The Abortion Issue: No Longer Salient?

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South Dakota's voters rejected a ban on abortions passed by the Republican legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Mike Rounds. The margin was 56 to 44 percent. The results in smaller counties were mixed; voters in Minnehaha County (Sioux Falls) voted 57 percent against the ban, while voters in Pennington County (Rapid City), ordinarily more Republican but perhaps also more libertarian, voted 61 percent against. Those two counties provided almost half the popular vote margin against the ban (17,530 of 37,270).

It seems to me that this vote will tend to reduce the saliency of the abortion issue in national politics–on both the prolife and prochoice sides (I will use those terms, which are preferred by advocates on either side).

Some prolife groups criticized the South Dakota legislators and governor for passing a law that, under current Supreme Court rulings, would surely be declared unconstitutional whenever it got into court. Yet the voters killed it faster than the courts could. The fact that an abortion ban could not pass muster with the voters of a state like South Dakota should convince clearsighted prolifers that, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, abortion is simply not going to be banned in the United States anytime soon. True, opposition to abortion is very high in a few jurisdictions (Louisiana, Utah, Guam). But it was almost as high in South Dakota, and the ban was overturned. American voters are ready to support many limitations on abortion. But it seems that very large majorities nationally are not willing to approve an outright ban.

For prochoicers, the calculation may be a little different. When prochoice advocates took the field in the 1990 cycle, when it looked like there might be five votes on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, they capitalized on the widespread misimpression that an overturning of that decision would ban abortion everywhere.

Thus they could claim that "choice" was gravely imperiled. But in fact a reversal of Roe would simply let the legislatures legislate–and voters overturn their legislation where referendums are allowed. And then in 1992's Casey decision, the Supreme Court made it clear that Roe would not be overturned anytime soon. The appointments of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer added a net one vote against reversal of Roe.

Nevertheless the saliency of the issue was increased among prochoice voters by the fact that many legislatures were trying to ban partial-birth abortions as well as require waiting periods for abortions and parental consent for minors' abortions. From their point of view, it appeared that legislatures were chomping at the bit to ban abortion altogether, and quite reasonably the action of the South Dakota legislature strengthened that impression. So did the passage and signing of the federal partial-birth abortion ban, which is before the Supreme Court now. So prochoicers had reason to see their side as beleaguered.

The South Dakota result might well change that impression. If a state as conservative as South Dakota rejects an abortion ban, which state will impose one? Not very many; quite possibly none. Sure, prochoicers lament the fact that abortions are not widely available in South Dakota, indeed hardly available at all–at least if they are correct in saying that the only abortionist operating in the state is a part-timer in Sioux Falls. That's not as dire for the abortion consumer as prochoice group staffers in Washington or New York might think; People in South Dakota, including teenagers, are used to driving 200 miles to go shopping in the mall. But it's still interesting if 61 percent of the people in Pennington County are voting to keep abortions legal even if they're only available hundreds of miles away in Sioux Falls.

I can think of other evidence of the declining salience of the abortion issue. In Pennsylvania, liberal Democrats had no qualms about supporting antiabortion Sen.-elect Bob Casey Jr., even though his father was famously blocked, while governor of the state, from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. (I remember climbing into the high-altitude bleachers, where he had been seated, to interview him.) In polls of Republican primary voters, many abortion opponents seem ready to vote for Rudolph Giuliani for president, even though he supports abortion rights. (It's said by many that these voters are unaware of that. I wonder. They certainly know that he is from and was elected in New York City, and it's a short step from that knowledge to supposing that he must have taken liberal stands on cultural issues.)

My own sense is that the abortion issue, which was a litmus test for Republican presidential candidates from 1980 to 2000 and for Democratic presidential candidates from 1984 to 2004, may not be a litmus test anymore, at least for Republicans (I haven't heard any mention of a prolife Democrat as a presidential candidate). If the Supreme Court upholds the federal partial-birth abortion statute, a live possibility now that Sandra Day O'Connor has been replaced by Samuel Alito, and if there are still no more than four votes on the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, then I think there may be more of a willingness, on both sides, to accept a not entirely satisfactory status quo.

Prolifers should learn from South Dakota that they aren't going to be able to ban abortion entirely, at least not in any but a few small places. Prochoicers should be noticing that the restrictions that legislatures have been placing on abortion do not prevent abortions from being generally and widely available. Voters even in South Dakota have shown themselves unwilling to agree with prolifers that abortion is morally entirely unacceptable. But voters who have supported restrictions on abortion have shown themselves unwilling to agree with those prochoicers who consider the provision of abortion an unalloyed moral good. The status quo is not acceptable to the rigorous purists among us, and is probably not entirely congenial to most of us. But it seems to be acceptable to the great majority. And so it may be that the abortion issue will be less of a motive force, on both sides, in our politics.