory waiting periods to transvaginal ultrasounds, aimed at making the process of getting an abortion as difficult and uncomfortable as possible.
By only viewing abortion as a political or religious debate, most news outlets willingly adopted the frame of the so-called “pro-life” movement. There was little discussion that it was a human rights issue (the term “women’s rights” often became shorthand for selfishness). Abortion also was rarely covered as a health issue, as part of a continuum of reproductive care that encompasses everything from contraception to fertility treatments to postpartum care.
At the same time, liberals, particularly women, were regarded by pundits as hysterical for worrying their pretty little heads about courts nullifying their right to bodily autonomy.
By the time that the 2016 election rolled around, there was the usual beltway brain about abortion politics, which meant mocking Hillary Clinton for running on the fate of the Supreme Court. The horseshoe theory coalition of disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters and edgy alt-right activists (who would soon become standard Trumpers) went even further and accused Clinton of trying to blackmail people into voting for her to ensure Roe survived.
And women who protested that abortion was a crucial issue were derided as “vagina voters.”
Well, we all know what happened next. Donald Trump narrowly won that election and appointed three right-wing Supreme Court justices who gleefully overturned Roe the first chance they could last summer with the Dobbs decision.
There were outpourings of rage in sadness as people across the country held peaceful protests. Wise analysts told us that the drama was fleeting; womenfolk would tire themselves out and forget that one in three women in the U.S. had lost access to abortion in just a few months’ time.
Few analysts bothered to consider that once a right people have had (and yes, taken for granted) for almost 50 years is suddenly snatched away, that might upend the politics of the issue.
Instead, news outlets went all in on the bet that inflation was the No. 1 factor in the 2022 midterm elections, because real meat-and-potatoes issues like gas prices would surely trump niche concerns like abortion.
And of course, that was bad news for Democrats, who were sure to get crushed by the inevitable red wave.
But not all Democrats believed the hype. Most notably, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made reproductive freedom her cornerstone campaign issue — which dovetailed with her economic platform.
“If you want to make Michigan a place where we can draw and lure and keep talent, women have to be able to make their own health care decisions,” Whitmer told the Advance in June 2022. “The vast majority of the public respects that and agrees with that, whether they would individually make that choice or not.”
And in Michigan, abortion was literally on the ballot, with an amendment that would guarantee reproductive rights in the state Constitution.
Liberals, particularly women, were regarded by pundits as hysterical for worrying their pretty little heads about courts nullifying their right to bodily autonomy. – Susan J, Demas
Liberals, particularly women, were regarded by pundits as hysterical for worrying their pretty little heads about courts nullifying their right to bodily autonomy.
– Susan J, Demas
As abortion stubbornly remained at the top of voters’ minds heading into the fall, Republicans descended into full-scale panic. Anti-abortion Republican candidates suddenly wanted to talk about anything else. Whitmer’s GOP opponent, Tudor Dixon — a right-wing commentator who famously said 14-year-old incest victims should be forced to give birth — wanly protested weeks before the election that abortion “shouldn’t be an issue for the gubernatorial race.”
On Nov. 7, Whitmer won reelection in an 11-point rout and Democrats wrested control of both the House and Senate for the first time in nearly four decades. Nationally, Democrats added to their U.S. Senate majority, narrowly lost the House and netted two governorships.
So much for the much-ballyhooed red wave.
But perhaps most impressively, 57% of Michiganders voted for the abortion rights proposal, which actually ran ahead of Whitmer in several counties and won in a number of abortion deserts.
Michigan wasn’t alone. Five other states, both red and blue, last year voted on the side of abortion rights: Kansas, California, Kentucky, Montana and Vermont.
As the centrist Brookings Institute summed up the midterms: “It wasn’t just ‘the economy stupid’—it was abortion.”
But with the 2024 election fast approaching and quadruple-indicted Trump sucking up most of the oxygen, many (mostly male) pundits double-downed on their take that the potency of abortion rights is fading or even argued that it’s not a winning issue for Dems in key races.
That ignores polling that shows abortion remains a huge issue more than a year after Dobbs, with 64% disapproving of the decision.
Not even voters in ever-reddening Ohio this month shooting down a measure that would have required constitutional amendments to hit 60% to pass — a thinly veiled attempt to torpedo an upcoming abortion rights proposal — seems to have registered with some cocksure commentators.
Look, nobody likes being wrong (believe me). But reassessing your priors with new information is something that thinking people should regularly do. The refusal of some analysts to do so carries the whiff of desperation (and brings to mind “just” Ken masking his insecurity by strutting around shirtless in his Mojo Dojo Casa House in “Barbie”).
Alas, there’s no penalty for being wrong — even embarrassingly, consistently wrong — as a pundit. Nobody loses their column or TV gig.
But being that out of touch means most voters will probably tune you out — and keep turning out for candidates who listen to them and fight for abortion rights.
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