Americans appear to be in a period of heightened support for abortion, as revealed in a number of recent national polls. In contrast to earlier polls, which typically showed the country split nearly 50-50 on the abortion question, exit polling on election day 2012 showed a considerably higher level of support for legal abortion, with 59 percent of respondents wanting abortion to remain legal (and an even higher 66 percent of Latinos/as offering this view).
After the election, in a much-discussed Wall St. Journal poll taken around the time of the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade in January, 70 percent of respondents stated their opposition to the decision being overturned, the highest number since 1989. Moreover, in contrast to previous polls, the same poll showed, for the first time, a majority support for abortion in all or most situations. As I suggested in a previous ANSIRH blog, these numbers appear to reflect the public’s reaction to the extremist views on abortion—and contraception as well—that were articulated by Republican candidates in the recent election season, from the Romney–Ryan ticket down to Senate and lower-level races.
But another poll, which has received far less attention, and which I stumbled upon in the course of preparing a webinar, is equally intriguing to me for what it says about emergent abortion politics. This was a poll performed by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in July 2012, which surveyed African Americans and Hispanics on their attitudes about abortion, among other issues. Addressing here only the results from black respondents, three findings in particular struck me: the 67 percent who believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (essentially identical to the Wall St. Journal poll mentioned above), the 57 percent who said that there should be abortion services available in their communities, and the 66 percent who said they believe abortion clinics are, for the most part, safe.
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Yet the PRRI poll, if it is to be believed, suggests what a failure these efforts have been: not only do black Americans currently support legal abortion in the same high numbers as other Americans, they also apparently want abortion providing facilities within their communities. Indeed, in the interesting way that social movements operate, often spurring counter-movements in reaction, the billboard campaign, in particular, was effectively and forcefully countered by a new reproductive justice group called Trust Black Women, a group which likely has had the ultimate effect of increasing the acceptability of open support for abortion rights within the African-American community.
A second reason that I find this poll so interesting is that another major campaign of the anti-choice movement in recent years has been to convince the American people (not just African Americans) that abortion is medically unsafe. This alleged lack of safety in abortion facilities serve as the rationale for various legislative strategies of abortion opponents , e.g. laws requiring clinics to conform to the physical requirements of ambulatory surgery centers—regulations that abortion supporters state have nothing to do with abortion safety and everything to do with making it financially impossible for clinics to remain open. (Critics of such legislation point to research showing that first-trimester abortion is fourteen times as safe as childbirth.) Again, if the PRRI poll is to be believed, two-thirds of African Americans have not been swayed by arguments that abortion is medically unsafe.
As heartening as abortion rights supporters might find the polls mentioned in this post, it is of course worth emphasizing the disconnect between what such polls say—not to mention what the recent presidential election suggests—and what is currently transpiring with respect to abortion in numerous state legislatures. Despite these strong indications of widespread support for legal abortion, a number of state legislatures have been pursuing anti-choice measures with redoubled zeal since the election.
And this will not change until it is no longer in these politicians’ electoral interest to pass such measures. Translating the strong support for abortion shown in polls to actual voting behavior in the states is arguably the key challenge facing the pro-choice movement at this moment.
In an election year when many voters are increasingly frustrated with their options, both Gary Johnson's presence in the race and his policy positions are notable. When it comes to reproductive rights in particular, Johnson appears to have spent years walking a fine line.
The Democratic Party won’t be the only one on the ballot this November with a self-described pro-choice nominee on its presidential ticket. Libertarians chose former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, a self-identified pro-choice candidate, as the party’s nominee for the 2016 race during their convention on May 29.
Though Johnson’s chances of becoming president are low, the Libertarian Party will likely be the only third-party option on the ballot in all 50 states. According to statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight, several recent national polls have the Libertarian nominee taking 10 percent of the vote. Those numbers are nothing, the site noted, to shrug at: “Gary Johnson is neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton. He might not win a state, but he could make some noise.”
