Since September 1, about 6 million Texans of childbearing age have been living under one of the strictest abortion laws in the developed world. Texas Republicans wrote the law in part to score points with the state’s staunch opponents of abortion rights. But this time, they might have gone too far: Even some people who support certain abortion restrictions, or would not themselves get an abortion, have concerns about the law.
The law, known as S.B. 8, prohibits abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, or when embryonic cardiac activity is first detected, and before many people know they are pregnant. There is no exception for rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormalities, and the law is designed to be enforced by citizen bounty hunters, who can sue anyone they suspect of having “aided or abetted” an abortion. A judge has the option to temporarily block the law next month, but its ultimate fate is unclear, given the conservative tilt of the Supreme Court, which may have to rule on the law again.
To learn what people in the state think of the new abortion restrictions, I spoke with two dozen Texans between the ages of 18 and 29—statistically, the people who are most likely to get an abortion, in many cases because they are in college or are not financially ready for parenthood. I visited a public commuter college and an expensive private university. I talked with 20-somethings in trucker hats at outdoor bars, and I stopped shoppers and workers on the sweltering sidewalk of a suburban outlet mall. My subjects were a mix of college students, college graduates, and people who do not have college degrees. About half were people of color, and a handful were men. All of them asked me to use only their first name so they could discuss a sensitive and stigmatized issue.
The impression I got is that abortion, per se, is not very popular. Many women said they would not have one if they got pregnant right now. An 18-year-old shoe-store employee named Renne said, “I don’t think it’s the baby’s fault. It shouldn’t get killed for choices that grown-ups made.” Her friend, 19-year-old Yasmine, chimed in that she wants to have a baby.
Still, not a single person I interviewed liked the new law. Of course, young people are more likely to support abortion rights. Some people I approached declined to be interviewed, and people who are comfortable with the concept of abortion or who are upset with the law may have been more inclined to talk. All of my interviews were conducted in and around Dallas, a more conservative area than, say, Austin, but still a big city. The most positive view was that of a woman named Zuleima, who was pushing a baby stroller outside a clothing store. “In a way I agree, and in a way I disagree,” she said, adding that there should be an exception for rape. A man named Connor said, in that classically southern way, “I don’t care for it.” Most said they don’t know anyone who likes the law, even among their conservative friends. Though some Texans support the law, according to a February University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 56 percent of pro-life Texans say abortion should be permitted in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother.
Many of the people I interviewed were angry that their state government is deciding for them what should happen if they get pregnant and don’t want to have a baby. “Men don’t have a period and they don’t have to go through labor. They don’t have ovaries, they don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and then they don’t know what it’s like to be a mother,” said Desirae, a 26-year-old who also said she would carry an unexpected pregnancy to term because she has a very supportive family. Several people who volunteered that they are Christians, or even pro-life, said that in cases of rape or incest, pregnant women should have a choice. Yasmine warned that rape victims forced to carry a pregnancy to term can develop “hatred for the baby.”
These sentiments jibe with national polling, which suggests that many Americans inhabit an ambiguous middle ground regarding abortion: They don’t love the practice, but don’t want it forbidden either. About half of Americans say having an abortion is morally wrong, but about 60 percent nevertheless say the Supreme Court should not overturn Roe v. Wade and that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. A majority of people tend to see rape, in particular, as a valid exception to abortion restrictions. Surprisingly, even some who describe themselves as pro-life do not envision a total end to abortion: About 30 percent of people who call themselves pro-life say they do not want Roe overturned, and 60 percent of them say abortion should be allowed in cases of rape. The way the Texas law is constructed further puts off abortion moderates, since most people oppose fines or prison time for doctors who perform abortions. “There’s a small proportion of people who think that abortion should be illegal under any circumstance. And there’s a small proportion of people that think it should be legal in any circumstance,” Barbara Carvalho, the director of the Marist Poll, told me. “And everybody else is in the middle.”
Not all young people are moderate on abortion. Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, applauded Texas for its “novel” and “innovative” approach to curbing abortion rights. “We have a history of citizen’s arrest in our country,” she told me. However, she favors the total illegality of all abortions. Rape, to her, is not a legitimate reason to seek an abortion. “The circumstances of your conception do not change your value and the dignity that you as a human being possess,” she said, referring to the fetuses of rape victims.
The number of abortions in the country has declined in recent years, but restrictions on access to the procedure are not thought to be the main cause. Instead, the reason is likely a combination of decreased sexual activity and access to long-acting, reversible birth control, such as IUDs and implants. People commonly seek an abortion in awful circumstances: Perhaps they are in an abusive relationship, or they are so disconnected from health care that they can’t get birth control, or are so poor that they can’t afford a baby right now. Lots of people know someone who has been in this kind of situation. And just like declaring bankruptcy or filing for unemployment, some see abortion not as something you want to do, but as something that you sometimes feel you have to do. “I think that’s an awful law,” a 29-year-old named Courtney told me. “I didn’t know that I was pregnant until way after six weeks.” She suggested 12 weeks—a much tighter time frame than is currently in place in many states—as one that seemed fair.
“Based on past polling, this [law] is too extreme for most Texans,” says Mark Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University, in Houston. The median Texas voter, he told me, is probably closer to restricting abortions at 20 weeks than at six.
This means Texas Republicans are playing a dangerous political game, potentially moving moderate Texans closer to the pro-abortion-rights camp and the Democrats. Barbara Carvalho has found that both extremely permissive or restrictive abortion legislation tends to elicit backlash, pushing Americans to the opposite sides of the debate. “When legislation or court decisions move towards the conservative, right-to-life extreme, the middle of America moves more to keeping abortion legal,” she told me. It’s almost as though people say, If this is what being pro-life means, then I’m not pro-life.
Still, the new law could motivate women who are not strong Democrats or Republicans and who live in the suburbs, where elections tend to be decided. About a quarter of Americans consider abortion to be a key voting issue. And Texas is a very young state: By 2022, a third of its voters will be younger than 30. Although under-30 voter turnout in Texas is still low, it has ticked upward in recent elections.
Whether this harms Abbott and other Texas Republicans in 2022 depends on what the courts do next. A San Antonio doctor admitted in an op-ed that he recently performed an abortion on a woman who was more than six weeks pregnant, and has been sued, setting up a test case of the new law. The Department of Justice has asked a federal judge to block the law, and at an October 1 hearing, he might very well do that. But Ken Paxton, Texas’s attorney general, will likely appeal to a circuit court right away, Mark Jones said. Either that court or the Supreme Court could then allow the law to stand or strike it down.
If the law is struck down, Abbott and other Texas Republicans get the best of both worlds. They can brag that they tried to save pre-born lives without actually trying to govern an enormous state in which abortion is functionally inaccessible. With the law off the books, moderate Republican and conservative Democratic voters might very well forgive, forget, and vote to reelect Abbott in 2022. If the law holds up, however, it could be damaging for members of the Texas House of Representatives in swing districts, where angry, conservative-ish women might cast their votes for Democrats instead.
Of course, even if politicians suffer no consequences, Texas women will. “I am in college. I am broke,” said an 18-year-old named Hannah, holding her skateboard and shaking her head. What would happen if she got pregnant right now? “I would probably look into trying to … honestly, I don’t know.”