Gerald Ford supported abortion rights. George H. W. Bush supported abortion rights for the first two decades of his political career. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed one of the most permissive abortion laws in the nation.
Over the four decades since 1980, however, the Republican Party has coalesced around a more radical brand of abortion politics. This week, the Republican-appointed majority on the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the state of Texas to impose the most restrictive abortion law since Roe v. Wade constitutionalized abortion rights in 1973.
This result has provoked dismay, and not only from the Texas women who will be surveilled and policed by the law. Yet the Supreme Court’s permission to Texas Republicans to proceed with their scheme should be welcomed—including by those who support abortion rights—as the crucial step toward a resolution of a half-century-long national culture war.
Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.
Pre-Texas, Republican politicians worried a lot about losing a primary to a more pro-life opponent, but little about a backlash if they won the primary by promising to criminalize millions of American women.
That one-way option has just come to an end. Most American voters have quietly understood for a long time that most politicians who claim to be “pro-life” are hypocrites. These politicians do not really mean what they say, or anyway, they do not really intend to do what they say. You might imagine that this assumption of hypocrisy would hurt. Sometimes it has. More often, though, it has protected politicians from accountability for the policies they advocate.
Today, accountability has suddenly arrived. Texas Republicans have just elevated abortion rights to perhaps the state’s supreme ballot issue in 2022. Perhaps they have calculated correctly. Perhaps a Texas voting majority really wants to see the reproductive lives of Texas women restrained by random passersby. If that’s the case, that’s an important political fact, and one that will reshape the politics of the country in 2024.
But it’s also possible that Texas Republicans have miscalculated. Instead of narrowly failing again and again, feeding the rage of their supporters against shadowy and far-away cultural enemies, abortion restricters have finally, actually, and radically got their way. They have all but outlawed abortion in the nation’s second-largest state, and voted to subject women to an intrusive and intimate regime of supervision and control not imposed on men. At last, a Republican legislative majority has enacted its declared beliefs in almost their fullest form—and won permission from the courts to impose its will on the women of its state.
This is a new reality, and one that opens a way for the prolonged U.S. abortion-rights debate to be resolved. If the Texas Republicans prosper politically, then abortion-rights advocates must accept that the country truly is much more conservative on abortion than they appreciated and adjust their goals accordingly. But if not, and I’m guessing that the answer is not, anti-abortion-rights politicians are about to feel the shock of their political lives. For the first time since the 1970s, they will have to reckon with mobilized opposition that also regards abortion as issue No. 1 in state and local politics.
The abortion debate is often analogized to the debate over alcohol prohibition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For almost 70 years, from the 1850s to the 1920s, Americans battled passionately but inconclusively over how to regulate booze. The debate ended only after the prohibitionists won their seemingly decisive victory: the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 followed by the Volstead Act. For a dozen years, metropolitan America lived under rules imposed by non-metropolitan America. Then the whole experiment utterly collapsed. Alcohol prohibition failed so dismally, both in practice and in politics, that even the prohibitionists had to surrender. Only then could the United States move to a stable equilibrium of national legality bounded by locally acceptable regulations.
History never repeats itself. But there’s already compelling evidence that Texas Republicans understand how detested their new abortion law will soon be—not only in New York City and Los Angeles, but also in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth. They took the precaution of preceding the nation’s most restrictive abortion law with one of the nation’s most suppressive voting laws. It’s as if they could foresee what Texas would do to them if all qualified Texans could vote. But the Texas voting law only impedes voting; it does not prevent it. The 2020 election showed that voter suppression can only do so much to protect a sufficiently unpopular incumbent.
In the off-year elections of 2014, Republicans won a huge victory. In 2018, they suffered a huge defeat. The crucial difference was turnout: 2014 saw the lowest turnout since 1942; 2018 saw the highest in a nonpresidential year since before World War I. The moral of the story would seem to be that Republicans do best when the electorate is satisfied and quiet; they face disaster when the electorate is mobilized and angry. Texas Republicans have just bet their political future in a rapidly diversifying and urbanizing state on a gambit: cultural reaction plus voter suppression. The eyes of Texas will be upon them indeed. The eyes of the nation will be upon them too.