In an election year when many voters are increasingly frustrated with their options, both Johnson’s presence in the race and his policy positions are notable. Candidates need only reach 15 percent in selected public opinion polls to make it to the national debate stage, meaning Johnson may have a shot at bringing his opinions to the masses.
When it comes to reproductive rights in particular, Johnson appears to have spent years walking a fine line, frequently presenting himself as “pro-choice” while simultaneously opposing abortion on a personal level and supporting some restrictions on the procedure. “[Abortion] should be left up to the woman,” said Johnson during a 2001 interview with Playboy, adding that if his “daughter were pregnant and she came to me and asked me what she ought to do, I would advise her to have the child. But I would not for a minute pretend that I should make that decision for her or any other woman.”
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Johnson’s current campaign website continues this trend, seemingly attempting to have it both ways on abortion. It borrows aspects from both anti-choice and pro-choice advocates and pushes the line that the candidate “has the utmost respect for the deeply-held convictions of those on both sides of the abortion issue.”
“It is an intensely personal question, and one that government is ill-equipped to answer,” reads Johnson’s campaign site. Though the site notes that the candidate has “never advocated [for]abortion or taxpayer funding of it,” it goes on to explain that Johnson supports the “right to choose.”
“Further, Gov. Johnson feels strongly that women seeking to exercise their legal right must not be subjected to persecution or denied access to health services by politicians in Washington or elsewhere who are insistent on politicizing such an intensely personal and serious issue,” concludes his abortion platform before adding an aside that he supported bans on “late term abortions” during his time as governor. The page does not define what “late term abortion” means in this context, nor does it go into more detail about what specific bans Johnson backed.
Johnson’s attempts to craft his own middle ground in the abortion debate during the 2016 elections are holdovers from his past run for the White House during the 2012 election, when he ran as a Republican before switching over to the Libertarian Party. During a June 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, Johnson plainly stated his position on abortion, as well as several anti-choice measures he has supported in the past:
I support women’s rights to choose up until viability of the fetus. I’ve supported the notion of parental notification. I’ve supported counseling and I’ve supported the notion that public funds not be used for abortions. But I don’t want for a second to pretend that I have a better idea of how a woman should choose when it comes to this situation. Fundamentally this is a choice that a woman should have.
Johnson consistently says he is pro-choice up until the point of viability, something already enshrined into law in Roe v. Wade. As Rewire has previously reported, “Even though the Court in Roe decided that fetal viability would be the benchmark for the balance between a person’s right to choose and the state’s interest in “potential life,” the Court was silent on when fetal viability occurs. It left that decision up to doctors.”
In August 2011, during an argument with the editor in chief of the conservative CNS News, Terry Jeffrey, Johnson fired back at the host for pushing him to concede that a fetus should have the same “right to life” as born individuals. This argument is often used by conservatives to support so-called personhood legislation, which would grant constitutional rights to a fetus as early as conception, and could outlaw abortion as well as many forms of contraception.
“What you’re saying is that you would take this away from a woman, you would criminalize a woman who is making a choice that I believe only a woman should make,” said Johnson, who flatly asserted that women should have the right to opt for abortion up until the point of viability. “And you may in fact be criminalizing the activities of doctors who are involved also,” he noted.
Johnson’s critique of Jeffrey’s question and his clear opposition to criminalizing those who have or provide abortions stands in contrast to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who said in March that those who have abortions should face “some form of punishment” if it was illegal, only to later claim that doctors—not women—should be punished.
Even so, Johnson again touted his support for a number of restrictions on abortion access, presumably to shore up support among Republican voters. “I signed a law banning late-term abortion, believing there is a point of viability,” said Johnson on the show, “and I also as governor of New Mexico supported parental notification. I have also always supported counseling.”
