If a year ago you had tried to predict what issues would dominate the presidential primary campaign of 2016, there would have been a few obvious contenders. The economy, of course, which is a central issue in every campaign. Obamacare? Definitely. After making opposition to the Affordable Care Act the defining feature of contemporary Republicanism—they've voted to repeal it over 50 times, after all, which must be unprecedented in American history—how could they not spend their primary arguing about which of them loathes it the most? Then there's immigration, an issue that both animates the GOP base and has been the subject of lots of contention between the president and the Congress. Terrorism would surely figure prominently, as the candidates would compete to show that they are toughest-talkin' buckaroo in the bunch.
But abortion? You might not have thought so. It would, like usual, be a box that requires checking—I'm pro-life, I'll appoint only judges who "respect the Constitution," nudge-nudge wink-wink—but beyond that, what more is there for Republican candidates to say?
It turns out there's quite a bit more. And though it sometimes seems like the country has been locked in the same place on this issue for the last four decades, anti-abortion activists are probably feeling like they're finally getting the attention they're due, for the first time in years. That's because those activists have long believed that the GOP mistreats them, asking for their labors at election time and promising that abortion rights will be a memory once they take power, but then failing to deliver.
But if you were one of those activists today, you'd have to be cheered by what's happening now. Abortion has become the dominant issue of the Republican contest, even of Republican politics more generally. Carly Fiorina just shot into second place in the race in at least one poll, based in part on her fervent condemnation of something that wasn't actually on those Planned Parenthood "sting" videos. Republicans in Congress are getting very close to shutting down the government in order to prevent women from getting non-abortion services like cancer screenings and gynecological exams at Planned Parenthood clinics. A whole series of bills to restrict abortion rights are now getting a prominent hearing in Congress. John Kasich told CNN this weekend that he will sign a bill currently in the Ohio legislature that would outlaw abortions if they are performed because the fetus tests positive for the genetic anomaly that causes Down syndrome, meaning that any woman in Ohio—and wherever else Republicans manage to pass copycat laws—will only be allowed an abortion if the government decides she's doing it for the right reason.
The release of those tapes were obviously the PR coup that pushed the abortion issue to the top of the agenda, but there's a reason why Republicans were so ready to start pounding lecterns and shouting into cameras. Abortion is the the one "culture war" issue where conservatives don't feel like they're in a hasty retreat. Gays are getting married, the number of people with no religious affiliation is skyrocketing, you can say "shit" on television, and the kids and their rap music are even taking over Broadway. But at least conservatives can say that it's no easier today to get an abortion than it was 20 years ago—indeed, depending on where you live, it may be considerably harder.
That's because Republicans have successfully used their power in state government to dramatically restrict women's ability to exercise their reproductive rights, with almost no objection at all from the Supreme Court. Decades of intimidation and violence against abortion providers, combined with a campaign of spectacularly disingenuous legislation aimed at driving those providers out of business, has left much of the country in a situation where abortion is technically legal but incredibly difficult to obtain.
The Republican presidential candidates are promising to make it even harder—and for the moment anyway, it seems like they really mean it. That could be purely opportunistic, but right now they have almost no choice but to swear on a stack of bibles that they will worker harder than anyone else to make sure every American woman who has an unintended pregnancy has no choice but to carry it to term. (And of course, to also make it harder for her to get the contraception that would prevent the pregnancy in the first place. Because what, do women think they can just choose to have sex without being punished?)
There's no telling how long abortion will stay at the top of the Republican agenda—maybe when this government shutdown inevitably fails to get them what they want, like all their other threatened shutdowns did, they'll decide that it would be wise to move on to other issues. But I'm quite certain that the Republican nominee will not be bringing up abortion a lot in the general election, no matter who that nominee is. You aren't going to win over a lot of independent voters promising to overturn Roe v. Wade, an idea supported by only three in ten Americans. But you can bet that the Democratic nominee is going to keep telling voters that the Republicans are waging a war on women, complete with an effort to cut off access to contraception and put the clinics where thousands of women get their health care out of business (not to mention opposing things like laws mandating equal pay and paid sick leave).
So it will be one more issue about which that Republican nominee will say, "Look, why do we have to talk about all that stuff I said during the primaries?" But it will be worth talking about particularly considering that if the Republican wins, it is highly likely that Roe v. Wade will be history. Three of the five Supreme Court justices who have voted to uphold the decision will be in their '80s by the time the next president's first term ends; Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be two months shy of her 88th birthday.
In other words, the next Republican president could be the one who's finally able to give those anti-choice activists what they want most of all—not just the president's signature on one bill after another restricting abortion rights, but a Supreme Court that would repeal Roe, which would mean abortion would be illegal in half the country within a week.
So even if the candidates hadn't planned on talking about abortion this much, we had all better pay close attention to what they're saying.