Reflections on the 2012 election and abortion
The abortion rights community is immensely relieved at the results of the recent election. President Obama’s victory means, first and foremost, that the Supreme Court at the very least will retain its present ideological spread for the foreseeable future. The vacancy nominations that Obama will put forward will undoubtedly be individuals who will uphold Roe v Wade; his opponent, Mitt Romney, made very clear during the campaign season that he would nominate candidates like Justices Scalia and Thomas, who would overturn that landmark decision.
But what else did the election tell us about abortion, and where the American people are regarding this perennially divisive issue? Exit polling showed a very high degree of support among voters for abortion remaining legal. In one poll, 59% of voters as a whole and an even higher (and to many, surprising) 66% of Latinos expressed this position.
To be sure, abortion polling is notoriously fickle and highly dependent on how the questions are worded, and pre-election polls have not shown such high numbers. What these numbers do suggest to me is that the high visibility of abortion and contraception in this election cycle—the repeated attacks by Republicans on Planned Parenthood; the bizarre and, to many, appalling rape comments of various Senatorial and Congressional candidates; the fact that Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, opposed abortion in nearly all circumstances; and so on—made many voters anxious that legal abortion could be virtually abolished. And in a number of down-ballot races, most notably the Senate races in Indiana and Missouri, Republican candidates who were expected to win lost because of the publicity given to their above-mentioned remarks on rape and abortion.
These high polling numbers may also suggest that the abortion issue in this election, as in so many other instances, became a stand-in for larger, more inchoate feelings about gender politics among many voters who were repelled at the misogyny shown during the election—not only by some Republican candidates, but by media figures like Rush Limbaugh, who famously labeled law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” when she testified on behalf of contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act.
The Obama campaign very skillfully made use of these blunders. In a striking departure from previous Democratic campaigns, this time the President and other Democratic candidates did not shy away from making abortion and contraception central issues as they accused the Republicans of waging a “war on women.”
As I write this, the data is still being mined to show precisely how much of a role the Obama-Biden focus on abortion and contraception—or, put another way, the Romney-Ryan opposition to these issues—played in the eventual outcome. Women, particularly those who work outside the home, had other compelling reasons to support Obama, such as his oft-mentioned support for equal pay. Obama moreover artfully framed his support for reproductive issues as support for women’s economic well-being.
And, to be sure, while overall the race saw a huge gender gap—20 points in some calculations—some women supported him more than others. African American and Latino women supported him with 96% and 76% of their votes, respectively, while the percentage of white women who voted for him was only 42%. But, for me, the most intriguing gap regarding women voters and reproductive issues was the one between unmarried and married women. The former overwhelmingly favored Obama with 67% of their votes, while the latter by a narrower margin favored Romney. In short, Obama received support from those women we know are most likely to need an abortion and publicly funded contraception—women of color, unmarried women, and younger women.
The implications of the election results
So what does this election say about the future prospects of abortion? Will the abortion wars that literally started immediately after Roe, and that continue to this day, calm down? Put another way, are the “culture wars” (which are mainly about abortion) over, as some liberal pundits seem to predict after Democratic victories?
Sadly, I don’t think the abortion wars will go away. Defeats can energize social movements (just as victories can make them complacent). For example, immediately after the election, one prominent anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony list, claimed that Romney’s defeat was due to his not talking about his anti-abortion position enough. This analysis came in spite of the fact that five of the six Senatorial candidates the group endorsed lost—and these candidates were very vocal about their anti-abortion views.
But the real reason that we will most likely not see a diminishing of the abortion wars is that the real action regarding abortion is in the states. Despite Obama’s win, Republicans still control a majority of governorships and state legislatures. As long as politicians in red states find that it is in their electoral interest to pass one abortion restriction after another, the unprecedented assault on abortion that occurred after the 2010 election will continue.
So while the results of the 2012 election were encouraging in a number of ways to those who support abortion rights, abortion providers and the women who seek their services will still face enormous challenges in large parts of the United States.
Collaged image is a composite of two photos. Map is courtesy TidierSpore6119 via Wikimedia Commons; Roe v. Wade image is courtesy Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons license.