Polls show it consistently, over and over again: Most Americans do not want abortion banned. Sure, they will tell pollsters they "morally oppose" abortion or that they're "pro-life," but that's more a reflection of lingering American puritanism and a tendency to moralize about other people's sex lives. When asked bluntly about the right to have an abortion, however, the polling is clear: People do not want it taken away. People may think others are slutty sluts who have too much sex, but they believe that they personally are having the right amount of the right kind of sex, thank you very much, and want to retain the right to deal with any unwanted pregnancies that may result. So it shouldn't have been a surprise that voters in Kansas on Tuesday affirmed the right to abortion, blocking efforts by the GOP-controlled government to join the other red states rushing to ban abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
The overwhelming defeat of the anti-choice referendum came despite a very heavy Republican thumb on the scale going into Election Day. Republicans scheduled the vote at an odd time of year when way more Republicans would turn out than Democrats. The language of the ballot initiative was confusing, clearly meant to trick people who wanted to protect abortion into voting the wrong way. Advocates of the ballot initiative lied about the initiative, blasting voters with texts that falsely claimed a "yes" vote supported "choice," when in reality, a "yes" vote was to ban abortion. They ran ads with the misleading claim that a "yes" vote does not ban abortion. Due to all of that misinformation, polls as recently as a couple of weeks ago suggested this would be a nail-biter.
It wasn't even close.
Six out of 10 voters who showed up voted against the abortion amendment. It probably would have been more, if not for all the misleading ads and the election timing heavily favoring Republican voters. People may say they're "personally" against abortion or parrot ugly stereotypes about women who get abortions. Americans love to judge the sex lives of strangers. But when it comes to their own sex lives and those of their friends, they tend to be more forgiving — and therefore interested in keeping the option to abort unwanted pregnancies on the table.
As Lindsay Beyerstein recently noted in the New Republic, "More than 40 percent of those morally opposed to abortion say they would help make practical arrangements for someone they care about to terminate a pregnancy, and more than 20 percent of morally opposed respondents said they would even help pay for abortion-related expenses." As any abortion clinic employee could tell you, you will even get people who protest abortion clinics showing up in their waiting room, asking for the very abortions they would deny to others.
Abortion is being banned despite a strong majority of Americans wanting to keep it legal. That makes the issue a leading indicator of how much democratic collapse this country has already endured.
This is hardly the only moral issue where such contradictions show up.
Nearly a quarter of Americans say premarital sex is wrong, but nearly all who say that have had premarital sex. There's also significant overlap between people who view porn and people who say watching porn is wrong. Prior to the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June, the media tended to cover abortion as if it were a contentious issue splitting Americans, usually by focusing on these moralistic polls and ignoring the ones focused on laws and access. In reality, it's an issue where there's a small-but-fanatical group of Christian ideologues who want to ban abortion. Everyone else generally thinks it should be legal, even if some still believe sexist and sex-negative myths about other people who get abortions.
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Despite all the media hype about Kansas' vote being the "first" test of American support for abortion rights, the reality is this script has been played out twice before in the 21st century.
In 2006, the GOP-controlled legislature in South Dakota passed an abortion ban, hoping to pressure the Supreme Court into overturning Roe v. Wade. Pro-choice activists returned with a ballot initiative to overturn the ban by popular vote. Even though South Dakota is a deep red state, the ban was thrown out with a healthy 10-point margin. The same story happened again in Mississippi, where a draconian abortion ban was put on the ballot in 2011, only to see the same 6-in-10 support for keeping abortion legal.
Polls consistently show that a big chunk of Republican voters prefers Democratic policies, but they vote Republican because their propaganda and the community around them tell them that voting for Democrats makes you an evil America-hater.
This may seem confusing, because a healthy chunk of the people who vote against abortion bans turn around and vote for Republican politicians, but this comports with mountains of political science research that shows that identity influences partisan affiliation more than policy preferences. Polls consistently show that a big chunk of Republican voters prefers Democratic policies, but they vote Republican because their propaganda and the community around them tell them that voting for Democrats makes you an evil America-hater.
We've all encountered people who say things like, "I'm financially conservative but socially liberal." In truth, they're probably liberal on both counts, as Democratic policies like taxing the rich and raising the minimum wage tend to go over well, even in red states. It's just that voters need a talking point that sounds "smart" to explain why they can't bring themselves to vote for Democrats, despite agreeing with them on most issues. This discrepancy on abortion between Republican voters and politicians shows up in polls, which show that about a quarter of Republican voters disapproves of the Roe overturn.
Certainly, this has been my personal experience, as someone from Texas whose family is mostly Republican-voting. In my recent trip back to visit family, I listened to multiple Republicans explain to me that they opposed banning abortion. They felt this personal disagreement with their party exonerated them from choosing to vote for the same politicians who ban abortion.
While there were probably quite a few Republicans who voted against the amendment, as Amber Phillips of the Washington Post reports, "Democratic turnout was up more than 60 percent, compared with turnout in 2018." It's not because people were motivated by the gubernatorial Democratic primary, which was basically uncontested with the winner, Laura Kelly, getting 94% of the vote. They turned out specifically to vote against the abortion amendment, which, as Phillips notes, shows "abortion can help motivate left-leaning voters to show up at the polls."
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As I've written about before, Democrats couldn't pick a better wedge issue — that is, an issue that unites your base while dividing your opposition — than abortion. Democrats would be wise to throw everything they've got at this issue.
In Michigan, pro-choice activists have been pushing to get abortion rights onto the ballot in November, which would not only protect the right to choose but likely boost Democrats in this swing state. It's also heartening to see President Joe Biden go toe-to-toe with states like Idaho and Texas over draconian abortion bans that prevent miscarrying patients from getting medical care. The more voters are reminded that Republicans would literally let women get sick and die, rather than let doctors hasten the end of an already failed pregnancy, the better.
Ultimately, the main takeaway is this: Abortion is being banned despite a strong majority of Americans wanting to keep it legal. That makes the issue a leading indicator of how much democratic collapse this country has already endured. Radical right-wing Republicans manage to hang onto power despite the fact that Democrats — and especially Democratic policies — are way more popular. Even in situations, like this Kansas abortion fight, where Republicans are cheating as much as they can, voters will protect abortion rights. This is why Republicans are working so hard at making sure that voter opinions never matter in American politics again.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story characterized the Kansas constitutional amendment as an abortion ban. The proposed amendment, which was defeated, would have said there was no right to abortion in the state.