State-mandated counseling for abortion-which is what Johnson seems to be pitching-often requires “information that is irrelevant and misleading,” according to a March 2016 report from the Guttmacher Institute. The waiting periods that frequently accompany such laws, for that matter, often create hardship for women by adding additional expenses or logistical hurdles for those seeking abortion care. Guttmacher also found in a 2009 report that the most direct impact of common parental consent laws “is an increase in the number of minors traveling outside their home states to obtain abortion services in states that do not mandate parental involvement or that have less restrictive laws.”
Johnson’s claim about banning later abortions during his tenure as governor of New Mexico, meanwhile, presumably refers to a so-called partial-birth abortion ban outlawing certain kinds of later abortions-though, like the claim on his 2016 website, the specifics are not clear Johnson signed the ban into law in 2000, making it the first restriction on abortion put in place in the state in more than 25 years.
In truth, “partial-birth abortion” is an inflammatory non-medical term, coined by the anti-choice National Right to Life Committee in 1995 in an effort to make passing abortion restrictions easier. It is often used to describe the dilation and extraction abortion procedure (D and X), typically performed between 20 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. New Mexico’s law made it a fourth-degree felony for a doctor perform the procedure on “an independently viable fetus.” As NPR has reported, most D and X abortions actually do not take place after viability:
And contrary to the claims of some abortion opponents, most such abortions do not take place in the third trimester of pregnancy, or after fetal “viability.” Indeed, when some members of Congress tried to amend the bill to ban only those procedures that take place after viability, abortion opponents complained that would leave most of the procedures legal.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, “abortion opponents say the  law had little impact because it pertained only to cases in which a fetus had attained viability, which is defined as being able to live outside the womb.”
Johnson also asserted during a 2011 Republican debate hosted by Fox News that he would have signed a ban on later abortion, had one reached his desk. However, he again did not elaborate on what point in pregnancy such a ban would apply or whether it would have exceptions.
Johnson’s 501(c)(4) organization, Our America, has gone as far as to call for Roe v. Wade to be completely overturned. When Johnson was running for president in 2012, the group’s site discussed the candidate’s position on abortion before calling for the Supreme Court to overturn the case:
Judges should be appointed who will interpret the Constitution according to its original meaning. Any court decision that does not follow this original meaning of the Constitution should be revisited. That is particularly true of decisions such as Roe vs. Wade, which have expanded the reach of the Federal government into areas of society never envisioned in the Constitution. With the overturning of Roe vs Wade, laws regarding abortion would be decided by the individual states.
Any mention of the topic seems to have been scrubbed from the current version of the organization’s website, but Johnson’s pitch for a potential replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court speaks for itself. Shortly after the justice’s death in February, Johnson shared a picture of himself on Facebook with Fox News’ senior judicial analyst, Andrew Napolitano, calling the conservative media figure a “great candidate” for the vacant seat.
Napolitano is stringently anti-choice: During a January 2016 segment for Fox News, Napolitano blasted the Court’s decision in Roe, claiming that it allows the “murder of babies in the womb,” advocating for Congress to pass an extreme “personhood” amendment in order to end legal abortion. He also compared Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which denied personhood to Black Americans, essentially upholding slavery.
Napolitano also took issue with exceptions to abortion bans in cases of rape in a 2012 opinion piece for FoxNews.com after former Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin notoriously claimed that in cases of “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
“Rape is among the more horrific violations of human dignity imaginable,” wrote Napolitano. “But it is a crime committed by the male, not the female—and certainly not by the child it might produce. When rape results in pregnancy, the baby has the same right to life as any child born by mutually loving parents. Only the Nazis would execute a child for the crimes of his or her father.”
This rhetoric echoed Napolitano’s recent comparison of the legalization of abortion care to “the philosophical argument underlying the Holocaust.”
Johnson’s willingness to consider Napolitano to fill a Supreme Court vacancy make one thing clear: Even if Johnson claims to be pro-choice, should he win the White House, access to abortion may still be in jeopardy. The Libertarian nominee’s support of a number of abortion restrictions and apparent willingness to nominate anti-choice justices to the Court call into question whether the “right to choose” Johnson claims he supports would truly remain—an alarming prospect given the increased attention the candidate is receiving in the 2016 election.
