Pro-choice signs are seen during the March for Life 2016, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Jan. 22, 2016.
Photo by Alex Brandon/AP

The more abortion rights are threatened, the more Americans support them

Updated

About a month after Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether he could understand why American women are concerned about the future of the Roe v. Wade precedent.

As regular readers may recall, the president replied, “I do understand, but I also understand that, you know, that’s a 50/50 question in this country.”

To hear the Republican tell it, Americans are evenly divided on the legal right to an abortion. Half the country is satisfied now, the argument goes, but if the high court’s five-member conservative majority overturns Roe, the other half will be pleased.

The trouble is, Trump’s assumptions about public attitudes are wrong, as polling data keeps reminding us. In fact, it seems the more Republicans target reproductive rights, the more the American mainstream supports reproductive rights.

Support for legal abortion stands at its highest level in more than two decades according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, even as numerous states adopt restrictions that challenge the breadth of rights established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The Post-ABC poll finds a 60 percent majority who say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 55 percent in a 2013 Post-ABC poll, and tying the record high level of support from 1995. The latest survey finds 36 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, also tying a record low.

Our current president isn’t great with numbers, but even Trump should be able to appreciate the difference between a 50-50 split and a 60-36 split.

The results from the Washington Post/ABC News poll are roughly in line with an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last month, which also found a growing majority of Americans concluding that abortion should be legal or legal most of the time.

A variety of factors probably contribute to shifts like these, though it seems plausible, if not probable, that the American mainstream took reproductive rights for granted for many years, assuming that existing laws were safe and enduring.

Facing the very real possibility that Republican-backed judges will overturn Roe, as Republican policymakers scramble in many states to impose new bans and restrictions, it stands to reason that some Americans would reassess old assumptions.

Regardless of the motivations, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the tensions between what Americans want and what Americans are poised to get.

Eric Levitz recently had a great piece on the counter-majoritarian display: “Progressives cannot beat back the GOP’s assault on reproductive rights merely by ‘winning the argument’ over abortion; in many respects, that argument is already won. America does not lack a pro-choice consensus; the pro-choice majority lacks the power to hold Republican lawmakers accountable to that consensus. Thus the fight for reproductive rights in the United States is inextricable from the struggle against the tyrannical rule of our nation’s far-right minority.”