Some liberals seemed genuinely surprised by the results of Kansas’ abortion referendum. A reliable Republican state, a large pro-choice victory. Who could have foreseen it?
Others suggested that only the pro-life side should be shocked. “The anti-abortion movement has long argued that voters would reward Republicans for unseating Roe,” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote. “Now they find out how delusional that condemnation has always been.”
It is true that activists often tend towards an unrealistic optimism. But no one who was in favor of overthrowing Roe should be particularly surprised by the Kansas outcome. On the fringe, perhaps — but a Republican state voting to preserve abortion rights underscores what has always been obvious: With the end of Roe, the pro-life movement must now adapt to the Democratic contest that he was looking for.
Currently, the majority of Americans support restrictions on abortion that were ruled out under Roe, but just over a third of the country believes abortion should be largely illegal, a number which decreases if you remove various exceptions.
That means millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump support the right to a first-trimester abortion — some of them old-fashioned country-club Republicans, others secular voters of the working class or anti-awake “barstool conservatives” who dislike elite progressivism but find religious conservatism just as alienating.
In many red and purple states, these constituencies hold the balance of power. Even with exceptions, a state should probably be either very republican or very religious for a ban on first-trimester abortion to be popular, which basically means the Deep South and the Mountain West (and especially the Mormons). It was clear before Roe fell – that outright bans would be the exceptions, and the contest in many states would be over the scope of the restrictions.
The Kansas result confirms this hypothesis. The state already has a belated ban, and the verbose ballot measure didn’t specify an alternative, it just promised lawmakers sweeping power to write new abortion laws. Would the result have been different if the referendum had proposed restrictions around 12 weeks? I suspect so. Can the pro-life movement be satisfied with this kind of objective? Well, that is the question, with different states providing different answers.
In Purple Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp signed a law in 2019, which now takes effect, banning abortion after about six weeks with various exceptions; he looks like he’s about to be re-elected. In reddish Florida, popular Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking a stand for now on a 15-week ban.
On the other hand, Republican gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania and Michigan have a history of taking positions with a few exceptions that seem ill-suited to their states.
I suspect liberals are mistaken if they imagine abortion becoming a mainstream issue in an environment as economically and geopolitically tense as this. But at the fringe, there are clear opportunities: If Republicans run on no-holds-barred platforms in moderately conservative states or support first-quarter bans in swing states, they will lose winnable elections.
But again, serious pro-lifers have always known that if you bring abortion back into the democratic process, you have to deal with public opinion as it really exists. And the way you change your mind is to prove that the incremental version of your ideas is feasible, so voters will trust you more and more.
This requires tackling immediate anxieties head-on. It is not enough, for example, for opponents of abortion to react to stories of delayed care for miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in pro-life states by pointing out that the laws are being misinterpreted. The entire administration of these states should be mobilized so that hospitals fear malpractice lawsuits more than hypothetical pro-life lawsuits.
And that requires longer-term creativity, so that each new protection for the unborn child is associated with the assurance that mothers and children will be better supported than they are today.
When I address that last point, I get a reliable liberal rebuttal that Republicans could have already done more for families, and haven’t, so why would that ever change?
But that is the purpose of exerting democratic pressure. Religious conservatives have steered Republicans away from libertarian economics in the past — “compassionate conservatism” has emerged from evangelicals and Catholics — but so long as abortion was essentially a legal battle, the connection to family politics was indirect.
Now that Republicans must legislate abortion, however, there are incentives to make the link explicit — especially in states where socially conservative Democrats, especially Hispanic voters, could join a pro-life coalition.
That doesn’t mean it will happen, just that the incentives of democratic politics are the way it would happen. Roe’s end opens the door wide for an incrementalist and creative pro-life movement; it does not guarantee that such a movement will emerge. But the Kansas results show what will happen if it doesn’t.