During a May interview with the Texas Observer‘s Alexa Garcia-Ditta, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards didn’t skip a beat when pointing to the likely effect of voting restrictions.
“One of the greatest challenges, absolutely, in the state of Texas is the enormous hurdles that people have to go through to vote, and the fact that in the last election, we were 50th in voter turnout of 50 states,” said Richards. “That’s appalling. When 28 percent of the voters go to the polls, the democratic process isn’t working, it’s completely broken. I believe we have to completely address voting rights in this country, and in Texas.”
Texas is one of 17 states to implement new voting restrictions, such as voter identification laws and reduced early voting, for the first time during the 2016 presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University’s School of Law. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
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“This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote,” explains the Brennan Center’s website. “Overall, 22 states have new restrictions in effect since the 2010 midterm election.”
The Republican-led charge to roll back voting rights has been fairly transparent in its goal of suppressing Democratic votes, specifically targeting voters of color and those living in poverty—a goal only made easier after the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that safeguarded against these strategies in a 2013 decision.
Efforts to enact voting restrictions have begun to gain steam, increasingly in many of the same places where abortion restrictions are also being passed. And reproductive rights and justice advocates are taking notice. NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2012 noted that efforts to chip away at voting rights effectively silence the ability of many to weigh in on decisions regarding their bodies.
“Americans defend the right to choose by lobbying their elected officials, taking action in their communities, and participating in the public debate, but no single deed is as central to the civic process as the simple act of casting a vote,” Nancy Keenan, then president of NARAL, said in a statement announcing the decision. “That is why recent efforts to restrict citizens’ access to the ballot box are so dangerous. These measures threaten to deny millions of Americans the right to vote, silencing their voices as the nation debates our most cherished freedoms, including the right of every woman to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices.”
Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s current president, reaffirmed this commitment after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision on the VRA, explaining in a statement that year that the organization believes “that participation in the political process is a constitutional right that empowers Americans to elect leaders who represent their interests in important areas such as reproductive rights.”
When thousands joined the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina in February 2014 to protest conservative policies such as the state’s restrictive voter suppression laws, Planned Parenthood was among the event’s 150 coalition partners. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Richards explained why it was imperative for her organization to get involved.
“For Planned Parenthood, the ideology behind these measures is all too familiar. They were put in place by politicians who would rather transport us through a time warp where only the privileged few have access to fundamental American rights,” wrote Richards. “Many of those states [passing voting restrictions] are the same ones passing restriction after restriction on women’s access to health care.”
“The history of our country shows that we are better off when everyone has a voice in our political process. We continue to stand with our partners in calling for laws that make it easier—not harder—to vote,” Richards continued.
As the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections brought a wave of voting restrictions, a crush of anti-choice laws similarly swept the country. Since those elections, an unprecedented 288 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted.
“To put that number in context, states adopted nearly as many abortion restrictions during the last five years (288 enacted 2011-2015) as during the entire previous 15 years (292 enacted 1995-2010),” Guttmacher researchers explained in a recent report outlining the state of reproductive rights in the country.
The pushes for voting and abortion restrictions use similar tactics, slowly eroding the rights of women, people of color, and those with low incomes. “It’s a ‘death by 1000 cuts’ strategy,” Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School, told MSNBC of the two issues in 2014. “For both of these rights, you’re not allowed to ban it. So in each instance you’re just making it harder than it would be otherwise.”
Conservatives have been able to do this by leveraging misinformation about the two issues. Abortion and voting restrictions “both address manufactured problems,” Sondra Goldschein, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Rewire. “They have thinly veiled excuses for introducing them. Whether it’s unproven voter fraud or concerns about women, the legislation is clearly about taking away rights, particularly in marginalized communities.”
