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What the pro-life movement lost and won


A demonstrator’s sign outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, as oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson were being heard, on Nov. 30, 2021. When abortion wasn’t directly on the ballot in the midterms, voters showed no inclination to punish politicians who backed abortion restrictions, Ross Douthat writes.

By Ross Douthat


It’s easy to say what a triumphant midterm election would have looked like for opponents of abortion. The ballot initiative installing abortion rights into the Michigan Constitution would have failed. Pro-life measures in Kentucky and Montana would have succeeded. And Republicans would have enjoyed a sweeping victory in both the Senate and the House, making talk of a “Roevember” backlash against the Dobbs decision obsolete.


In each case the reverse happened: The pro-life side lost every statewide ballot — in liberal California and Vermont as well as in the states just listed — and Republicans underperformed expectations. This has revived the summertime assumption that the Dobbs decision was a political disaster for the GOP. It’s confirmed professional Democrats in their abortion-centric campaign strategy. And it’s divided pro-lifers between optimists who think Republicans just need to learn how to message more effectively about abortion and pessimists who think the results revealed a movement “dead in the water,” to quote conservative writer Aaron Renn.


Let’s start with what the pro-life pessimists get right. Tuesday’s results confirm the anti-abortion movement’s fundamental disadvantages: While Americans are conflicted about abortion, a majority is more pro-choice than pro-life, the pro-choice side owns almost all the important cultural megaphones, and voters generally dislike sudden unsettlements of social issues.


You can strategize around these problems to some extent, contrasting incremental protections for the unborn with the left’s pro-choice absolutism. But when you’re the side seeking a change in settled arrangements, voters may still choose the absolutism they know over the uncertainty of where pro-life zeal might take them.


However, when abortion wasn’t directly on the ballot, many of those same voters showed no inclination to punish politicians who backed abortion restrictions. Any pro-choice swing to the Democrats was probably a matter of a couple of points in the overall vote for the House of Representatives; meanwhile, Republican governors who signed “heartbeat” legislation in Texas, Georgia and Ohio easily won reelection, and there was no dramatic backlash in red states that now restrict abortion.


In other words, Republicans in 2022 traded a larger margin in the House and maybe a Senate seat or two for a generational goal, the end of Roe v. Wade. And more than that, they demonstrated that many voters who might vote pro-choice on an up-down ballot will also accept, for the time being, pro-life legislation in their states.


For a movement that’s clearly a moral minority, that’s an opportunity, not a death knell. Yes, blue and most purple states will remain pro-choice in almost any imaginable version of the 2020s, and some red states as well. But the fact that abortion is illegal with exceptions in 13 states, while heartbeat laws survived a key political test in Georgia and Ohio, is hardly an abstract or Pyrrhic victory.


My colleagues at The Upshot recently reported on data indicating that these restrictions prevented about 10,000 abortions across the first two months following the Dobbs decision. Pro-life scholar Michael New has suggested that the true figure is higher, based in part on abortion and birthrate data from Texas following the passage of its heartbeat law in 2021. But even just the lower figure adds up to 60,000 fewer abortions in a post-Dobbs year, thousands of babies across the bloc of pro-life states who will live because Roe was overturned.


From the pro-life movement’s perspective, nothing is more important than making sure that bloc holds up. Yes, you need effective swing-state strategies, and yes, the movement needs to push the national GOP toward a more capacious and generous family policy.


But even national efforts need to be especially concerned with what happens inside the existing pro-life states. Can their life-of-the-mother exceptions prove flexible and humane? Can they find ways to improve maternal health? Can state policy and pro-life philanthropy offer alternatives to abortion that reduce the number of women crossing state lines to end their pregnancies? Can their pro-life coalitions hold up against internal pro-choice organizing and pressure from outside?


Above all, can they model a regional way of life, a mix of law and policy and culture, that seems attractive to the country as a whole?


A somewhat cynical view of abortion politics, in 2022 and beyond, is that the pro-life movement can sustain its gains so long as voters are effectively distracted, their pro-choice instincts muted by other economic or cultural concerns.


Another view, though, looks at the muddle of American opinion and sees a lot of people who would like to live in a society that protects human life in utero but think the full anti-abortion vision isn’t plausible, that in a modern society it just can’t be made to work.


That’s what the pro-life movement won for itself in this election, despite its more immediate defeats: a chance, in a big part of the country, to win some of these doubters to its side.

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