Trump's Values and the Fate of Abortion Rights

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Public opinion on abortion has been remarkably stable in recent decades, with significant but never overwhelming majorities supporting legal yet restricted abortion rights. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that guarantees the right to abortion, with caveats based on the viability of the fetus and health of the mother, is an apt reflection of a national ambivalence that nonetheless decisively tips toward the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus. The majority opinion in Roe is notably free of the triumphalism that has accompanied declarations of other rights.

Still, the politics of abortion have been changing even as public opinion appears predictably settled. Republican states have resorted to legal subterfuge and disingenuous regulatory schemes to control women’s access to abortion. With President Donald Trump poised to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy with a more politically reliable conservative, such actions seem more likely to be sanctioned by the high court. Unless, of course, the court simply jettisons Roe altogether, leaving abortion law to the states.   

As the Trump era has emphatically demonstrated, the choreography of public opinion and politics is not fixed. Many Americans opposed immigration before Trump came along. But his brand of mob politics activated racial malice, empowered rage and shifted the contours of debate.

Polls show a sizable portion of the Republican Party now accepts seizing small children from asylum-seeking parents and using them as leverage against their distraught mothers and fathers. Trump has not shot someone on Fifth Avenue. But as his authoritarian means have spread through the GOP, Trump’s prophecy of blind loyalty from followers is coming true.

If the Supreme Court upends abortion law, abortion opinion, and politics, won’t remain static. The GOP largely was pro-choice before Roe legalized abortion nationally in 1973, while Democrats were generally less supportive of abortion rights.

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed one of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws. White evangelicals, now the most vehement opponents of abortion, came to oppose it largely through conservative political activation, not religious imperative. As historian Randall Balmer explained in Politico, before the Roe decision, and even afterward, much of white evangelical America was nonplussed.

In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976. 

All that was before political operatives shaped opposition to abortion into a means, and end, of political mobilization. In effect, politics -- on right and left -- guided views on abortion more than the other way around.

Partisanship would similarly influence how Americans interpret the end of Roe. Hispanics have been less supportive of abortion rights than other Democratic-leaning cohorts. Would they perceive Roe’s demise as an affirmation of family values or as another front in a Republican culture war that seeks to enshrine white Christian conservative culture as the sole American norm? Roe has protected pro-choice Republican women from having to choose between the GOP and legal abortion. Which are they prepared to sacrifice?

Trump himself is a joker in the deck. Pro-choice activists would no doubt make the president the public face of any decision circumscribing abortion rights. Would it matter that the spearhead of such a decision is a lifelong cad whose serial adultery and acute sexism are matters of public record? Is there a limit to how much hypocrisy a cause can bear?

Probably not. Previous Republican presidents, while publicly opposing Roe, somehow managed to appoint justices who failed to pursue their abortion agenda. (Curiously, Democratic presidents have not suffered a similar affliction. Every Democratic appointment to the Supreme Court, post-Roe, has supported abortion rights.)

That game is likely up. First, because abortion opponents have been waiting decades for Republicans to make good on their threats to Roe. Second, because Trump probably doesn’t care one way or another and so will move to please his most rabid supporters – white evangelical conservatives. (The daughters of the wealthy, and the mistresses of Republicans, will retain access to abortion regardless.)

Roe has become more momentous because polarization generally has grown much more intense. The tens of millions of Americans who are not especially passionate about abortion rights, pro or con, may be pulled to choose sides more clearly if Roe is discarded. Because Trump is such a spectacularly disreputable spokesman for morality, and so deeply polarizing himself, his role in undermining Roe is sure to supercharge the inevitable backlash. Where we go from there is anybody’s guess. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.