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Why Ron Johnson’s ‘messy’ rhetoric on abortion rights matters

Ron Johnson thinks the demise of Roe v. Wade will not produce “that big a change.” What matters is why he made these wrong comments in the first place.


After Justice Samuel Alito’s draft ruling was leaked last week, the political world started coming to grips with a new reality: The Roe v. Wade protections that have existed for nearly a half-century will almost certainly disappear next month. It will represent a dramatic shift that alters the relationship between the government and much of the U.S. population.

Almost immediately, Americans started asking questions about the implications of the new landscape. Which states will ban abortions? Will there be exceptions? What will this mean for contraception access? Will Republican-imposed restrictions put women behind bars? Will physicians be charged as criminals? What about the prospect of a national ban?

As he moves forward with his re-election campaign, Sen. Ron Johnson is aware of questions like these, but the Wisconsin Republican told The Wall Street Journal he doesn’t expect voters to care too much about one of the defining political fights of modern American history.

[Johnson] said he isn’t sure that a 19th century law in his state that bans abortions except to save the life of the mother will actually go into effect if Roe falls, and that in any event people will still have options. “It might be a little messy for some people, but abortion is not going away,” he said, saying that driving across state lines to Illinois would likely be an option. “I just don’t think this is going to be the big political issue everybody thinks it is, because it’s not going to be that big a change.”

Just so we’re clear, Johnson is a longtime opponent of reproductive rights. He’s supported abortion bans in the past, and the senator is glad Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices are poised to overturn Roe.

Johnson nevertheless thinks the demise of abortion rights will be largely unimportant to voters — though it “might be a little messy for some people.”

It’s difficult to say whether the GOP lawmaker actually believes what he said, but to the extent that reality matters, Johnson’s rhetoric is literally unbelievable. For one thing, many women living in states that will ban abortions won’t have the resources to simply travel to more progressive states for health care services.

For another, as women’s rights are curtailed, Americans start facing possible prosecutions, and access to some contraception is limited, the changes clearly deserve to be seen as “big.”

What’s more, Johnson’s blithe attitude is at odds with his ostensible principles. The Wisconsin Republican believes abortion is wrong and represents the taking of a human life. But as abortion opponents stand at the precipice of a historic victory, the senator appears to be shrugging his shoulders in response to the idea that Wisconsin women — in his vision — will simply snuff out human lives in a neighboring state.

All of which leads to the obvious question: Why in the world did Johnson make these comments?

The most likely explanation is that the GOP senator, suffering with a woefully low approval rating in a highly competitive state, is afraid of a political backlash that will put his career in further jeopardy.

In other words, Johnson appears to have made a political calculus: Roe v. Wade is popular, both at the state and national level, and its demise will do him no political favors as he again finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion. So, he's pretending the developments are trivial.

Complicating matters is the fact that the senator’s strategy will almost certainly fail. Shrugging off the significance of a political earthquake won’t make difficult questions, such as whether Johnson would vote for a national abortion ban, magically go away.

Finally, let’s not overlook the fact that Johnson doesn’t get to decide what voters care about. Reproductive rights will absolutely be an important election-year issue in Wisconsin, in part because of the questions he'll be expected to answer, and in part because the Badger State will also hold a gubernatorial race this year, featuring Republican candidates who are advocating for severe abortion restrictions.

Whether the senator believes it or not, his re-election effort is poised to become “a little messy.”