The politics of abortion will get more complicated in 2017
Even before the election, 2016 had been a strange year for the politics of abortion. After that contest’s surprising results, the upheaval is only more pronounced, and activists on each side are likely to underestimate the twists and turns of the road ahead. Both camps are ready to press their own advantages, but they do not yet seem to have developed plans for engaging voters on the opposing side.
The Republican primaries elevated Donald J. Trump, a recent convert to the pro-life cause who showed little familiarity with the contemporary movement, as the political champion of opposition to abortion, though he did not prioritize the issue in his campaign. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, the only candidate in history to receive a presidential primary endorsement from Planned Parenthood. Abortion issues were a significant focus of her campaign, with the party platform calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a 40-year-old compromise forbidding the use of government funds for abortions.
With Clinton’s victory predicted by almost all major polling outfits, pro-choice activists appeared poised for momentous gains. The Democratic Party consensus moved strongly toward destigmatizing and expanding abortion access, buoyed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt earlier this year. And with Mr. Trump at the helm of the Republican Party, some conservatives worried the pro-life movement was doomed to suffer profound setbacks.
Then the election happened. Mr. Trump’s upset win seems to have ignited new fervor in pro-life activists around the country, encouraged by his opportunity to shape the Supreme Court. Mr. Trump has signaled his intention to appoint justices who would be amenable to overturning Roe v. Wade, which would return decisions about the legality of abortion to each state.
But pro-life activists are not waiting around for a case to make its way to the Supreme Court. Following the election, Ohio state legislators passed a bill that would limit legal abortion to only about the first six weeks of pregnancy, or as soon as the fetal heartbeat could be heard. Though Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich vetoed that measure, nicknamed the “heartbeat bill,” he signed into law a 20-week limitation in December. Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, both as part of the promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act and from Medicaid at the state level, have been renewed.
Legislators in pro-life states sense that the winds have changed in their favor. As Mr. Trump appoints justices and pro-life advocates size up their chances, state legislators might begin designing laws with the specific intent of placing the matter before the Supreme Court. If their efforts are successful, the pro-life movement could score the win it has been angling for over the last several decades.
But the solidity of any new pro-life legal tilt is still years from being established. Meanwhile, the pro-choice movement, though perhaps facing political disadvantages, shows no signs of backing down—especially when it comes to claiming the cultural high ground for their position. The actress Lena Dunham recently said on a podcast that though she has not had an abortion, “I wish I had,” so that she could contribute her personal story to the effort to reduce the stigma around abortions. In that same vein, Harvard University Press will publish Carol Sanger’s About Abortion next year; the book’s aim, according to the publisher, is “to pry open the silence surrounding this public issue.” Ms. Sanger argues that the stigma surrounding abortion is a significant obstacle to activists looking to expand abortion rights, and it is likely that the movement to diminish any social consequences of abortion will continue to grow as a form of backlash to whatever pro-life accomplishments may be on the horizon.
Thus, it appears likely that pro-life activists will spend the next few years waging a legal war against abortion, while pro-choice activists mount a renewed culture war in an attempt to undercut the energy behind those efforts. With few pro-life voices or think tanks producing arguments in favor of their position in mainstream culture, it is difficult to imagine how pro-lifers will push back against the abortion destigmatization effort. Likewise, it is not clear what success, if any, pro-choice advocates will have in the legal arena.