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The Two-Word Question That Could Decisively Shape Abortion Politics

And what the polls tell us about it.
May 11, 2022
The Two-Word Question That Could Decisively Shape Abortion Politics
The US Supreme Court is seen through a banner reading "Safe Abortion" in Washington, DC, on May 10, 2022. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

As Roe v. Wade comes to an end, the next phase of the abortion war is underway. Today the Senate plans to vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would prohibit some government restrictions on abortion, including restrictions already passed by several states. Since Senate Democrats don’t have a filibuster-proof majority or enough votes to set aside the filibuster, the bill isn’t expected to pass.

State-by-state battles over abortion might go one way or the other, depending on tactics. But the war to shape majority opinion on this issue, if not to set national policy, will likely be decided at the strategic level, by a struggle to define what the debate is about. Is the debate about the decision itself—whether to end a pregnancy? Or is it about who makes that decision?

Those two perspectives have squared off before. In 1989, when the Supreme Court began to roll back Roe, pro-choice strategists framed the issue with a catchy question: “Who decides?” That question dominated the debate for years, and it likely will do so again, thanks to a paradox of public opinion: Most Americans don’t like abortion, but they also don’t like the government telling them what to do.

I know that history well, because I wrote a book about it. At the center of the story was a Democratic pollster, Harrison Hickman, who outlined the winning strategy in memoranda to what was then the National Abortion Rights Action League. Hickman framed the question this way: “Who do you trust to make this decision, the pregnant woman or a state legislator?”

Then, as now, the Court was retreating from the issue. Hickman proposed to capitalize on that retreat. This was his idea, as I summarized it in the book:

Pro-lifers had controlled the war’s periphery. They had laid siege to the Supreme Court, demanding that it relinquish to the people and their elected representatives the power to regulate abortion. Now the people and their representatives would get that power. The new war, as Hickman envisioned it, would be between the people and their representatives. The siege would shift to the state legislature, and the movement that spoke for women and their families would control the periphery.

The plan worked. The pro-choice movement gained the upper hand. For a time, pro-life politicians began to lose elections or back away from their threats to ban abortion.

Today, a similar sequence is beginning to unfold.

After news leaked last week that the Court was preparing to overrule Roe, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a memo to GOP senators, advising them on how to talk about the issue. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned, state and local officials closest to the people will make laws that reflect the will of their states,” said the memo. “Elected officials, not unelected judges, should reflect the consensus of the people.”

Sen. Ted Cruz took up that message in a Fox News interview on Sunday:

In 1973, seven unelected lawyers wearing black robes said, “You silly voters, you don’t get to decide. We know better than you, and we’re going to decree the answer for the entire country.” . . . If in fact the Court does overturn Roe . . . this returns the issue to the people, so that we the people can decide what the right answer is.

That’s a good argument. It appeals to the broadly shared desire to have a say in issues important to us. But it invites an obvious follow-up question: If decisions about this issue are best made by the people, why stop halfway? Why leave those decisions to governors and legislatures? Why not transfer the power directly to the women and families who face troubled pregnancies?

That’s what many Democrats are asking. At a press conference on May 3, the same day the NRSC issued its memo, Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, framed the abortion debate as a choice between state legislators and the people. “It’s about your personal life, your relationship with your spouse, your decision on what your family’s going to look like,” said Durbin. “Should that be the Republican decision? The state decision? Or your decision? We believe it’s yours.”

Two days later, at another Democratic press conference, Sen. Debbie Stabenow repeated the 1989 message word for word:

The ultimate question becomes: Who decides? Who decides our most intimate health care decisions? . . . When there’s a 12-year-old that’s been raped, who decides that? Mitch McConnell? Right wingers in the United States Supreme Court? Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures? Who decides what happens to that child? Their family, based on their religious beliefs? The doctor? All those that care and know the child? Or a bunch of politicians? . . . That’s what this is about: Who decides, in the most difficult, challenging times for a woman, the most personal of decisions. . . . We know it is your decision, your decision to make.

A lot has changed since 1989. But public opinion research shows that once again, the pro-choice message has broader support.

To be fair, pro-life messages do pretty well in polls. Forty percent of Americans identify themselves as pro-life. Forty-two percent of voters support “promoting the idea that abortion ends a human life.” Forty-six percent agree, at least somewhat, that “abortion is the same as murdering a child.”

But none of these statements gets anywhere near the overwhelming resonance of the idea that abortion decisions should be left to women and families.

In November and again two weeks ago, Washington Post-ABC News surveys asked: “Overall, do you think the decision whether or not a woman can have an abortion should be regulated by law or should be left to the woman and her doctor?” Some 70 to 75 percent of voters, including 70 to 80 percent of independents, chose the woman and her doctor. Even Republicans and conservatives leaned that way. In Republican-controlled congressional districts, the numbers broke decisively—roughly 70-25—for the pro-choice message.

In a Pew survey taken in March, 38 percent of the respondents said that the statement “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” described their views very well or extremely well. But 53 percent agreed just as firmly that “the decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman.” More than 70 percent of respondents agreed at least somewhat with that pro-choice statement.

If the debate is framed in terms of states’ rights, with Republicans championing the authority of states to regulate abortion—as opposed to the federal government—Cruz and other pro-lifers can hold their own. In most polls, American are closely divided on state vs. federal control of the issue. And in a YouGov survey taken after the news leaked about Roe’s demise, respondents slightly preferred state control to absolute federal control.

But if the alternative to state control is individual control, the individual wins.

In polls taken for Yahoo News in February and April, YouGov asked Americans whether abortion was “a constitutional right that women in all states should have some access to” or “something that individual states should be able to outlaw.” Twice as many registered voters chose the women’s rights message (58 percent in April) as the states’ rights message (28 percent in April).

In a survey taken by Data for Progress in late March and early April, 39 percent of likely voters supported the Court “overturning or weakening Roe v. Wade and allowing states to once again implement abortion bans.” That number looked formidable. But when the choice was reframed as between the state and the individual, the state lost. When likely voters were asked to choose between two statements, only 28 percent picked this one: “The government should be able to make decisions about reproductive rights, especially when it involves protecting the sanctity of human life.” Sixty-six percent picked the alternative: “The government should not interfere in personal matters like reproductive rights. Families and individuals should have control over their reproductive decisions.”

Last week, Data for Progress repeated that question, offering the same pro-life message but adding a sentence to the pro-choice message: “Women and their doctors should have control over their medical decisions.” Twenty-two percent of likely voters chose the pro-life message. More than 70 percent chose the pro-choice message.

There’s no guarantee that this fight will play out as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Times and circumstances change. The Women’s Health Protection Act will almost certainly fail in the Senate. And in the coming months, many states will move to restrict or ban abortion.

But in the long run, the idea that resonates most powerfully with the public will determine to what extent abortion remains legal in this country. And at the moment, that idea isn’t unborn life or states’ rights. It’s choice.

Correction: The date of a Washington Post-ABC News poll has been corrected from February 2022 to November 2021 and the link has been updated accordingly.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.