A 30,000-Foot View of the Abortion Ruling’s Political Fallout

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week overturning Roe v. Wade has roiled the country and shifted the main struggle over abortion rights from the courtroom to the political arena.

To get a broader understanding of what’s going on, I spoke with Kate Zernike, a national correspondent for The New York Times who focuses on the debate over abortion. Her new book, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, M.I.T. and the Fight for Women in Science,” will be published by Scribner in February.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length:

This abortion ruling by the Supreme Court was long expected after Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation in the fall of 2020 cemented the conservatives’ majority. Has anything surprised you, though?

As much as I knew this decision would be earth-shattering, especially for abortion rights supporters, I was still struck by how much it rocked them, by how widespread and sustained the anger has been over the last week.

Not because I didn’t think people cared about abortion rights. But I’ve been watching this issue for a long time, and it’s always been true that the anti-abortion side has been much more motivated and passionate than the abortion rights side.

I think about something a provider in Missouri said to me: People think about abortion when they’re asked about it and when they need one. They weren’t necessarily going to vote on the issue, or fight to keep the right to an abortion. It now looks like there may be more of a fight than I expected.

In November, a senior official in President Biden’s administration confessed a fear to me. This person was worried almost as much about the possibility of violence from a radicalized left as from a radicalized right. From your reporting, what sorts of trends and dynamics do people in positions of authority worry about?

I saw most of the concern about violence coming from Republicans. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia warned about it, especially threats to the justices, and Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa demanded that the F.B.I. and Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate threats of riots and violence.

In fact, reports of violence have been very isolated. Among Democrats and leaders of abortion rights groups, the debate is about how to best talk about abortion.

Younger leaders in particular are upset about what they see as too much compromising from Democrats on abortion. They want to talk about an absolute, inviolable right to abortion: You have to trust women to make their own decisions, they say, and any infringement takes away from women’s autonomy and equal rights.

But the anti-abortion side has skillfully played that to accuse Democrats of wanting “abortion on demand” — anytime, in any circumstance, right up until birth.

There’s little evidence that women are so blasé about abortion, or that abortions frequently happen late in pregnancy. Most abortions happen in the first trimester. But it’s an effective slogan, and it goes against what polls show Americans want, which is for abortion to be available, with some restrictions.

Many on the left, including some Democratic attorneys general, are showing a growing willingness to reject the court’s legitimacy across a range of issues, including abortion. How widespread do you think such sentiments are in the top ranks of the Democratic Party, and where might this all be heading?

I know there are people saying, Expand the court. But I’ve heard very little of this from abortion rights groups in the days since the court’s decision. Some of them were maybe hoping that the court would not overturn Roe entirely, and would stick to Chief Justice John Roberts’s position of upholding only Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban.

But these groups pivoted very quickly to a new strategy of fighting abortion laws based on state constitutions, and campaigning for or against ballot initiatives in Michigan, in Kansas and elsewhere that would enshrine or strip away state constitutional protections for abortion. The groups are focused on what they can do immediately to make sure that women can still get abortions.

One major bit of fallout from the ruling, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is the cascade of so-called trigger laws that have snapped into place in several states, including Missouri. What should we know about the battles over those laws?

Starting over the weekend after the Dobbs decision, we saw a series of lawsuits challenging abortion bans in state courts, saying the bans violated state constitutions. That’s the first line of defense, and it’s had at least temporary success in places like Florida and Louisiana.

Abortion rights groups feel confident that many state constitutions offer even more protection for abortion than the federal Constitution does, which was the backstop during the half-century that Roe was in place.

That’s not true in all states. In Louisiana, for example, the state’s Constitution says there is no right to an abortion. So the lawsuit against the trigger ban there is about buying time, to keep clinics open as long as possible.

There’s been a lot of debate over how the abortion issue might affect the midterm elections, and I wonder if some of the reporting and commentary has underestimated the angry response we are seeing now from abortion-rights supporters. What is your sense of how that anger is being channeled toward productive political ends, from the perspective of Democrats?

How this affects the midterms is the most critical political question. I go back to what that provider in Missouri said to me and wonder, Will people think about this issue now?

As I reported last weekend, in the late Roe era, the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America polled women about what it would take for them to come out to support Roe, and they always said, “If it were overturned.”

We’re now at that moment. Polls show that the majority of Americans, and women in particular, disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Are they upset enough to do anything about it? In addition to the lawsuits and the ballot initiatives that I mentioned, there are Democratic-aligned groups like Vote Pro Choice and the States Project that are saying, Democrats have failed to recognize that state and local elections matter, because they’ve been too focused on Congress and the White House.

These groups are trying to flip state legislatures the way that Republicans did in 2010, and elect judges and commissioners who will have a role in determining whether these state bans are upheld in court and then enforced. In many cases, winning the legislature is an uphill climb, but in states like Michigan the groups are confident that they can take power by flipping just a few seats.

Thanks for reading.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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