For example, many voting restrictions are implemented based on false claims about the prevalence of voting fraud. In Wisconsin, where as many as 300,000 registered votersstand to be disenfranchised by the state’s restrictive voter ID law, Republican Gov. Scott Walker justified suppressing the vote by citing instances of fraudulent voting. When challenged in court, the state was unable to come up with a single case of voter impersonation.
That is likely because in Wisconsin, like in the rest of the country, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. Study after study has found little to no evidence to support the claim. An analysis conducted by the Washington Post‘s Justin Levitt in 2014 found just 31 instances of voter fraud in the more than one billion ballots cast between the years 2000 and 2014.
Many abortion restrictions are similarly based on the perpetuation of misinformation, which are often based on conservatives feigning concern for women’s health. Wisconsin provides yet another prime example of this with its 2013 targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law, which required all doctors performing abortions in the state to obtain admitting privileges to hospitals within a 30-mile range, justified by claims of safeguarding women’s health. But when the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law unconstitutional in 2015, Judge Richard Posner, writing for the majority, noted that the medical necessity for such laws is “nonexistent” and the regulations were instead meant to impede abortion access.
“They may do this in the name of protecting the health of women who have abortions, yet as in this case the specific measures they support may do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,” wrote Posner.
Though it’s often clear that legislation to restrict access to the polls and abortion share similar goals and tactics—employing misinformation, attempting to dissuade people from access by making doing so too expensive or burdensome, and so on—in some cases, states are borrowing from the exact same playbooks to make laws to get their way. In Texas, where there is already a strict voter ID law, the state passed another law in 2015 requiring abortion providers to ask for “valid government record of identification” from patients to prove they are 18 before providing care. The process of obtaining a valid form of ID is often difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, especially for those in marginalized communities.
Much like the case for voting restrictions, abortion restrictions help white men maintain the status quo of power across the country. Drawing connections between between voting restrictions and TRAP laws in Texas, then-Rewire reporter Andrea Grimes, who now works for the Texas Observer, noted on the RJ Court Watch podcast that both conservative restrictions help ensure those in power maintain their positions.
“We [in Texas] have some of the strictest TRAP (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) legislation in the country. At the same time we have what one federal judge straight up called racist and unconstitutional voter ID requirements that prevent people from being able to get out to the polls and cast their votes,” said Grimes. “And these two things together kind of ensure that power stays with the powerful. That’s what we’re seeing right now here.”
“[B]oth voting rights and abortion access involve fundamental rights,” added Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire‘s vice president of law and the courts. “In theory, fundamental rights are fundamental. They are things that we all hold but really what we’re talking about is access to power. So when we place restrictions on those rights, we make it harder to exercise them—which makes it harder to effectively engage our civic power.”
When framed as a desperate attempt by the GOP to maintain a hold on their power dynamics, it comes as no surprise that many of the very same states pushing through voting restrictions are also moving to restrict abortion access. During 2015 alone, 57 abortion restrictions were enacted across the country. Of the massive push to restrict abortion since 2010, ten states enacted more than ten restrictions: Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Alabama, and North Carolina.
These lists have remarkable crossover with the states that have enacted new voting restrictions in that same period of time: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The end result for both kinds of restrictions is the same: a massive sweep of nationwide changes chipping away at the fundamental rights of Americans and disproportionately affecting women, communities of color, and those living in poverty.
Those pushing through these laws “are not just focusing on one state, but they are looking at creating change across the whole country, through each individual state-by-state attack on these fundamental freedoms,” explained Goldschein.
Goldschein went on to note that conservatives’ success in pushing these restrictions demonstrates the importance of voting, especially for down-ballot seats in the state legislature where many of these decisions are made. “State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for civil liberties, and they do not always attract as much attention as the debates in Congress or arguments in the Supreme Court, but in fact they are really the source of unprecedented assaults on our most fundamental rights,” she explained.
“This year … 80 percent of our state legislature seats are up for re-election, and we need voters to be paying attention to what is happening in those state legislatures and then to hold politicians accountable and vote as if their liberties depend on it—because they do—because this is where these fights are taking place.”