Conservatives Are Making Abortion Rights More Popular By Attacking Them

It seems some people don't know what they have until it's almost gone.
A pro-choice demonstrator holds a coat hanger at a rally
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images 

Escalating attacks on abortion rights may be contributing to a surge in pro-choice sentiment, according to a new ABC News/ Washington Post poll.

The findings show support for abortion has hit a 24-year high in the U.S., with 60 percent of Americans agreeing that the procedure should be legal “in all or most cases,” and 27 percent saying it should be legal “in all cases.”

The poll was conducted between June 28 and July 1, in the aftermath of a wave of extreme anti-abortion legislation from states like Alabama and Georgia, whose proposed laws criminalized providers and made no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest. Conservatives see the passage of these laws as a sign that they’re winning the fight over abortion rights—but pro-choice adovcates say the growing extremity of anti-abortion legislation has only encouraged more Americans to stand up in support of choice. Others say the upward trend is something 2020 presidential candidates in particular should take note of, as abortion will likely be top of mind for many voters at the ballot box.


“American people see how extreme these attacks are, and they see the real intention of these politicians—which has nothing to do with medicine and science, but everything to do with misogyny, and control, and power over women’s bodies,” Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen told VICE. “We’ve known for many years that there is a big disconnect between these extreme bans that politicians are passing and the will of the American people.”

In May, polling from HuffPost/YouGov found that 56 percent of Americans didn’t think other states should follow Alabama’s example of passing legislation amounting to a total ban on abortion. HuffPost polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy explained that the reason the law was so “deeply unpopular” was simple: “Most Americans don’t hold absolutist opinions on abortion,” she wrote, “and even fewer hold views as unwaveringly anti-abortion as the legislation itself.”

As ABC News points out, public opinion on legal abortion hasn’t been consistent over time. The last two decades have seen significant dips in support for abortion rights, as well as fleeting spikes. Though it can be difficult to pinpoint a clear cause and effect for polling results, Alina Salganicoff, the director of women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, suggested the equivalent 1995 peak in support for abortion rights might have been due to the rise in restrictions resulting from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court ruling on Planned Parenthood v. Casey.


Casey really allowed states to regulate abortion,” Salganicoff explained. “Out of Casey, we ended up having all of these laws requiring waiting periods and parental consent—all of the things that have challenged abortion access.”

For decades, a majority of Americans have believed abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances,” but Salganicoff said it’s not unusual to see support swell amid renewed attacks on certain rights and protections. She saw something similar when Republicans threatened to repeal the Affordable Care Act: The Kaiser Family Foundation tracked the favorability of the Obama-era healthcare law every month since it was signed, and found support began to rise after President Donald Trump, who campaigned on "repeal and replace," took office.

“In situations where a particular law or protection has been threatened, there’s increased awareness about what that law means, and what would happen if it went away,” Salganicoff said. “With the ACA, people were suddenly concerned about losing pre-existing protections, essentially health benefits, preventative care services—all of these things people might not have known were in the ACA before.” It seemed that some people didn't know what they had until it was almost gone.

It may not be a completely analogous situation, she said, but attacks on abortion have at the very least raised people’s awareness and highlighted what’s at stake.


Grassroots organizations involved in electoral politics say the rise in support represents an opportunity for the Democratic Party to take a more unapologetic stance on abortion. Though historically Democrats have been thought of as the definitive party for choice, last year House Speaker (then House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi said though she’d like to see all 2018 Democratic candidates support abortion rights, the party shouldn’t impose a “litmus test” on its members. And in May, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee drew ire for again throwing its support behind anti-abortion Democrat Dan Lipinski, who is being challenged from the left for the second time by pro-choice candidate Marie Newman.

“The party has not always embraced abortion rights fully and it certainly should,” said Maria Langholz, a spokesperson for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which helps progressive candidates get elected. “We believe it’s every woman’s right to choose and that this is about recognizing the dignity and humanity of women. That’s where the Democratic Party should be.”

Langholz says Democrats have begun to move further left on the issue, and she finds it promising that abortion rights have already been a point of discussion for 2020 presidential candidates. Langholz said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has distinguished herself especially by rolling out a comprehensive plan to protect abortion access if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned. Among other strategies, Warren has proposed passing federal legislation to enshrine abortion rights into law, taking the decision out of the hands of a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, as has New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.


Democratic strategists agree, and say 2020 candidates should take advantage of swelling support for abortion rights, and show voters they take seriously the conservative threats posed to them right now.

“Democrats must clearly and emphatically embrace abortion rights, and that includes a litmus test for judges,” said Rebecca Katz, the founder of Democratic consulting firm New Deal Strategies. “At a time when the Republicans are systematically taking away women's rights state by state, we can't afford to have a Democratic nominee waver on abortion access.”

That means it may no longer be enough to merely say one is “pro-choice.” Langholz said she would like to see more 2020 Democrats hash out their policies on reproductive health, and take cues from recently elected progressive members of Congress, who she sees as pushing the party further left.

“On the whole, I would say that right now the progressives in Congress have shifted what is possible, and this is true on abortion, this is true on climate,” Langholz said. “To me this is proof that by talking about our values we’re able to move what is considered the center or mainstream. These polling numbers to me suggest exactly that.”

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