On Abortion, a Tale of Two Countries

Conservatives may be in retreat on many different fronts these days, but in one area, they're having smashing success: restricting the ability of women—particularly non-wealthy women—from accessing abortion services. And they're doing it with a new tool: the 20-week abortion ban, offered as cover for a raft of restrictions that aren't about stopping later-term abortions but about stopping all abortions. They're succeeding not because of some change in Americans' views on the subject, but because of the exercise of raw political power. As you may have heard, opinions on abortion, unlike those on many other subjects, have been remarkably stable for decades.

But that stability masks some stark differences on abortion, differences that create just enough space for Republicans in parts of the country to make abortion all but illegal. Yesterday the Pew Research Center came out with a new poll, showing some rather dramatic gaps by region on what people think about abortion. Check out this graph:

And there has been movement, in one area at least. In most of the country, opinions are pretty much where they've been for the last two decades, with only small differences. The exception is the South Central states—Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas—where the number believing that abortion should legal in all or most cases has fallen significantly. But note that even in the South, there isn't an overwhelming majority saying abortion should be illegal. Even in the 13 states that have already passed some kind of law restricting abortion at 22 weeks or less, the margin between those who say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases and those who say it should be legal in most or all cases is just 49-44. In all the other states, it's 58-36 in the other direction, a much larger pro-choice majority.

So what we see, in this poll and others, is that opinion on abortion is almost equally divided in states where Republicans are moving aggressively to restrict women's reproductive rights, while in states where there hasn't been such a movement, there's a clear majority in favor of those rights.

What's the lesson here? State by state, Republicans are deciding that with enough political will, they don't need some overwhelming mandate for making abortion all but illegal in their state. All they need is 50 percent plus one, and not even 50 percent plus one in favor of outlawing abortion; just enough to vote in a Republican legislature and a Republican governor.

There's something else important to realize: While all the attention is going to the 20-week bans, they're not the point, not by a long shot. They sound reasonable to many people—You've been pregnant for five months, and only now you want an abortion?—and that's why they're given top billing on bills that are intended to make abortion all but impossible for any woman at any stage of pregnancy to obtain.

Abortions after 20 weeks are already unusual. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98.5 percent of abortions happen before 20 weeks, with 79 percent occurring in the first ten weeks. So it isn't as though there's some wave of women who are 23 weeks pregnant seeking out abortions. What's more important are the other provisions of these bills.

The 20-week bans are just the most high-profile component of larger pieces of legislation whose goal is to make it impossible for women to get abortions at all, no matter what the stage of their pregnancies. The bills are inevitably crafted with provisions that will shut down as many abortion clinics as possible. Abortion clinics often require doctors from out of state to travel to the clinic, because of the harassment, threats, and even assassinations that local doctors have been subject to? Then we'll require that every doctor have admitting privileges at a hospital within a certain number of miles, which out-of-state doctors won't have. And we'll throw in some rules on how wide your hallways need to be (not kidding), meaning in order to stay open you'd have to do hundreds of thousands of dollars of remodeling. Failing that, we'll make sure that women who need abortions will have to suffer as much inconvenience, expense, and humiliation as possible.

It's these provisions, much more than the 20-week bans, that will make the largest difference for women in these states. Depending on what state they're in, they'll have to travel far—in some cases hundreds of miles—pay for hotels because of waiting periods, get lectures from doctors required to lie to their patients about things like a fictional link between abortion and breast cancer, and submit to forced and medically unnecessary procedures. These kinds of provisions aren't new, but this latest wave is occurring under the rubric of 20-week bans that are much more likely to be met with public approval, or at least the indifference most state legislation receives. Opponents of abortion rights are hoping they can get a case to the Supreme Court that will result in Roe v. Wade being overturned, but even if that doesn't happen, they can still succeed in making abortion virtually illegal in states where they have control. And they've made lots of progress already.

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